L.A. Grapevine

May 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Maureen Droney


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Record business bloodletting continues, and with it the collateral damage to the recording industry. But as you've probably noticed, rising from the ashes is a lot of pretty interesting stuff. Investors are looking toward the future, and even The Wall Street Journal has reported that aspects of the music industry are looking viable. This month, I checked in with three of Los Angeles' most respected and knowledgeable studio operators to find that not only are they coping, they're thinking that 2004 is off to a pretty good start. “Cautiously optimistic” is the phrase that probably best describes the feedback I got from studio owners Kevin Mills of Larrabee, Allen Sides of Ocean Way Recording and Jeff Greenberg, president of The Village.

Known as a master dealmaker, Sides combines a canny business sense and survivor's instinct with a pair of golden ears. That's a combination that's kept him in the business for more than 25 years and makes his opinions always worth listening to.

In 1999, Sides downsized his studio holdings by selling off the 6000 Sunset portion of Ocean Way (three main rooms, which had been part of Bill Putnam's original United Western studios) for a very nice price. Now, he operates a total of six rooms: four at Ocean Way in Hollywood and two at Record One in Sherman Oaks. Sides' other companies include Classic Equipment Rentals, Ocean Way to Go (a rental service that provides full, long- or short-term studios tailored to individual clients' needs) and Ocean Way Sales, which outfits installations with equipment packages and wiring. And, of course, Sides is also a busy engineer who in the past few months has worked with such diverse artists as Polyphonic Spree and Burt Bacharach.

His take? “I would say that things are looking up. We've been through a period — to some degree we're still going through it — where there were so many changes in label staffing that it was difficult for anyone to make a decision. I'm sorry for people who've lost their jobs, but you have to think that reducing the size of the companies as much as they've done is ultimately a plus. The amount of records being made had been cut by a huge percentage from what it was three or four years ago. Consequently, the companies, which were relying in a large part on catalog, along with a minimal amount of new artists, were overstaffed.

“Now, if you look at what Interscope has done with A&M and Dreamworks, and Warner with its consolidated labels, there are various divisions with one central organization that handles overlapping areas. Previously, they were set up with a duplication of services that was very costly. The companies are becoming profitable again, and they're doing it with smaller sales.”

Sides also points out the impact of anti-piracy measures. “It's true that getting people to stop downloading for free is virtually impossible,” he admits. “But with the lawsuits and the film companies — who have much deeper pockets than the record business — jumping on the bandwagon, the uploaders are thinking twice about putting material up for others to download. There's no gain for them, so why should they put themselves at risk? All of the countermeasures are starting to have some effect.

“I have to say that for the last few months, business has been very good at Ocean Way. If things turn around, record companies are now positioned to produce as much, or more, revenue than they did in the past with much lower overhead. Of course, they're taking advantage of the situation now with studios. It's been so hard for so long that they were able to make ridiculous deals. Let's face it, a lot of studios were basically giving away time. We've always been a bit of the exception to that, but it has made it more of a struggle.”

Mills agrees that 2004 is off to a positive start. For several years as one of the most successful Los Angeles studio owners in terms of the number of facilities and rooms, Mills has also positioned himself to deal with downturn economics. Just recently, he made a real estate play, opting to sell the building on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood that housed, for more than 30 years, the two original Larrabee Studios.

“Now that the reconstruction of Santa Monica Boulevard is complete and with real estate values way up, I wanted to diversify my assets,” he comments. “Obviously, not entirely — I still have five rooms and the rental company [Gearworks]. It's no secret that 2003, especially the end of the year, was very slow. But this year since January, we've been running five to seven rooms. Clients who were slow are all getting projects and working now. It seems to be true a lot in town. I can see it on the rental company side.

“We've been having very good months, and we've done some big albums: a lot of the OutKast record, Alicia Keys, Usher, J-Kwon. I think pop and R&B [records] are doing quite well. I do notice that rock projects seem to have lower budgets, unless it's a really big artist. We do both, but we've always been strong in pop and R&B and that's helped us. The vintage Neve consoles at East [Larrabee North is all SSL] also help us with diversification, as, obviously, does the rental company.

“But I've also restructured the company so that our expense level is much less than it used to be,” Mills continues. “I've sold some equipment, paid off some debt and refinanced other debt. I reorganized the way the company is run in terms of techs and runners. We're more streamlined now so that if things get a little slow, we don't get killed. It's a different dynamic; there's not quite as much pressure.

“So for the moment, things look good. I don't expect business will return to where it was a few years ago because of home studios, Pro Tools and a lot of other issues. But that doesn't mean one can't make a moderate living in this business. That's what I intend to keep doing. I enjoy the business, and as long as I can make some money in it, I will stay in it.”

Meanwhile on the West side, The Village, according to Greenberg, also had a strong opening for 2004. Greenberg, whose background is as an agent and promoter, is known for using those skills with great effectiveness to generate and maximize business in a wide range of areas, from pop, rock and R&B records to film scoring and advertising. Location helps: The Village is situated in an area where many entertainers live, close to major film studios and the Santa Monica media district. It also helps that the complex has numerous small suites that can be rented out to musicians and composers. But the sum is more than the parts: The Village just plain has a buzz.

“There are two different mindsets in this business right now,” Greenberg states. “The minute you cross the line into desperation and cynicism, you lose your attraction for those who might want to work with you. People are attracted to positive and creative energy. That's what we work on having here. We've got some of the greatest artists around in residence: Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Robbie Robertson, Keb' Mo'. It's very private for them if they want it that way, but on the other hand, we've got a community of people who bump into each other in the hall and sometimes end up playing on each other's records. It's a creative and economical alternative, the antithesis to the isolation of working at home alone.”

The Village has recently invested in a complete renovation of Studio A, its vintage Neve room, adding new wiring and an upgrade to the 8048 console. The Pro Tools network has also been upgraded to HD Accel. “I think part of the reason we're doing well,” Greenberg suggests, “is that we were one of the first studios to jump in and embrace Pro Tools. We got in early, and we have a great relationship with, and great support from, Digidesign.

“Another thing we do is get involved in the music community. We honestly feel it's our mission to actively seek out ways to counter all the negativity and gloom and doom. We sponsor music events, like South by Southwest, and I'm the president of SPARS because I think it's important. Our current advertisement says it best: ‘Music Lives.’ Some studio owners are saying record companies don't want to work with studios. In my opinion, record companies want to work where they get good results, where their artists are happy and where what they hear is exciting.”

In conclusion, Greenberg points out something many have forgotten: “Using a good studio is a great investment. For a label, it may actually be one of the best investments on the planet! Think of what they get for their dollar: a completely together, technically buttoned-up environment, where nonproductive down time is very rare. Thanks to our founder, Geordie Hormel, who has always believed in the marriage of art and technology, we've got the plug-ins and the original gear, as well as the live echo chambers, the mics and the tech support. As a matter of fact, we have a lot of producers and artists working here who've come back out of their houses!”

Got L.A. news? E-mail MaureenDroney@aol.com.

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