Music Studios, Already Struggling, Adapt as Pandemic Shifts the Industry

The recording business was already tough in San Francisco before the pandemic. Patrick Brown (far left), owner of Different Fur Studios, is strategizing for how his business can sustain during shelter in place by offering discounted rates and upgrading livestreaming capabilities.  (Kristina Bakrevski)

Hyde Street Studios is a living piece of San Francisco music history. Opened in 1969, this is where the Grateful Dead and Santana crafted oozing, Summer-of-Love psychedelia that became synonymous with hippie counterculture. In the ’80s and ’90s, it nurtured local punk and hip-hop scenes, with Green Day, the Dead Kennedys and Tupac laying down tracks. And more recently, it’s hosted famous touring musicians looking to record on their Bay Area tour stops, including Kanye West and A$AP Ferg.

But despite an impressive resumé, a changing music industry—and then a pandemic—left Hyde Street strapped for cash. Prior to the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place orders, most of its high profile clientele had dwindled, and the bulk of its business came from rising (yet financially struggling) local artists who paid for their recordings out-of-pocket rather than through label advances. Now, its rooms have been without music for the first time in five decades.

“In the ’90s there were record labels with headquarters in San Francisco that were signing bands left and right and giving them big budgets to make records,” says studio manager Jack Kertzman, adding that rates for studios have stagnated since the digital era began. “They would come in and book the studio for two weeks or a month .... and have large expense accounts.”

Kanye West with Hyde Street Studios engineer Will Chasen in a recording studio with a mixing console.
Kanye West with Hyde Street Studios engineer Will Chasen. (Hyde Street Studios.)

Not the case anymore, says Kertzman, adding that bands often book rooms for a couple of days at a time and take care of the rest with home recording. With business dried up and bills still mounting during shelter in place, Hyde Street turned to crowdfunding for support. An ongoing GoFundMe campaign raised just north of $32,000. That’s about $10,000 short of the studio’s $42,500 goal, which would cover rent, electricity and other operational costs for three months.

But Kertzman is nervous about what will happen after that. With Governor Gavin Newsom suggesting that large gatherings of hundreds of people are off until there’s a COVID-19 vaccine, it seems that California’s concert industry is on hiatus for the foreseeable future. (Public health officials and vaccine companies estimate that a vaccine won’t be ready until mid-to-late 2021.)

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That means bigger touring artists won’t be stopping off to record at Hyde Street while they’re in San Francisco. Many smaller local bands, who typically make most of their income from hitting the road, won’t have the funds to do so either. The service industry, a major employer of musicians, will also take time to recover, as restaurants will operate at partial capacity when they resume dine-in service. The entire local music ecosystem will be disrupted for years to come.

Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, Phil Lesh and Graham Nash at Hyde Street Studios in 1970. (Hyde Street Studios)

An added challenge for studios is ineligibility for relief programs. Most of them don’t technically have employees—all of their engineers are freelancers—so they aren’t eligible for the Small Business Administration’s payroll protection loans or local relief efforts.

With the new rise in livestreamed performances, Hyde Street and other studios are looking for ways to keep their businesses relevant. “I’m expecting to see a lasting impact much, much beyond when the shelter in place lifts, for our business and our industry,” says Kertzman. “I think we’re going to see more artists wanting to livestream, so we’re going to try to pivot in that way and offer those services. And I think we’re going to see less people having the money to do records.”

Patrick Brown of Different Fur Studios, open since 1968, is in a similar situation. In addition to selling pre-booked studio sessions at half price for when shelter in place lifts, he’s thinking about other services he can provide as the music industry inevitably changes shape. He’s looking into upgrading video equipment so that bands can record high quality livestreams, which he believes will be here to stay after the pandemic.

“Everybody’s been watching these Verzuz battles, I love that,” he says of the popular music producer showdowns on Instagram Live that have featured stars like Swizz Beats, Lil Jon and Teddy Riley playing their most memorable songs out of their homes. “Some of these guys should be doing this already. It’s sparked so many people to go back and listen to records that they loved. I watched the Lil Jon and T-Pain one. You watch them and you can see that the two of them have fun and you can see how much they love the music they’re making. ... You get to hear weird stories. That aspect is something people want now.”

“Nobody wants the distant artist—they want to know who you are,” Brown continues. “There’s a closeness and an insight that people crave that you used to have to watch the VH1 Behind the Music docs for.”

Different Fur Studios is home to Text Me Records, which features local artists like Mikos Da Gawd, Michael Sneed and WADE08 (left to right). (Erin Conger)

So far, most artist livestreams on Instagram and other platforms have been free, even when they’ve featured major stars. But Brown says that this could quickly change with brand sponsorships and paywalls, especially if watching livestreams becomes a permanent part of music consumers’ habits. “Once [the pandemic] actually clears it will be interesting if people will be addicted to it,” he says.

And in terms of alternative survival strategies, other studios are looking toward revenue streams outside the music realm. 25th Street Recording in Oakland, open since 2011, is known for being able to accommodate large ensembles, but was already moving away from this model years before the pandemic. With the Bay Area’s music scene suffering from the region’s ongoing affordability crisis, 25th Street has incorporated podcast, voiceover and advertising clients into its portfolio to make its business model more sustainable—a move Different Fur has also made.

“We’ve seen affects of that through attrition. We’ve got big studios, famous places like Fantasy Studios—there’s a lot of places that have gone away and a lot of studio owners are scratching their heads and throwing their hands up and going, ‘Gosh, how do I make ends meet here?’” says John Schimpf, the general manager of 25th Street, referencing the popular, historic Berkeley studio that shuttered in 2018 due to financial struggles.

Especially now with the pandemic, there are even more unknowns for creative industries in the Bay Area. But studio operators remain hopeful that with creative thinking and a willingness to adapt, they’ll continue to survive and perhaps eventually thrive once again.

“The recording industry isn’t especially lucrative, the margins are not amazing,” says Hyde Street’s Kertzman. “Those of us who are in it are in it because it’s a labor of love.”

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