How can commercial studios stay alive?

I don’t need to elaborate much on the fact that since the early 2000s the music recording industry has gone through some major changes. The way which we record, mix, master, and distribute music has evolved. Before I continue writing, let me just say that the music industry has always undergone changes ever since we could capture and playback “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in 1877 …But I won’t get into too much history here. 

New audio engineers or hobbyists can get their hands on low-cost, great-sounding equipment to either set up at home, in a garage, or use as a mobile rig. Even some top mixers like to have a portable setup completely in-the-box. On top of that, countless budget studios are opening doors both in large cities and small towns. 

What does this mean for the large-sized commercial studios? 

First off, let me clarify why this is even a question. These large studios are expensive, both to start or maintain (I’m talking in the ball park of half a million dollars and up). So their balance sheets are hurt when many of their clients choose smaller, inexpensive studios instead. Even the managers of Capitol Studios, Record Plant, and Studio at the Palms confessed to being affected heavily in the early 2000s by the home recording boom. Just like the traditional role of the record label has quickly changed, it seems like so has the role of commercial studios. Or has it?

These studios used to be the only options for artists to record, but that’s not the case anymore. So why bother? Well I have some thoughts. 

The short answer is I don’t think big studios will ever go away, they’ll just evolve…they HAVE to evolve. They are needed for two main reasons, one utilitarian and one hedonic:

  1. Utilitarian: Recording large ensembles, big acoustics, and in general fitting lots of people in one space

  2. Hedonic: Creating a sense of community and network

Of course you can always recreate big acoustics with amazing reverbs and particularly using convolution reverb…and they will only get better. And of course you can record instruments one by one and try to make them sound as if all musicians played live. Or simply use amazing sample-based instruments and libraries that will blow your mind. All of these possibilities will continue to improve rapidly. But despite the advanced technology and lower budgets in the music industry, there will always be projects that will need large enough rooms to fit an ensemble, orchestra, or even a set for TV. 

A few months ago I felt the need to gather a big enough budget to record an ensemble for a single I was producing. I toured the five largest recording studios in the city to test their acoustics with a hand drum, get to feel the vibe from the place and its people, and of course find out the price. I ended up choosing Audiovision Studios in Bogotá, Colombia because the acoustics were phenomenal, the vibe was professional yet relaxed, and the price was great (even cheaper than some smaller studios). And this studio has been around since 1978! Check out the result of the song and music video.

Just from recording this one single, I became friends with the engineers, did other business with the manager, met top artists and their crew, and more. This sense of community and network would be much harder to create in a home studio…at least at such a high caliber. 

Even though some musicians might prefer recording in a more intimate and private environment, there are certain emotions and feelings that big studios create that are very hard to come by in a home studio. It depends on the project and what you’re going for. Nonetheless, a big studio has to evolve to maintain and grow its clientele. It can’t sit around hoping to get clients just because it’s well known or has the best gear and engineers in town. 

The two main areas a large studio should focus on are:

  1. Diversify the offer: rent space to TV networks and multimedia productions, host events, performances, concerts, product launches, seminars, parties, and much more.

  2. Create a sense of community: Be a constant promoter of culture within the music industry. Some studios might want to focus on a niche or genre, but some might stay general. Artists should come to perceive the studio as not just a place to get a song recorded, mixed, or mastered; rather a place to network with other artists, engineers, producers, and music professionals. 

“If music were a religion, the cathedrals, churches, and synagogues would be studios.”

- Dave Pensado

You can pray or worship at home by yourself or with a small group of people, but you’ll always need a place to gather the community. Dave Pensado really makes an interesting point with this analogy. In the same episode of Pensado’s Place where he made this analogy, Dave, Herb, and the guests discuss the importance of community in the industry. It’s not only good for the individual engineer or artist, but also for business in general. 

In summary, undoubtedly the number of large studios will continue to decrease over time due to the rise of budget studios, but this should be no reason to grieve and waste a box of Kleenex. This trend should be seen as an opportunity to create unique studio business models that break the tradition and embrace the future.