Looking over the changing landscape of the studio business, I begin to know how Chaplin felt in Modern Times as he squirmed through the wringers of huge churning gears. Interlocking wheels are turning in this business right now, and getting more and more complex even as the gears are turning faster and faster. There are two major trends in motion at the moment, and each affects the other.
The first is the ongoing expansion at the top end of the studio business. Within the past 18 months, The Hit Factory in New York bought Miami’s Criteria, effectively increasing that facility’s size from 12 to 18 studios; and Quad Recording, also in New York, bought the serendipitously named Quad Studios in Nashville, adding three rooms in Tennessee to the five already online in Manhattan. Viewed along with arrangements such as the joint venture between London’s Metropolis and Sterling Sound in New York, and L.A.’s ocean Way opening a Nashville studio, the trend is clear: Large, upper-tier audio facilities are expanding geographically, in large part as a strategy to find new markets.
This is a common business strategy, but it’s relatively new for the studio business, where facilities have traditionally established themselves in communities and changed as the local business environment evolved, adding consoles and equipment and design changes as the regional market demanded. With the creation of multiple-location facilities spread out over several cities, that model changes into one in which studios decide on certain technology platforms and then offer their clients the ability to move from place to place without leaving a familiar operating and aesthetic environment. Now, the same way you can find the same products at Restoration Hardware in any of their stores across the country, you can get African slate tiles at every Hit Factory location, and New England pine walls at every Quad studio no matter which city you’re in.
There’s something nipping at the heels of these studios, and it’s the other dramatic trend I referred to: the renaissance of the middle-level studio, driven this time not by the emergence of the independent engineer and producer, as it was last time, but by technology that has propelled many recordists out of the spare bedroom and into the less familiar realm of commerce. To call this new generation of middle-level studios a more sophisticated version of the home studio fails to present the whole picture. Certainly, many of the new facilities that fit the emerging model-well-designed acoustical spaces with hard disk recording systems, inexpensive but powerful digital consoles or controllers and good outboard gear-germinated in suburban garages or urban lofts. But unlike the situation that existed a few years ago, when gear addicts rented their personal studios to pay for their equipment jones, this new generation often saw the specific need in their markets for service centers that were more affordable than the studio palaces but more sophisticated than the project rooms. In a growing number of instances, they are not accidental tourists in the studio business, and that tells me that studio owners are now thinking more like businesspeople, rather than like enthusiastic, technically inclined artisans, which was the profile for decades.
In short, owners of the upper tier of recording facilities have expanded their studios into other regions, at least in part, because of their desire to differentiate their studios further from the low-end spawn of the digital revolution. That expansion process has created a wider void in the middle, which is quickly being filled by a rejuvenated middle class.
There’s the Big Picture. And whether your facility is one of the big wheels or one of the gear teeth, understand that they will forever be interlocked and ever in motion.