Making albums used to be pretty simple in the "golden age" of the music biz—at least in theory. Get your record label to pony up at least a hundred grand, rent out a famed studio and then watch as the music hits the stores and your royalties climb.
The music industry is different in just about every way now. With labels reeling from the effects of digital downloads, file sharing and the ensuing precipitous decline in sales, hardly anyone gets to record on a big bank account anymore. Both the majors and the indies are slashing budgets, and artists have started looked elsewhere, recording music on their own with newly affordable technology and distributing it independently online. For some of the large recording studios that have survived essentially unchanged for more than half a century, this new climate has become an economic kiss of death.
While file sharing and digital distribution have gotten most of the media glare during the crash of the music business, less has been said about the recording studios' troubles. And yet the advent of affordable, high-quality gear has profoundly shifted the industry. Both labels and bands have far less money to work with, and that trickles down to the studios. While exact statistics are hard to come by, the body count of legendary recording studios that have gone silent is undeniable, the shuttered ranging from Bill Putnam's United Western Recorders in Los Angeles (where Bing Crosby's White Christmas was recorded) to Sorcerer Studios in New York (birthplace of Booker T. Washington High School alum Norah Jones' Come Away with Me).
Dougie Bowne, a New York–based producer and musician who has worked with the Lounge Lizards and Iggy Pop, says half the studios in New York have closed, ticking off the famed Sony studios and the Hit Factory as two examples. "Battery Sound is closing," he adds. "Electric Ladyland, which should be a church of music, will probably close soon. The economic impact of being able to record a lot cheaper is undeniable."
In the early 1990s, the introduction of the Alesis ADAT—a relatively affordable digital recorder—kickstarted the home-recording revolution. Digidesign's ProTools—recording software that ran on any computer and gradually became an industry standard during the mid-'90s—only furthered the shift. Nowadays, most musicians have some type of home setup.
Home-recording devices aren't solely to blame for shuttered studio doors. The Plant, the legendary Sausalito studio that birthed albums by Stevie Wonder, Fleetwood Mac, Metallica and Too $hort, closed this April. But while owner Arne Frager agrees that technology changed the studio, he says the Internet caused the most damage. He contends that major labels ignored the increased distribution potential of the Web for so long that by the time they caught up to the trend, it was too late. "When the record companies started to see CD sales go to hell, they slashed the [recording] budgets," he says, "and that's what killed the recording studios."
When a studio closes, it affects more than just the producers and audio engineers. Income also shrinks for the industries that revolve around them, such as equipment rental companies and food caterers. "In a community like L.A. or Nashville that depends on entertainment, [the damage] spreads," says Jeff Sherman, an owner of Platinum Audio Rentals in Los Angeles. He says his business with studios has dropped by half in the last few years. He says the "golden age of recording"—the '50s through the '80s—is gone forever.
But should we really care about a few out-of-work recording engineers? The answer is yes, as this issue concerns more than just nostalgia for the past. For one thing, as affordable technology has spread, it's been accompanied by a loss in fidelity, due in part to the inferiority of digital versus analog sound and diminished recording expertise.
"If you actually concern yourself with the sound of the instruments, the sound has gotten worse," says Bowne, who bemoans the fact that most music is now downloaded as MP3s and listened to through earbud headphones—hardly standards fit for audiophiles.
Marc Goodman, an engineer at Brooklyn's Studio G and a part-owner of nearby Strange Weather, talks about the "sonic fingerprint" vintage studio gear has in the right hands: the sounds caught on tape by old compressors, reverb units and tape machines that are beyond the price range and expertise of most casual home recordists. "Most of the time, great records are made in the studio with people who have done it before," he says.
Indeed, the potential loss of expertise that comes with the loss of experienced engineers is incalculable. Myles Boisen, musician and renowned Bay Area engineer who owns Oakland's Guerrilla Studios, says the whole apprenticeship system slips away when the larger studios close. He recalls a period of experimentation ushered in by the Beatles in the '60s that saw recording techniques passed down much as jazz standards are passed through generations on the bandstand. "At some point, that knowledge of those incredible years is gonna be gone, and I hope there's some way it can be passed down and not just lost," he says.
Still, even those who most lament the lost art of studio engineering are quick to point out that the new climate isn't solely doom and gloom. The ability to record without the stress of watching a clock ticking off rates that can stretch to $100 an hour or more can obviously foster a more relaxed and creative environment. "It's given people a lot more time and flexibility to do weirder and more ambitious records, because they can do it all at home," says John Vanderslice, the San Francisco musician and an owner of Tiny Telephone studios.
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Larry Crane, editor-in-chief of alternative recording bible Tape Op Magazine and an owner of Jackpot! studios in Portland, Oregon, points out that home recording and recording studios are not necessarily opposing forces. The ability to make music in your bathrobe has no doubt produced records that wouldn't have been created otherwise. And he notes the flood of artists who have produced albums at home who might not have recorded at all if they had to worry about the cost of professional work.
"It gave us the opportunity to basically write in the studio, experiment more in the studio," says Spoon drummer Jim Eno, who has recorded the last four Spoon full-lengths and several singles, including 2005's breakthrough Gimme Fiction and last year's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, at his home in Austin. He notes that the firm deadlines that come with expensive studio time can be motivating, but the freedom to throw away the stopwatch was probably responsible for the sonic extras—trippy sound effects, handclaps and the like—that have made the last few Spoon records so revelatory. "I do think it helped us find our sound," he says.
And big studio shakeouts are actually producing some positive consequences for the studio industry itself as well. As with record labels, the giants are suffering, but the indie companies are doing OK as they adapt to musicians' needs. In New York, for example, the scene has shifted from bigger studios in midtown Manhattan to smaller and midsize studios largely based in Brooklyn. "Half the studios in New York are in Williamsburg now," sound engineer Goodman says. "It should be the most competitive, terrible market in the universe, but we're all doing better." Lost business is made up for by the many homemade projects that need finishing touches like mixing and mastering done in a real studio.
The process that's happening now may be nothing more than a sifting-out as the industry reorganizes toward artists taking more control over their music. Good engineers, their art form comparable to the music they capture, will undoubtedly find a role in this latest music biz paradigm. How different that role will be, however, remains an open question.