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Tiny Telephone Hangs It Up in San Francisco

Tiny Telephone has been a mainstay of the San Francisco indie music scene for 22 years, but owner John Vanderslice is bringing things to a close this July, as he gets ready to sell off priceless gear to pay back the studio’s debts, even as its sister facilities in Oakland and Los Angeles continue to prosper.

John Vanderslice
John Vanderslice, owner of San Francisco’s Tiny Telephone recording studios, is closing the facility in July.

San Francisco, CA—About five years ago, as Tiny Telephone recording studio owner John Vanderslice was crowd-sourcing funds to help complete a second facility in Oakland, he vowed, “We are not closing our flagship San Francisco studios.” But in late January came the news that his longtime landlords, Chris and Marilyn Goode, had submitted plans for an apartment building that would require the demolition of Vanderslice’s 22-year-old studio complex.

As Chris Goode told local broadcaster KQED, “We’ve always known that the property is not sustainable the way it is and that sometime it’s gonna change.” Starting life as an urban garden known as the Farm in the mid-1970s, the lot’s four buildings have housed dance companies, punk rock concerts, record labels and other artistic endeavors over the years. But if the Goodes get planning permission, that’s all coming to an end.

KQED: Tiny Telephone SF to Close, Foreshadowing an Arts Hub’s Uncertain Future, by Nastia Voynovskaya, Jan. 27, 2020

Cities change, says a sanguine Vanderslice. “There’s just no way to hold back development in San Francisco.”

That said, “I would not be surprised if it never gets developed; it’s so dysfunctional in San Francisco. But I also don’t want to stick around to watch. I felt like we had a great run, so it’s not complicated. And I’m just not sentimental.”

Consequently, says Vanderslice “We’re not taking bookings after July 15. We’re going to start decommissioning the studio in mid-July.”

Maryam Qudus in Tiny Telephone Oakland
Staff engineer Maryam Qudus inside the control room of Tiny Telephone Oakland, which will remain open.

Fans of Tiny Telephone’s clientele, who have included Death Cab for Cutie, St. Vincent, Sleater-Kinney, Deerhoof, Spoon and The Magnetic Fields, among many others, may want to keep an eye on the equipment auction sites. The studio is legendary for its rare and vintage analog gear, and Vanderslice is selling everything.

“I’m banking on the sentimental connection that people have,” he says, also noting that there are unlikely to be many bargains. “I owe $300,000.”

That’s not to say that Tiny Telephone is in any real financial trouble. “The studios make money in the aggregate,” says Vanderslice, who majored in economics in college. “We’re solvent, and my credit score is shockingly high, considering. We’ve never missed a loan payment.”

But the facility has hardly raised its prices for the past 15 years, charging day rates of $300 to $350, and providing free tape. If that sounds unsustainable, well, that was ultimately the case. The San Francisco studios started losing money last year. “That’s where things got really scary for us,” he says.

“We almost encoded our own demise into this aesthetic that I have. I really think that studios are overpriced. My philosophy from the beginning was that every room is sold out every day. We don’t go up or down one dollar on our rate. And the gear is better for it. It’s so much more stable because it’s used every single day. The demands are so intense that all the gear has to work.”

Vanderslice Video Captures Studio Reality, by Clive Young, July 15, 2013

64-channel Neve 8068 console in Tiny Telephone Oakland
[/media-credit] About the console in Tiny Telephone Oakland, John Vanderslice says, “64-Channel Neve 8068, totally restored by tech genius Garry Creiman. The console features the best modules Neve ever made, the glorious 31102. It’s the last Class A design of their 70s input modules, utilizing the exact same circuitry as a 1073, but adding more EQ points, mid band hiQ, and a switchable top shelf (10k, 12k, 16k). The console has been brought back to its original functionality, recapped, and calibrated.”

Indeed, Vanderslice employs an army of specialists to maintain the facilities. “We have nine techs. I just find the best person who is the most knowledgeable and cares the most and give them all the money.”

Things started to go a little awry when he decided to open a facility in Oakland, building out a 3,000-square-foot room with 22 1/2-foot ceilings to relieve the pressure at the San Francisco location, which was booked 24/7. At the time, he says, “I was very optimistic about running studios in the Bay Area. I started buying and collecting. I borrowed equipment from friends who were happy to park stuff there that was going to be teched or rebuilt. We bought the double Neve 8068 that was in The Plant in Sausalito and rebuilt it over two years. I really like that Neve, that era of module, the 31102.”

But the main pieces were purchased with loans, he says. “It was all done through very informal means on Twitter, often from people who worked in tech who liked the studio or felt connected to it. The downside was that if it’s easy to borrow money, you borrow a lot of it—and it’s really hard to pay back loans.”

Meanwhile, rents were rising citywide. To be fair to the Goodes, they kept Vanderslice’s rent low, even decreasing it a few times. “I watched 10, 20 studios get shut down. The only reason I was there was because of my landlords, so I’m grateful for that but I realize that no one can protect you.”

For several years, Vanderslice was touring and working nonstop just to meet his obligations. “And I’ve slowly gotten less profitable in all the rooms,” he reports. “It was so stressful. It ruined my life for a couple of years.”

Tiny Telephone Oakland
Tiny Telephone’s spirit will live on in its sister facility in Oakland, CA, seen here, and Vanderslice’s own Grandma’s Couch studio in Los Angeles.

Studio Showcase: Pros Continue to Seek Hyde Street Studios, by Steve Harvey, July 27, 2018

Now he’s putting some joy back into his life with Grandma’s Couch, a modest studio in the backyard of his house in Los Angeles. “It’s so much fun. It’s like a project studio, but it has an Ampex 1200 in it, and Ableton and some cool converters. It’s very small, very modest, but it’s awesome. You can record a four-piece band, but it’s great for a solo artist. I love it.”

Without Tiny Telephone San Francisco weighing him down, “Oakland is going to be great,” he says. “The landlord is amazing, and that studio makes money.” (The day rate is $400.)

If he misses anything, it will be the sense of community at the old place in the Mission. “I was just working on a record for 15 days that ended yesterday—that was so fun. It’s such a communal vibe, because there’s so much shared space in San Francisco.”

Vanderslice is philosophical about the changes that this year will bring. “I love the feeling of closing the studios down, because it helps everyone to pause and realize that everything is impermanent; everything ends. I feel nothing but gratitude and love for that place existing and for everyone making it better. I feel really lucky to have been a part of that place.”

From a business perspective, he says, “We ran studios for 22 years that were profitable every year. I’m almost the proudest of that more than anything else I’ve done.”

The next chapter in the Tiny Telephone story has yet to be written, however. “I’m crazy,” he says. “I would love to build a studio in L.A. more than anything.”

Tiny Telephone •

John Vanderlice •