Every good contractor knows that in order to build a quality home it all starts with a solid foundation. The land the home is built upon must be stable, the trenches for the footing must be deep enough, the concrete must be mixed properly and it must be poured in a timely fashion. If the foundation is not built correctly, it leads to all sorts of problems ranging from cracks and leaks to crumbling and shifting that jeopardizes the integrity of the entire building.
The same holds true for your recording studio business. If the foundation is not rock solid, the entire business risks crumbling to the ground. Twenty years ago, the lack of competition and a high barrier to entry into the recording studio business was enough to almost ensure substantial profits for the studio owner, even if the foundation was less than perfect. But much like the new housing boom in the early 2000’s that flooded the market with poorly built homes made for quick profit, the home and project recording studio boom flooded the market with discount pricing and, in general, a subpar product. Several professional studios were quick to drop prices, and the professional itself competing directly with home studios. Although it seems ridiculous that Rolls Royce could be a direct competitor to Hyundai, that is exactly what has happened in the recording industry. Studios built without proper foundations were exposed and forced to compete on price alone.
The simultaneous collapse and fragmentation of the record industry sparked more fear throughout the recording studio industry, as shrinking label budgets dried up profits. In the end, all of these changes have caused hourly and project rates to erode to almost unsustainable levels. When you take into account all the expenses of a working studio– lease/rent/mortgage payments, electric, insurance, security and equipment repair, just to name just a few– charging the “going rate” makes it hard to just break even. For the studio owner trying to make a living, it is downright frustrating.
We could sit here and complain all day about local bands using Garage Band to record their songs, or the ad agency turning their broom closet into a recording booth, but it is not going to change. At least not in our favor. Recording gear will only continue to get better and cheaper. The low prices will only tempt more would-be clients into trying to record themselves. I know I fell for it. Back in the 90’s, when my band decided it was time to make a record, the first thing I did was to go out and buy an ADAT and a Mackie 32×8. And, like anyone who begins to get serious about recording, I slaved many, many hours over that recording project trying to get it right. When it was not right, I began purchasing thousands of dollars of new gear that promised to unlock “that sound.” Soon, I basically had my own recording studio, but at a cost. I had spent thousands of dollars and dedicated a substantial portion of my life to making a record that turned out decent. Not great. Just decent. It was something I was proud of because I did it myself, but it was not record label quality. Part of it was lack of engineering skills. Part of it was lack of production skills. I tried my best to cram as much learning as I could into this year-long recording project, but the truth was that these skills take many years to develop, and it was impossible condense so much into so little time.
I’m sure this story is very familiar to a lot of engineers and studio owners. It may even be how you got your start into the recording studio business. But no matter how easy and cheap it is to buy and set up any recording hardware or software, the difference between your first project and your most recent is probably mind blowing. There were many years, many teachers, many successes and many failures between those two points in time. But to your likely clients, toying with the idea of “saving any cash” and recording themselves, they do not know any better. They think it is easy. They do not know what they do not know. But it is up to you to show likely clients that you will actually be saving them a lot of money by paying you what you’re worth.
To reach your likely clients in a way that they’ll be more than willing to pay you high-end rates for your work, you will need to lay a solid foundation first. This foundation comes in two parts. The first part is the talent, skill and expertise you can offer your clients. This is why you’re in business in the first place, is not it? Because you can deliver a superior sounding recording. This is what sets you apart from everyone else.
The second part of your foundation is being able to effectively communicate what sets your business apart from all the other recording studios in your area. Although the word “marketing” may mean something a little different to each person, this is how I define marketing. Specifically, communicating your offering in a way that that would make your likely client feel silly if they did not record in your studio.
This is where many major studios crumbled. Once upon a time, relationships with major record labels would bring high paying work into the studio almost automatically. There was no reason to market a recording studio. At the time, the thought of it almost seemed absurd. But as the major labels shriveled, so did the studio business. The studios had no process in place to get new business. Bands and artists without labels did not have money to pay high studio rates. Combined with the rise of the home studio, it became even harder to reach likely clients. Recording studios without a solid marketing foundation began to drop prices to attract business. This caused profits to nose dive and many studios went out of business.
So, both the skills AND the marketing are important to create a thriving recording studio business. But as the advertising legend Rosser Reeve so simply wrote in his 1961 classic, Reality in Advertising:
“A gifted product is mightier than a gifted pen.”
It probably goes without saying, but if the end product is subpar, then you need to spend more time honing your chops before you can earn premium rates. That’s just how it is in every profession from landscaping to sales to sports. You cannot reasonably expect to get top dollar for your work without top results. You or your hired engineering talent needs to be able to provide a stellar product that’s on par with the best in your market. Anyone can buy the same gear or build a good sounding room, but all that stuff needs to be used in a way that makes an awesome sounding recording.
Then, when the talent, skill and desire are there, you can package these qualities into a message that reaches your likely client and wins their business almost every time. To find success well beyond the break even point of your business, you must reach outside the one dimensional word of mouth approach and use proven marketing techniques to attract clients to your studio like bees on Hawaiian Punch.
In a future article I will discuss any of my favorite marketing techniques for a recording studio in an early growth phase. Until then, keep those (analog) meters pegged!