british radio

#SaveLondonMusic – So you think it’s easy to run a music studio?

mhmcMill Hill Music Complex has been running since 1979, in various guises.  We started in one room in a derelict caretakers cottage, progressed to what is now studio 2, opened the recording studio (studio 1) in 1990, studios 3-10 between 1994 and 2001. We then had a little break until April 2012, when we opened our new studio complex, in the big blue building, with studios 14-19 in. You may wonder what happened to studios 11-13? Well studios 11 & 12 were temporary studios in the caretakers cottage between 2004- 2008 when it was demolished and studio 13 is the hire store! This originally was going to be another drum room, but we needed an easy to access PA store, so we used it for that instead!

Many of our regular customers, seeing our fantastic facilities and reception area, comment that it must be a great business to be in. We thoroughly agree, but if anyone thinks it is an easy job, then think again! The upside is meeting all the fantastic artists who frequent our premises. Many of these have become firm friends over the years. Often we get a free Xmas party because bands like The Damned invite us to their Xmas shows, when they’ve been rehearsing. That is always a privilege. It is also great to see talented young musicians start by hiring out a rehearsal room and then go on to international stardom. Perhaps Amy Winehouse and Kate Nash are two artist who spring to mind.

That is the good side of the deal. There is however another side. In London it is getting ever more expensive to run a studio. Our new building cost over £1 million to put up.  The regulations are often prohibitively expensive for studios. The rules around noise are ridiculous. We had to prove that our nearest neighbours, over 500m away, wouldn’t be able to hear bands rehearsing. This was a highly expensive exercise. Given that we are next to the M1 with an ambient background noise of 75db and we had fully soundproof rooms, it was ridiculous. We still had to scientifically prove it. This was complicated by the fact that the background noise from the M1 was too high to satisfy the criteria.

This was just one example. Another one was the long debates with the council as to what activities were allowable. In the end, they accepted our arguments, but this took two years of discussion and cost. Then the building regulations queries about what we were doing. We needed flashing fire alarms, as they were worried metal bands wouldn’t hear the alarms. These were just a few of the hurdles we faced, it seemed to go on forever. Eventually we managed to sort out the finance, the planning and get the building built. We had targetted September 2011. This is always the busiest time. We knew that 2012 would be a difficult year, with football tournaments, Royal weddings and annivesaries and the Olympics. Anything which stops a band member from playing, affects  studio turnover. Bank Holidays are times people go away. Due to delays in building, we eventually got the keys in May 2012, the worst possible time. Higher rents and rates, just as the summer slump hit.

There were other issues. We had wanted to launch our new website and online booking system, but this proved more problematical than we’d anticipated. In short, we didn’t get the new operation running smoothly until March 2013.  We also lost a couple of stalwart members of staff in this period, who had been with us a long time. Tony, our shop manager moved to south London and Mario, who kept the studios running moved to Italy. When you have a small dedicated staff, it is hard to replace good crew. So we had a complete reorganisation of how we’d been running things. Finding good staff to run a studio is difficult.  Manning the desk is either frantic or mindnumbingly boring. We have 17 studios now, so studio changeover is manic, then when are all the bands settle in, nothing at all happens. You just wait for the phone to ring. We need a minimum of two staff at busy times. One to manage the rooms and one to man the phone. During the day, we also have a cleaner and a studio tech, as well as a shop/studio manager who manages the finances, chases up debts, orders the equipment and handles mail enquiries etc.

blog-featured-img-844x350-reception-1Then there are the problems and emergencies. All manner of crazy things happen. Perhaps the worst is when bands come in and are drunk. 99% of customers are great, but 1% can be difficult and if they are drunk, it can be a problem. We have a zero tolerance policy towards abuse of staff. If someone has a genuine complaint, then we bend over backwards to help. If they are simply drunk and obnoxious, then that is a different manner. We also have the odd emergency. Recently we had someone taken seriously ill and we had to call an ambulance.

Then there are the comical events. We had one band call to say that they had to cancel a rehearsal. As we have a 72 hour cancellation policy, bands sometimes try and play on our better nature. This band rang and said they couldn’t rehearse as the drummers Grandma had died (it is strange how often drummers have family mishaps). We were suitably saddened. Shortly after, the drummer turned up. Sadly the rest of the band had neglected to tell him that the rehearsal had been cancelled, or that his Grandma had passed away.  Even more sadly, he had to stump up the cancellation fee for his band mates. For most studios the cancellation policy is the most contentious issue. For many years MHMC didn’t have a policy. It got to the point that bands would book sessions when they “might turn up”.  It got to the point where we had to address the issue or close, as we were finding we weren’t covering the bills. When we brought the policy in, we lost several regulars, who didn’t turn up and got quite abusive when told they couldn’t come back until they paid. Eventually they all came back, when they realised that other studios had the same policies. With the online booking system, everyone gets the terms and conditions in the booking email. It makes it an easier conversation as all bands know the rules.
Another difficult matter is breakages. Our policy is that we will charge for repairs/cleaning if there is clear abuse. One of the most annoying acts of vandalism is when bands let off powder fire extinguishers in the rooms. These make the rooms unusable. We charge £150 if this happens. Typically it is teenage bands. The sequence of events is always the same. The band leaves without paying, we check the room and find it is covered in powder. We ring the band who claim the extinguisher fell off the wall. We tell them that is not physically possible and that if they don’t pay, we’ll report them to the police for vandalism. They then get their parents to ring up. We ask the parents to come down and inspect the room. When they say powder sprayed all over the walls and that the construction of the extinguisher makes the story impossible, they sheepishly pay up. Generally the bands disappear for six months and when they come back, they are perfectly behaved.

The final thing which can make the job difficult is “band politics”. Sometimes bands decide to kick out a member, but don’t tell them. This can lead to all manner of embarrassing situations. Perhaps, the most difficult was when a customer came down to buy some strings and bumped into his bandmates coming down for a “secret” rehearsal with a new guitarist. As he was the guy who’d put the band together, he was mightily put out and demanded that we ban the band. We of course cannot get involved. Another more recent episode was almost comical. A band booked a session by phone and as the person being kicked out was the contact, they gave his name. They clearly didn’t realise that he would get a confirmation email. He immediately rang up to say he hadn’t booked and it was a mistake. We told him that another member had booked and asked for his name to be used. Ten minutes later, he rang back and furiously told us to under no circumstances take bookings from anyone else in his name. The other band member then rang up and demanded to know why we’d “grassed them up”. What can yo do?

When you think of studios, you think of great bands, interesting people and great music. For many customers though, the key things are equipment that works, clean toilets, an easy system for booking, easy access and friendly, helpful faces. Making sure all of these things happen is not an accident. London has some great music studios. We don’t see good studios as opposition, as London has more musicians than studio space. We see them as a source of inspiration. We regularly look at their websites to see if they are doing things we should be doing. I sometimes bump into other studio owners and they tell a similar story. Generally good studios survive for years, bad ones last a couple of years then fold. I overheard a couple of new customers talking. One said “That’s the trouble with studios, they are great when they open, then they go down hill and after a couple of years shut”. The other guy said “yeah, they all do that”. Then the first one turned and asked me “how long have you guys been here?”. I said “Since 1979”. The problem for most start ups is they don’t have spare gear, so when things break, the operation stops. We have spares for just about everything, so we don’t have those sort of problems. Another problem for start ups is that it takes years to get decent staff. We’ve been lucky but we have had problems.  Often you only realise when people leave.

Many people start studios thinking it will be a blast. They then find that they work unsociable hours, for bad money and simply end up hoovering rooms after other people have been enjoying themselves. It takes years to get established and it can be very hard work. I’ve spent many a Christmas day bricklaying, plastering and painting studios as this is the only time we can afford to shut. But then it all becomes worthwhile when you hear an Amy Winehouse or a Kate Nash come down and become a superstar. Perhaps for me, as an ageing punk, the finest moment was listening to The Damned rehearsing “New Rose” in Studio 7 on their first visit, many moons ago. Their album “Damned Damned Damned” was one of the first albums I bought and as New Rose was the first UK Punk single, it is very special for me. Things like that, you cannot buy.