The headlines generated by the wave of consolidation that’s swept the recording industry in recent years might make it seem as though such turmoil is a recent phenomenon. But the truth is that the business of studios has as much of a history as many of the studios themselves. And former head of EMI/Virgin studio operations Martin Benge not only witnessed it, but has been a big part of it during a career that’s spanned 37 years and shows no sign of stopping.
Benge’s professional history began in 1962 when he joined EMI in London as an “electronics engineering apprentice,” back in the days when such apprenticeships lasted for five years and the recording industry was ruled by intensely serious men in white lab coats. You didn’t even get to touch the tape until you’d put in a couple of years of hard labor. Benge was assigned to Abbey Road Studios, then the crown jewel in an empire of dozens of recording facilities in 14 countries. In those days, artists were routinely assigned to staff producers working in recording facilities owned by their labels. And so Benge found himself working with EMI’s best-known group, The Beatles, on occasion, as well as many top classical players and conductors, including Jacqueline du Pre, Yehudi Menuhin and Otto Klemperer. “That was it-that was the way the world worked at the time, and no one thought about it much differently,” recalls the 55-year-old Benge, who still retains some of the polite formality that was instilled by EMI’s rigorous training regimen.
But the studio business was on the verge of upheaval. The rise in the power of the rock artist and the producer gave them more influence over recording venue choices, and by the early 1970s, independent studios had gained the edge in the record-making process. When The Beatles chose Olympic Studios in London to record “Baby You’re a Rich Man”-the first Beatles recording outside of an EMI-owned facility-it was the beginning of the end for label-owned studios. Throughout the 1980s, labels such as Columbia and BMG shut down their studios in New York and elsewhere. “By the mid-’80s, it was all over for them,” Benge says. “That model was through.”
Benge moved to Australia in 1971, going to work at the EMI facility in Sydney, all the while watching the studio industry change focus. “The interesting thing, though, was that even as the major labels were shutting down rooms, Richard Branson’s Virgin Records was going the opposite way,” he says. “He opened The Manor in Oxford in 1972, and Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells put both the label and the studio on the map, so to speak. As the labels were closing down their studio networks, Branson was expanding his.” Indeed, Branson next opened the Townhouse Studios, then bought The Who’s Ramports in Battersea and renamed it Townhouse III, then bought Olympic. “It was curious to watch this whole contrary process,” Benge says.
In 1984, after a ten-year independent stint, Benge entered the domain of studio management, taking over the reins of EMI’s Sydney facility, which had been renamed Studios 301. But by 1992, even EMI’s studio empire was a shadow of its former self, with just a handful of facilities remaining, including Abbey Road, Capitol Studios in Los Angeles, and a joint venture with Toshiba in Tokyo. EMI then asked its expatriate alumni to guide a new phase in its studio operations when EMI acquired Virgin in June 1992.
“There was already a strategy in place to perceptually decouple the name ‘EMI’ with the individual studios,” Benge says. “To survive, the [EMI] studios had to get business from artists on other labels, and you couldn’t have them thinking that they were on one label but recording in studios owned by another.”
Benge embraced that strategy, but was also faced with the effects of another fundamental change in the nature of the studio business when home recording began to make its presence felt globally. “So here we were in a situation in which the big record labels had pretty much divested themselves of their own studios, yet EMI now suddenly had a much larger studio collection when Olympic, Townhouse and The Manor came along with the Virgin deal,” he recalls. “On top of that, big studios suddenly found themselves losing business to home recording. And I was now heading up EMI/Virgin’s studio operations and faced with the prospect of having to make a profit when the rest of the industry was moving in the opposite direction. I thought, ‘This is a bit of a challenge.'”
Fortunately, Benge was up to the task. In addition to continuing to fade the EMI moniker and build the brand names of studios like Abbey Road, he also spent more than a year reviewing the economics of all of the studios and closed several mid-level rooms that were losing the battle to personal recording. At the same time, he had to reconcile two disparate corporate cultures he was supervising-staid and traditional EMI and the younger, brash Virgin. “I think a large part of why I was hired was because, even though I had started at EMI, I had been away in Australia for all those years and could come back and be more objective,” he explains.
After putting together a team composed of employees from both EMI and Virgin, Benge began to significantly upgrade the remaining facilities, making them even more upscale to blunt the effect of personal recording technology and to position them for new markets, including video post. In 1995, he helped start Abbey Road Interactive, the group’s new media arm, which went quickly from a staff of three to 15. He closed The Manor-which was located in a huge Victorian country estate that required a tremendous amount of overhead, including gardeners-and dedicated more resources to mobile recording, expanding the operation from one to four trucks. Then he expanded the company’s presence in Europe by opening an office in Paris.
But perhaps the most innovative move of Benge’s tenure-and one that reflects a much larger business trend-was the creation of a merchandising division that capitalized on a resurgence in Beatles nostalgia, sold Abbey Road T-shirts and coffee mugs, and took the museum-shop approach to profitability in the studio business. Another offshoot of that idea-branded pro-audio products like pop screens for microphones aimed at the home recording market-will take effect sometime this year, although Benge left the EMI/Virgin post in 1998 and is now happily ensconced in Sydney with a new career as a consultant.
“It’s all about branding now, isn’t it?” he asks rhetorically. “But the business, and the world, has changed quite a bit. And studios simply have to change with it.”