SOUND TRENDS: Philly Recording Studios Adapt to Artists's Needs
Discussions about the many recent changes in the music industry tend to focus specifically on how musicians and record labels are impacted. As traditional revenue streams from album sales decline, the often told story goes, artists and labels must seek new ways to pay the bills, if at all.
Recording studios, though frequently left out of this conversation, have also been impacted. This is the case for Philadelphia studios, which have learned to adapt to the new economic environment by doing more with less, and, in one instance, initiating a plan to foster the sustainability of up-and-coming artists who lack resources.
“Running a studio's just like being a band,” says Tommy Joyner, the co-founder of MilkBoy, the local recording studio and live music venues. “You're always struggling to get noticed, and to find reliable income streams. We spent years waiting for the phone to ring, and grew accustomed to living from job to job.”
A Legacy Continued
In 1994, MilkBoy opened its first studio in North Philadelphia, but relocated to Ardmore 10 years later, where it expanded into a coffee shop and venue. With his partner Jamie Lokoff, last summer Joyner opened a new MilkBoy venue in Center City
that acts as a scene-building incubator for local and national touring bands. And MilkBoy once again expanded at the beginning of this year, when they took over the studio founded by cellist, producer and arranger Larry Gold, modestly named The Studio.
Gold was a member of Gamble & Huff's house band, MFSB, which helped craft “The Sound Of Philadelphia” heard on nearly all of the Philadelphia International releases (many of which were recorded at Philadelphia's legendary Sigma Sound Studios). Walking through The Studio's lobby, where platinum and gold records by Boyz II Men, Usher, The Roots, Justin Timberlake, Jill Scott and Mariah Carey adorn the walls, is like taking a tour through pop music history.
Under the management of MilkBoy, The Studio's recent projects have included songs and albums by R. Kelly, Young Jeezy, and Marsha Abrosius, as well as local acts like Dr. Dog, The Fleeting Ends, Tone Trump and Chill Moody.
“We're really happy to be carrying on this legacy,” says Lokoff. “Our rate is the highest in the city because of the equipment, talent and reputation we have, but we make exceptions for local artists. It's still possible to get into the studio without much bread, and make a career-changing recording.”
Incredible Shrinking Budgets
One of Philadelphia's scrappier studios is Uniform Recording
. Currently located just north of 13th & Spring Garden, Uniform has been based in the city since the early 2000s. Two of the bands that have recently put Philadelphia on the map, Kurt Vile & The Violators and The War On Drugs, have both recorded here. With a few exceptions, Uniform's client list includes mostly local bands with small budgets, such as Purling Hiss, Ape School and Lantern.
Like many in the industry, studio founder Jeff Zeigler has observed how musicians' budgets shrink each year. This has a lot to do with dwindling album sales, which is the unfortunate consequence of mp3s and illegal filesharing. But these technology shifts, says Zeigler, have actually provided him more clients than before. Most bands prefer to record with him in person, but he now works remotely with many artists who have recorded tracks elsewhere, and then send them to Uniform for final edits.
“I'm working with musicians from all over the world now,” he says. “If you told me this 10 years ago, I'd think it was insane. That's the reality of the situation now, and this has strangely given me more work than I previously had.”
Many local studios, like the Batcave Studio
located near 3rd and Callowhill Street, work primarily with artists who pay for studio time out of their own pockets.
“They're all hardworking, with honest day jobs,” says Batcave founder and producer RuggedNess about his clients. “Most of them are artists ignored by the mainstream music world who come in and pay to record with their own paychecks.”
RuggedNess, who was half of the local rap duo RuggedNess Madd Drama that released a few superb singles in the early 1990s, used to record Philadelphia rappers like Beanie Sigel, Freeway and Eve in his basement before Batcave started. Since opening its doors in 2006, Batcave has worked with Young Chris, "We don't have the same amount of equipment as a bigger studio, but we can do things that can't be done in a home studio, and we're willing to work with artists who don't have big budgets."
- Jonathan Low
Miner Street RecordingsKeith Murray, Gillie Da Kid, Kurupt and many others.
The biggest star RuggedNess has worked with recently is Meek Mill, the North Philadelphia rapper who linked up with Maybach Music Group mogul Rick Ross last year. RuggedNess has worked on almost all of Mill's recordings, including the now-classic Flamerz 2 mixtape, and his recent breakthrough releases, Dreamchasers I and Dreamchasers II.
“I've been here since the old days, with RAM Squad, The Bum Rush and 100X,” he says. “And I'm one of the last people left able to stand here and be a critical part of the younger generation. It's great that I've been able to work with Meek and see him rise up to where he is today.”
The Fishtown-based Miner Street Recordings
is a medium-sized studio that has recorded albums with Marissa Nadler, Meg Baird, Sharon Van Etten and Kurt Vile.
“Miner Street's still thriving,” says engineer Jonathan Low, 25, who has worked there ever since his undergraduate days at Drexel University's Music Industry program
. “We don't have the same amount of equipment as a bigger studio, but we can do things that can't be done in a home studio, and we're willing to work with artists who don't have big budgets. The collaboration factor between the artist and the engineer is really important for us, and we focus on building those relationships.”
Like many in the industry, Brian McTear, the co-founder of Miner Street, has witnessed firsthand how bands' recording and promotions resources have vanished over the years. So he started a non-profit called Weathervane Music
to specifically address the problem. The idea is to bring a lesser known, but talented band to Miner Street so they can professionally record a new song, and to create a short documentary film about the process. The series, Shaking Through, is co-produced with WXPN radio and has showcased many local bands like Creepoid, Purling Hiss and Reading Rainbow.
“Weathervane helps make bands sustainable,” says Low, who also engineers for the Shaking Through series. “That's one of the things that's currently lacking in the music industry, because labels can no longer provide what they used to. What we hope to create is a support system for bands and artists so that they can launch their careers and continue to be creative.”
ELLIOTT SHARP is a freelance music writer living in West Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @Elliott Sharp. Send feedback here.
All photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO