New Challenges; New Business Models For Music Recording Professionals

When audio producers, engineers, studio owners, and musicians gather on November 3rd in Seattle for the Recording Academy’s 13th Annual Pacific Northwest Studio Summit, one of the topics they’ll explore is how to make money in an industry that’s experienced a dramatic decline in revenue over the past 14 years.

Advances in digital technology that allowed consumers to download and  stream music for free, or to buy single digital tracks instead of entire physical CD’s, combined with the record industry’s slow response to adapting to the digital revolution, spurred massive losses in revenue from recorded music since the late ‘90s.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) US music industry revenue has dropped 53 percent since 1999 when it stood at $14.6 billion, to only $7.0 billion in 2011.

On a more positive note; digital music sales surpassed physical formats sales for the first time in 2011. But illegal downloads–online piracy–is still a growing problem that is cutting into record label profits worldwide, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. (IFPI)

The worldwide decline in music industry revenue has resulted in the layoff of thousands of employees at related businesses such as record labels,  and music retailers including Tower Records, and Sam Goody, over the past decade.

In addition, the widespread availability of relatively low-cost, high-quality digital audio production software such as Avid Pro-Tools has made it easy for musicians to record their own music at home, instead of at professional recording studios.

These factors, along with an weak economy still reeling from the effects of the 2008 recession, have made it increasingly difficult to make a living as a recording professional, according to experts such as famed Audio Producer/Engineer Steve Albini, who spoke at the Recording Academy’s first Pacific Northwest Studio Summit back in 2000.

Even though Albini has produced and recorded albums for some of the best known bands in the world, including Nirvana, The Stooges, The Pixies, The Ramones, and The Velvet Underground; he said he had to lower prices, and keep his Chicago recording studio running round the clock to make a profit.

Now fast-forward to the present,and business conditions are even more challenging, according to Seattle Producer/Engineer Glenn Lorbecki.

He says there are fewer professional recording studios in major US cities today than there were back in 2000, and record labels have almost completely eliminated the practice of giving artists advances on record sales to cover the cost of recording. Today, he says, labels expect artists to hand them a finished master recording, before they will help market the music.

As a result, Lorbecki, who has produced and recorded projects for well-known artists including the Dave Mathews Band, Goo Goo Dolls, Weezer, Green Day, and Kelly Clarkson, says the key to making money today as a recording professional, is building relationships through networking and collaboration.

“It’s probably more important now than ever that recording studios forge alliances with musicians and bands”, he says.

“Even though a band may have its own recording setup, they still at some point are going to need a big room to record drums in, if they are a rock band. And at some point, they’re probably going to want to consult a professional mix engineer to get the best possible sounds out of their tracks. Once their tracks are mixed; they’re probably also going to want to consult professional mastering engineer to prepare that product for distribution,” he says.

Noting that even though most musicians are now using audio production software such as Pro-Tools in their own home recording studios; sometimes they still need help from a recording professional.

“Those things are not yet baked into the software. Know-how and experience are not plug-ins,” he says. “You can show musicians that you understand what they’re trying to get. You can save them money by doing in eight hours with it would take them twenty-five hours to do in their own home studio.”

Networking with other musicians both in person and via social media is also good for business. Lorbecki, who is the national Secretary-Treasurer of the Recording Academy’s Board of Trustees, says the organization is a gathering place for all people involved in the industry.

“What a great way to expand your network; to go to a meeting where there are people who are doing interesting new work who need help; who need an engineer, a mastering engineer, or producer.”

Even if you don’t live in a city where there is a Recording Academy chapter, he sats “Any time you can either go to an educational event, an industry panel or discussion, or even a social networking night out; I think that’s a great way to expand your network. Using Facebook, and using Twitter, are also great ways to kind of let it be known what you’re doing and invite people to be a part of your creative circle.”

In order to continue to prosper in a challenging economy, Lorbecki has also changed the way he does business, and expanded into other areas where his expertise can pay off.

For example, when  faced with a drastic rent increase on his spacious Seattle recording studio last year, he chose to shut it down, and operate his business as a “virtual production company”. Now, instead of producing projects in his own studio; he uses other studios in the area, choosing the one is right for each project.

Besides freeing him from having to operate an increasingly expensive facility; it has had the side benefit of making him a whole lot more popular with other studio owners. “Instead of being competition; now I’m everybody’s buddy,” he laughs.

Lorbecki is also an author and instructor. His most recent book, “Power Tools for Pro Tools 10” was just published a few weeks ago. He’s been teaching classes in audio production at the University of Washington for the past 20 years, and plans to launch his own educational program next year.

Earlier this year, he worked as the Music Supervisor for a PBS television special on the 50th anniversary of the World’s Fair in Seattle. “We composed some of the music for the soundtrack, found some other artists music to use, and did the final mix,” he says.

In closing, I asked Lorbecki if he could pass along just one recording tip; what would it be?

“If you don’t have a great song; it doesn’t matter how great the recording is–it’s not going to be what you wanted to be. First, have a great song, then have a great performance, then record it really well.” Once you have that, Lorbecki says, “you’ll have something you can shout about.”

If you’d like to learn more about how to succeed as a audio producer, engineer, or studio owner, and you live in the Seattle area; attend the Recording Academy’s 2012 Studio Summit on November 3rd at the Experience Music Project (EMP). It’s free for Academy members, and $100 for non-members. Click here for more information.

If you cant’ attend the event, but want to learn more about the Recording Academy, click here.

You can also learn more about Glenn Lorbecki, by visiting his website, and checking out his series of Pro Tools instructional guides.


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