The Approach to Starting a Recording Studio
Starting a recording studio is no easy task. It’s important that you approach running a studio with a clear head, and open mind. This is not the time to fantasize about what could happen in the future for your studio. This is the time to look at things objectively and ask yourself many tough questions. The more you ask now about starting a recording studio, the best shape you’ll be in.
The three key ingredients to running your own recording studio are:
- Symbiotic Relationships. How to find studio space, get more gear, have repairs made, and have a powerful advertizing network – All without cash.
- Establishing Your Value. How to get the most payment from your clients, their commitment, and navigate the personalities of crazy-artsy musicians.
- Gear Buying Strategy that Will Save Thousands. How to buy gear so you never waste money upgrading your equipment as you grow.
Our viewer Jeff D. writes in on how to get better clients that can afford to pay him more. We’ll cover how to position yourself as the person that your dream clients want to work with.
Ingredient 1: Symbiotic Relationships
Finding unique relationships that are both beneficial to you and the other person is the name of the game. You need to find situations that are valuable to both of you so that it works. Without mutual value on both sides, the concept of symbiotic relationships will not work.
The needs could be as simple as recording someone for free in exchange for a guitar that they own. As long as they need the studio time and your service, and you need the make and model of the guitar that they own, then a deal can be made.
This is the foundational concept of making things happen without cash, and without adding pressure from gear buying debt. Finding symbiotic relationships is step one, as it will help you raise the value of your recording service (Ingredient #2) and it’ll help you understand what you will have to spend actual money on.
Choosing Partners when Starting a Recording Studio
For starters, you need to find people that you are interested in getting involved with. Don’t engage with people that you don’t think are dependable, or don’t act fairly. You need a certain amount of trust and believe that a potential partner would be good to work with.
This prospective partner also needs to have some valuable ideas, resources, or ambitions. If they mostly spend their time gaming on a computer, or going to sports games, then there’s not a lot to work with. You don’t want a person that’s coasting through the week, but someone that’s looking for something new to try. The attitude of the person is going to either fuel ideas, or slow them down.
It’s important to note that all of my relationships are this way. I never know if a big idea will emerge, but I always am open for the discussion to naturally happen.
Meeting with Partners
You really need to set up situations where ideas can simmer. I often choose to meet over lunch, as it is expected that ordering food and eating your meal is at least a 45 minute activity.
I’ve also noticed that guys are not accessible at dinner time because they are just in a different head space. Lunch or mid-morning is where it’s at to get them in a clear head space.
You need to get to know people when they aren’t rushed, during a slow day, and nothing else is on their mind except for how good the coffee is. Talking with someone at a noisy bar isn’t going to let ideas simmer, and flourish into something new.
Helping them Find their Own Needs
The trick here is to think about the other person first. Don’t think about what you want out of a deal, think about them and really try to see things from their perspective. You already know yourself and what you’re goals are, but you need to take a break from “you” and think about what their goals are.
My business partner Steve Scott from Dr. Q’s Amp Sales had a goal of finding a commercial space for a private showroom for buyers of vintage guitar amps. We had spent a year bonding and talking shop, and I realized that he could use some of my studio space to show his amps to buyers, rather than having people come to his home. In turn, I would give them a home at the studio. But that’s just the start. This relationship works great for both of us and in a several ways.
For him the benefits are:
- He keeps the amps out of his house and his wife would be happier.
- He can play amps loudly and not worry about waking the baby.
- He can have clients over to try out amps and never expose his home to random people.
- He can have more room and better acoustics for hearing amps.
- He can make recordings of amps and do AB testing, and make recorded a “before and after” when replacing speakers and vacuum tubes.
- He builds his website using a stock pile of professional quality photographs of people playing the amps from C.S.L. episodes and recording sessions.
- I would keep the amps working and running, so they don’t develop problems from sitting.
- My clients are also his clients.
For me the benefits are also huge:
- My studio would look cool with all these cool amps.
- I didn’t need to spend any money on amps.
- My quality of guitar tones is top notch – The sound of a Brown Deluxe just doesn’t compare to a cheaply made modern amps.
- I would gain tons of knowledge from my friendship with Steve.
- I would gain hands on knowledge of guitar tones. I can speak from experience on how the amp sounds in various situations not out of speculation, or because I watched someone’s Youtube video.
- His clients may be above what I would usually bring in the door, because famous musicians are usually willing to hunt for rare amps. This means that musicians that I normally wouldn’t come to my studio will be spending a minimum of thirty minutes as they shop for amps.
So this was the idea. This took time, and it didn’t happen over night. With trust and looking out for each other, Steve and I were able to start a partnership that is symbiotic for the both of us.
Ingredient 2: Establishing Your Value
Regardless if you know your value by what your able to charge currently, or you are just starting out, a dollar value should always be established at the beginning of your conversations with clients.
There may be some clients that cannot pay the regular rates that you should be able to ask for. However there can still be some benefit to working with a particular client if they help demonstrate what you can do in a genre, or you know they will be active in referring other clients.
Later we will review a question from Jeff about how to land better clients that can pay studio rates. Part of our path to finding those clients is working with the type that you desire, and building up a collection of work you’ve done that demonstrate your ability. This process of building up a portfolio is one reason you may decide to work with an artist even if they are not able to pay the full rate. It’s an investment for the long haul, and your able to craft your sound as a studio.
Start with a Number
Starting with a dollar figure is a clear way of communicating, and you only have to resort to getting paid less if they tell you that they can’t afford you. From there, you at least know that they are x dollars short, and will need to come up with something to fill in the gap. Without this dollar figure, you can’t ask for anything objectively. This dollar figure helps put things in perspective, and established that you are valuable and won’t work for free and without limitations.
If you are trying to build up a studio, then you can use this dollar figure (and the amount that is lacking) to develop trade agreements.
Trades are actually difficult to work out, because the client needs to want to sell you something that you actually want. Furthermore, you don’t want to buy something at a price you could get any day.
You want to approach the deal as: “In exchange for the missing 700 dollars, I’m going to get X item instead”. X item should be something that costs $1,000 or more, otherwise you’re better off asking for cash and spending it directly. But if we are multiplying the money that is missing, then it’s a good opportunity for both of us. They want recording time, and will partially fund this by an item they don’t use anymore. This is symbiotic.
I once asked for $500 for a mixing project that I did, and added that if they wanted to give me a MOTU 24IO instead (Valued at $1,000), they could do that too.
I knew that the client had two of these units, and most likely would not use 48 channels. I actually didn’t have anything beyond an entry level unit, and needed a 24IO. They accepted the deal, and I was able to use my ability to mix in exchanged for a piece of gear.
Giving up an extra piece of gear is a lot easier than coming up with $500, even though it meant that I was getting paid more. I doubled my money!
Always ask for a deposit. Musicians are fickle and change what they want often. This is part of working in an artistic field, but you have to establish your value, and require a deposit to make sure that there is some structure to your business.
Without the deposit, you’ll have musicians call you to cancel the night before after you’ve already did the prep work for the session. I’ve been canceled on via text message, and I’ve been left hanging because they just never came. I’ve even had 4x clients cancel on me because they decided to spend three weeks in Mexico the month before the session.
Each of these situations could have been avoided if I asked for a deposit. A deposit seals in the priority for the musician, and they make sure that they don’t miss the session.
I’ve even sponsored sessions because I’m trying to build up my portfolio, and recording school content. I didn’t ask for any money, just that they show up ready to play. Out of five members, only two of them came to the studio.
So I’ve learned to require deposits even for sessions that I pay for. After the session is over, I return the deposit as promised.
Typically, I require a 40% deposit that’s non-refundable starting at two weeks out. Musicians will never pay a deposit unless they really think hard about making plans. They take it seriously. If you don’t require a deposit, they won’t take it seriously.
Ingredient 3: Gear Buying Strategy
Lumen Audio is a small to medium sized studio that happens to be debt free. I didn’t set out to avoid debt, however I just knew that I didn’t like the feeling of asking for more bills each month. Making payments to pay off gear would take away the fun I would have. It would take this dream job, and make it much more stressful. I decided that I wanted to avoid debt by spending very conservatively.
Over several years I developed my own method for buying gear. I call it “Gear Buying Strategy”.
My gear buying strategy is consisted of three questions that are meant to serve as a gut check before buying anything. It has helped me take out the emotion of buying cool gear and helped me focus on the long term effects of making choices.
The three questions are:
- Can this item be used for multiple purposes? This means choosing an overhead microphone that works great as a vocal microphone too. Or choosing a plug in that doesn’t multiple things. Be careful of instruments, or microphones that are for niche things. Go with items that can do a little bit of everything. Niche items are best found for free in old organs, garage sales, or for ten bucks on Craigslist.
- Will this item serve another purpose with your future gear? This means choosing monitors that work well as “B” monitors down the road. Or little 4 jack headphone amps that are pulled out if a choir comes to record in the future, but for now they are a low budget headphone solution until you can afford Avioms. Or choosing to buy two high quality XLR cables rather than ten of the cheep ones. Some gear you won’t grow out of, but you’ll just add to it.
- Is this item “Best in Class”? Buy the best of respective levels. If you had 300 dollars for a microphone you could find a used sm7b and always have a use for it. You could also buy a cheep condenser microphone only to upgrade it later. It’s better to buy the best of what is within your capabilities, then to reach outside of what you can afford with compromise.
Bonus Section: Q&A
One of my viewers of the show wrote me with a great question. He says, “It seems like the bands that I have coming to me to record, do have much money to record. How do I get out of this rut?”
The short answer is to:
- Establish value
- Position yourself better using your portfolio
See above for how to establish value with your service. Let’s go to point #2.
Your portfolio of what you’ve recorded can be one of the most important assets that you have. If you’ve only recorded church bands and blues cover bands, then you’re just that guy with a studio. You’ll continue to get clients that don’t tour, don’t plan for recordings, and don’t value the process of making a recording with the help of a professional.
You have to remember that the work that you choose to be apart of at your studio, will set the stages for what clients come to expect. If you want to do more metal, then start meeting bands and give them a deal so that you can add them to your list. You have to prove yourself in each field, and know how to take a band to their sonic destination before they will trust you with their music. And not acting like an ass will help too.