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PopMark Media’s September 2011 “Confessions of a Small Working Studio”: Assessing the Power of Your Image

They say image is everything. Understandably, image is crucial to “talent,” but does it play a part in the facilities that are behind the scenes? Is it really worthwhile for a recording facility to spend valuable time and money on branding and image development? We talked with the owners of two studios who say, like it or not, image does matter.

Vagabond Audio’s Rise Sanders (left) and Drew Weir. Above: The studio’s branded postage-stage logo.

They say image is everything. Understandably, image is crucial to “talent,” but does it play a part in the facilities that are behind the scenes? Is it really worthwhile for a recording facility to spend valuable time and money on branding and image development? We talked with the owners of two studios who say, like it or not, image does matter.


When it comes to certain products—from soft drinks to automobiles—branding plays an obvious critical role. A product’s brand is how consumers identify it and what gives it instant recognizability. That’s one of the main reasons companies put so much emphasis on branding efforts. The brand of a recording studio may not garner worldwide recognition, but it does impact client perception.

“Historically, we didn’t worry too much about branding or marketing,” says New York City–based Dubway owner Al Houghton. “All of our business came through word of mouth.” Houghton started Dubway with business partner Mike Crehore in the early ’80s. “Today is much different than it was back then,” he adds. “It’s a much more competitive environment now, so to set ourselves apart from other studios, we’ve realized that creating a brand is one of the most effective ways to help distinguish us from our competitors.”

In fact, the Vagabond Audio (Chicago) brand was one of the first components husband-and-wife team Rise Sanders and Drew Weir considered when they formed the studio in 2004. “From the very beginning, we had this idea to use a postage stamp as the focus of our brand to represent the idea of traveling,” explains Sanders. The logo that resulted is based on a 1918 air-mail stamp called the Inverted Jenny. “It took awhile to identify the right designer, several weeks after that to arrive at the design we were looking for, and a pretty significant investment for the logo to be developed, but we took our time and spent the money so that we would have a less likely chance of having to re-brand later.” Now, the rare stamp is Vagabond’s calling card. 

With a move to a ramped-up space in the financial district of New York City under its belt, Dubway is in the process of revamping its logo and Website to better showcase its new facility and capabilities. “We felt like a redesign was necessary for a few reasons,” says Houghton. “For starters, we want to show off our new space because we feel it accommodates the needs of our clients even better than before—in terms of both capabilities and comfort. We also want to showcase our staff who make the work at the studio happen.” While Houghton admits the current Website has worked well and generated success for Dubway, he also recognizes that, as challenging as an overhaul can be, the upgrade is essential. 

Vagabond sunk a significant investment into its Website when it opened its doors, but it didn’t come without a sacrifice. “I believe a company’s Website is really its foundation, so it really has to be solid,” says Sanders. “We didn’t want to build the foundation as we went along because it winds up being much more difficult. Instead, we started with the foundation under our feet, and that meant developing a business plan and getting a sizable loan, a chunk of which went toward the Website development.” Even though they managed to work with a designer who was a friend of a friend, the investment was still around $4,000. “It’s a tough concept to swallow. You know you need these tools to be seen as legitimate and professional, but you also need the money to pay for it,” explains Sanders. “I could have saved the studio the $4,000 we spent by creating a simple Website on my own, but it just wouldn’t have accomplished the professionalism that we needed it to.” 

Look at it this way: In many cases, the Web is the only resource that potential clients use to obtain information about a recording studio. If a studio’s site isn’t competitive or if it doesn’t represent the facility, the philosophy and work, it may create a negative perception that very well may drive away would-be clients.

At Dubway, voice-over Mark Altman recording phone prompts for a
telecommunications company.

Alt-rock band Pterodactyl recording at Dubway


A studio’s physical location and interior makeup can also play a major role in its image and how it is perceived by potential clients. While the idea of moving, assuming a heftier monthly rent responsibilitY or investing in a facelift can cause a studio owner to break out into hives, in some cases, these changes can prove worthwhile.

Dubway has two moves under its belt and three decades of success to give credence to this theory. When the studio first opened in the early 1980s, its location was a “rat hole” in Times Square. That’s when the studio’s emphasis was on bands. “The place was really funky. There was a heavy-metal band upstairs and ambulance sirens on every track, but it served its purpose for the time,” says Houghton. As the studio began to evolve and go after more industry and corporate clients, Houghton and Crehore knew they would need to upgrade the studio’s physical location to accommodate new client needs. Accordingly, they made their first move in 1997. Then, in January of 2011, Dubway acquired 2,500 square feet of space on Wall Street.

“We took what we learned from our other experiences and built a space that is not only more appealing in termsof location, but also in flexibility and comfort,” says Houghton. The new facility offers a 1,000-square-foot live room that can accommodate classical ensembles, musical casts, etc.; a large tracking room for live bands; and smaller tracking rooms for everything from VOs to sound-for-picture to overdubs. In addition, the lounge area provides clients a comfortable, hip place to hang out, and the artwork that adorns the studio’s walls sets an inviting tone. “We recognized that to stay in the game, we would have to offer clients a space that not only offered state-of-the-art capabilities, but also makes them feel at home,” Houghton adds. 

These were some of the issues that Sanders and Weir considered when they set out to build their studio in 2004. As a result, they identified a space on the outer edge of the commercial district of Chicago. While the location attracts the clientele Vagabond caters to—TV and film producers and ad agencies—the facility keeps them coming back. “We made sure that the space would accommodate the comfort requirements that can really make a difference for clients, like air-conditioned vocal booths and soundproofed rooms,” explains Weir. While this has certainly boosted Vagabond’s image with certain clients, Sanders and Weir recognize that the studio’s fees can be a definite turn-off to others. “We know we can’t compete with $100-an-hour studios; it’s just not feasible with the rent we have to pay,” says Sanders, who admits that losing jobs on price alone used to stress her out, but she’s realized that it just goes with the territory. 

“It really depends on what clients you’re aiming for,” Houghton says. “Our first space was great in that it had that rock ‘n’ roll hippie kind of vibe to it, but there was no way we could bring in an NBC VO actor and expect him to leave raving about the studio. Houghton adds that even if a studio can’t make a physical move, at the very least it may have to spend the time and money to address certain issues. “We certainly didn’t jump right into a move. We studied the economic impacts of moving to a new space and client expectations before making any commitments.” 


Of course, it’s everyday commitments that leave studio owners struggling with the idea of adding image-boosting efforts to their already busy workloads and additional expenses to their already strapped budgets. But the question remains: Is it really worth it? How can studio owners truly justify spending more money, time and resources worrying about their studio’s image when, in many cases, they can barely deal with what they have on their overloaded plates?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to that one; it’s just something that every business owner in our industry has to deal with. “Image development is a bitch, but it’s very necessary if a studio wants to stay competitive,” says Hougton, who has survived 30 years of industry changes. “I know it can be a very intimidating process, especially if you haven’t dealt with it before, which is why I sometimes bring in outside marketers to help manage specific marketing efforts.” 

Sanders uses this analogy: “If you don’t put some type of branding efforts into place, it’s like going fishing with just a hook instead of bringing a whole box of lures. It may work, but you’re not using every tool to attract potential clients to what you’re doing. The fact that you are talented should be a given, but talent and word-of-mouth alone in today’s industry will not give you a robust business.”