A smart way and a dumb way to build a recording studio

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Recording studios do not operate on an “if you build it they will come” basis.

With that in mind, here is one dumb and all-too-common approach to starting up your own recording studio:

1) Go around coveting other people’s studios for a while.
2) Start off by building the type of studio that you’ve always dreamed of — The kind you just know that you’d always be satisfied with.
3) Then, go looking for clients to fill it up with.

NEWSFLASH: This does not work.

I’ve seen this kind of thing attempted scores of times, and I’ve seen it end in failure, scores of times.

There are dozens of reasons why this procedure is so rarely fruitful, especially in the music studio world. Practical reasons: Did you test your market to see if there was demand for yet another full-fledged studio? It doesn’t matter if there are none of them to begin with. Do you have proof of concept, proof of demand, proof of your own abilities to obtain and satisfy clients?

There are motivational reasons this approach fails as well: When your primary professional life’s goal is to build the studio of your dreams, just what is supposed to keep you going once you’ve already built it?

A good friend, who after more than a decade of hard work has come to own his own truly great studio, once told me that: “There is nothing more depressing than an empty and unused recording studio that looks like it was built in the hopes that Mariah Carey would finally come walking through the door any minute now.”

The only way that one of these studios is likely to be a good career choice is if you’re buying it off the former owner for pocket change — after he’s blown through his resources, or his interest in it, or both.

But even then, I’d be hesitant to recommend this route it unless you already have sufficient work beating down your door in order to justify the expense. Even if you get it cheap, starting with the a full-fledged recording studio can often be more of an uphill battle than planning on ending with one.

Here’s a better strategy:

1) Start doing studio work.
I don’t care whether it’s at a “real” recording studio, or in a corner of your basement, or at any location you can get to with a remote recording rig.

Sure, you might want to do a select few portfolio-building freebies with truly exceptional talents, but in general: Charge for your work. People will only value you as much as you value yourself.

Better yet, why not take some of the money you were planning on using on prestige gear and use it to finance some of your own prestige projects instead? Great gear is a dime a dozen. Great work is rare.

Whichever way you approach it, make sure you start out by developing a real clientele and a real portfolio. That is the true key to having a great studio. Clients come first. The work comes first. Everything else is secondary.

2) Build relationships with already-existing studios in your area, and make use of their unbooked hours.
Even if your ultimate goal is to build your own studio, it’s wise to get started by booking time at already-existing studios. There are many of them. And chances are that there is an untold number of unbooked hours in great rooms not far from you.

Maybe you can even create your own job at one of these places. Or, maybe you can do the majority of your work at a home or project studio, and only use these preexisting commercial studios for big sessions. In any event, these kinds of arrangements are a win for everyone.

Only once you’re getting so many of bookings that you’re having trouble finding enough empty slots to fit them in, should you then consider building your own real-deal recording studio. (Alternately, you might consider building if you’ve done an honest run of the numbers and have come to find that it would be more cost-effective to have your own larger-scale place.)

3) Start small and grow.
I can’t stress this one enough: Do NOT start out by building the studio of your dreams. Start out by building the studio that makes sense for right now. It could be a home studio or a small personal studio or a modest commercial studio. Whatever the work you know you’ll be doing calls for.

Then, develop and upgrade  your space over the course of many years (say, 5 to 30 of them) until you either: A ) Finally have the studio you always dreamed about or B ) Realize you’d rather be a studio customer than a studio owner. (And there are many perks to being a customer, believe me.)

That’s it.

Too often, we look at amazing and bustling “world-class” recording studios and only see what they look like today, after decades of being successful businesses.

Or, in the cases of studios that took the dumb approach, we fail to notice that for all their amenities and all their bluster, they just don’t seem to be doing so much actual business at all.

When you see a truly busy and successful recording studio, remember that all their gear and decor and extra rooms aren’t what’s getting them all the work.

Those things are the result of having gotten the work for so long that the studio’s owners had suffiecient money to reinvest in their business, so that they could do even more work.

This may sound like a subtle distinction at first, but it’s not. It is the difference between a thriving business and an hollowed-out Fabergé shell, filled with nothing but the echoes of broken dreams.

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