The live music ecosystem has been devastated by coronavirus, and every corner of the music industry has felt devastating effects of the pandemic. Concerts could be off until 2021, album release dates have been postponed or canceled, and the future of recording studios is one big unknown. Even before the pandemic, studios had been facing challenges due to the rise in popularity, quality, and convenience of home recording, as well as gentrification and increasing rents, have made it harder to stay open. But with shelter-in-place orders and social distancing measures enacted across the country, studios have had to clear their schedule and turn new clients away.
"It's not just that the calendar is emptied in the studio, but all of the records we were working on the label side are made in our studio. All the records we were making and the stuff we were supposed to be working on is affected by the studio being empty," said Trey Pollard, the co-owner of Richmond, Virginia's Spacebomb, a recording studio, record label, and production company. "Economically, actual recording studios that live and die by the calendar being full, I have no idea how they're coping. Spacebomb doesn't operate that way since our studio is for our label and our individual producers to use."
Though Spacebomb can focus more on business with their record label and can finish mixing albums that are already in progress remotely, smaller studios like Minneapolis musician Holly Hansen's Salon, which depends on new clients, are facing insurmountable challenges.
"I'm at the point where I don't know if I should start thinking about closing. I have a month-to-month lease and I'm essentially paying most of the rent out of my pocket right now," Hansen said. "It's unfortunate because this is the only female-owned studio in Minneapolis that was open for clients. I was really excited about that because it's never happened. I want to keep it open but I don't know if I can."
Engineers have turned to mixing projects they can tackle independently and backlogs of work they need to finish. "Everyone is getting hit but not everyone has just gone to zero. I happen to just have a good amount of remote work that I can do with mixing and mastering things," said Jack Shirley, a Bay Area-based engineer and owner of The Atomic Garden.
But it's not all doom and gloom. Because much of their work can be done remotely, some sound engineers are doing okay. "People will be recording stuff at home and then you can send it to a great engineer and a studio and they can take it over the finish line," Pollard said. "That's something that's happening a lot. I don't think mixing and mastering engineers are losing a lot of work."
But many studios cannot subsist on the revenue from mixing and mastering alone. Michael Kolar, the owner of Chicago's SoundScape Studios says he's been able to do some work from afar, but it's not a sustainable financial situation.
"Luckily what's been coming in has been enough to pay all of our bills: utilities, gear insurance, alarm monitoring, et cetera," he said. "But there is nothing left to pay myself." While Shirley was able to secure help from the Small Business Association for the Atomic Garden, other studios have had worse luck. "I've looked high and low. I've spent days on my laptop applying to everything. I have not gotten 1 cent from any city, state or federal, loan assistance, payroll protection," Kolar said.
Studios like SoundScape, which has been in business for 23 years, have emergency savings and the Atomic Garden, which keeps overhead low because Shirley lives in the building that houses the studio, have means to power through the pandemic. SoundScape had to furlough its staff to stay afloat.
"All my staff who work here are sitting at home. Only one or two were on payroll to get unemployment while the rest were independent contractors so there's not much for them," Kolar said. "It's the same for my clients. So many artists who come to this studio were of the gig economy to have flexible work to pursue their musical dreams. They were bartenders and waitresses and worked in music venues and drove Uber and now they're all fucked."
For now, all studios are stuck in a waiting game for when restrictions are lifted and they are safe to take on clients again. But as lockdowns end and people return to work, recording studios will still face uncertainty.
"I don't see a rosy future here. Are artists going to want to step up and put their mouth six inches away from a microphone that so many people breathe on? Are you trying to go into a soundproofed, sealed off room that has no windows with other people?" says Kolar. Hansen is also concerned: "I would feel comfortable starting sessions again if I knew that people could get tests and not only to see if they have it, but also if they have the antibody. Only then it makes sense to do what we can to replicate normal life and normal studio work while still taking precautions."