It has been fairly widely reported this week that EMI might sell the historic Abbey Road Studios.
Why might they do this?
[WARNING: THIS NEXT PARAGRAPH IS BORING]
Well, EMI was purchased by a private equity firm that borrowed a lot of money to buy the company, planning to quickly make it profitable and sell it on. That’s taking longer than expected, and the loan they negotiated before the credit crunch is proving rather harder to renegotiate than one might have expected two years ago. As a result, they’ve got to raise some cash to pay some interest. It’s an accounting thing that really doesn’t have that much to do with the long-term profitability of EMI, it’s boring, and I don’t want to talk about it.
What I want talk about is making records, because that’s fun. Now, a talentless hack might point to the potential sale of Abbey Road as another nail in the coffin of the recording industry. Plenty have – but I don’t think that really stands up to analysis.
When Abbey Road opened as a studio in 1931, the stuff you needed to make a record was big, heavy, incredibly expensive and difficult to use.
Over the years, a lot has changed about the way we make records, but until recently it still took big, heavy, expensive stuff to get it done. Home studio stuff always existed, but it was always difficult to make it sound good.
Over the last ten years or so, there has been a tremendous amount of development in portable digital recording equipment. It’s cheaper, smaller and easier to use than ever before. Today, it’s nice for a band to record their album on the 72-channel Neve console at Abbey Road’s studio one*, but it isn’t necessary. In about a week, I’m making a record with $5,000 worth of stuff. It fits in the back of a small car. People have won Grammys with the same gear, so if it sounds bad, that’ll be my fault.
What does this mean for Abbey Road? Will the studios close down? Probably not any time soon. There’s still plenty of work to be done in studios. Engineering a recording on location is relatively straightforward, but it’s still helpful to use a purpose-built studio for mixing and mastering. Orchestras might record their concerts at venues, but there’s still film soundtracks to make in the studio. Most importantly, Abbey Road has always been a forward-looking institution. There’s probably a business to be made turning the place into a museum, but that’s not their style. They’ll respond to the market and offer the services today’s recording companies need.
What does this mean for the record industry as a whole? Well, owning a big studio is no longer a core part of what a record company does, so EMI can afford to sell. They’re now a marketing company, and they need to focus on that to succeed. It’s cheaper to make records today than ever before. That means greater diversity. It means artists and not accountants are deciding what deserves to be recorded. That means more good records.
A drop in the cost of production and distribution means that vanity publishing is within the reach of the many, so there will be more bad recordings, too. That, in turn, means that we have more – and not less – work for the people that separate the wheat from the chaff. Let’s hope our music critics aren’t too busy predicting an imaginary apocalypse to seize the opportunity.
* you can get one used for $250k
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