Jim Lang, the owner of Los Angeles recording studio Knobworld, played keyboards for Todd Rundgren, Joe Cocker and The Pointer Sisters before working as a Motown arranger and establishing a career as a composer for film and television. In the 1980s he started his own recording studio, at first for his own projects and eventually as a public facility. He shared his ideas about starting a successful recording studio business, among them the importance of good room acoustics, a flexible recording area set-up and the necessity of establishing a repeat clientele.
A Recording Studio Is an Acoustic Space
Jim points to the most basic requirement for the facility: "Sometimes persons beginning a studio business forget that it's not all about the equipment. The sound of the room is probably the first thing to think about." Fortunately, there are a number of good books on studio design written especially for persons planning small professional studios. You can also hire a professional studio designer. Jim pointed out that "Often the same guys who charge major motion picture companies a lot of money for studio designs will give an individual small studio owner a great price for a basic design, which is all you need to get started. It's also important to have a studio design that's somewhat flexible -- most of the legendary studios were good sounding rooms with a variety of options for baffling (isolating instruments from one another) and convenient ways of modifying the room surfaces. You might want a relatively live room setup with a lot of diffuse reverberation for a string quartet but may need a much dryer sound (created with temporary soft-surface baffling) for laying down a pop rhythm track."
Financing the Studio
About financing the studio, Jim said, "If you're lucky enough to be working now for a successful musician, she may be open to becoming a financial partner. This is a great way, because the financing musician has an inside track on recording time at a great rate and you have your first big client before you even start. A local ad producer may also be interested in a similar deal. It's always smart to try to get one or two clients involved from the very beginning who will bring in enough regular business to cover your loan payments. Otherwise, your American Federation of Musicians local is affiliated with a credit union that understands the music business and may make you a small business loan to buy your equipment. Banks and even the SBA don't always understand the recording business well and may be tough sells when you try to borrow money, particularly when you're just getting started."
Build the Studio for the Probable Clientele
Jim spoke about designing the studio for the available market: "If you work in a particular field or have a specialized skill set -- voice-over recording, audio post production or film mixing, for example -- you’d be well advised to build out a room to do that. lf you live in an area where there is a lot of work of a specialized nature, the same rule applies. If you live in a recording center like Los Angeles, New York or Nashville, there's work of every kind, but in a smaller city it might be largely jingle and voice-over work and a lot of demos." Demos are the recordings of their work that musicians present to a record label when seeking a recording contract.
Developing a Clientele
Jim stressed the importance of not just waiting for clients to find you: "Many studio owners are musicians. Very few are professional salespersons. But it's important to go out of your comfort zone to develop your clientele. Network with schools in your area. High schools with good music programs are full of students in their junior and senior years that need audition recordings for their college applications. These are renewable resources, year after year. Partner with music teachers who may want to record student recitals in your studio or on location. The important thing is to keep yourself open to emerging possibilities. Different Fur, for example, possibly the oldest independent studio in the Bay Area, is located only a few blocks from the Castro district, a center of gay activism. In the 70's, the owner approached the several smallf gay and lesbian labels distributing dance music in the area and within months had virtually cornered that market: most of the big gay disco hits, including Sylvester's and Patrick Cowley's, came out of that one studio. Currently, one of the Orange County studios has developed a considerable business recording kid's birthday parties. The one thing that's a constant in the music business is that there will always be new markets and, at some point, that market will be under-served. It's a smart studio owner who makes an effort to solicit that business early on."