There's more to transitioning from personal to project studio than just opening the doors and collecting the cash. Embarking down this road means setting up and operating a small business, which involves research, planning, and answering a few tough questions. I'm going to touch on an assortment of possible issues to get you thinking in the right direction. From there, you will need to do more research and consider each issue carefully.
First, you have to decide what to sell. Are you going to record bands, songwriters, game audio, ringtones, radio commercials, or some combination? Next, examine your resources. What do you already have, and what do you need before you begin? Knowing how to engineer well is obviously important, but so are an adequate room, equipment, and entrepreneurial savvy.
When you apply for a business license, you must decide whether to file as a sole proprietorship, partnership, C or S corporation, or limited liability corporation (LLC). You may need to file a fictitious-name statement, or a “d/b/a” (doing business as), and secure a business tax ID from the federal government. You might also need a special sales tax ID. The Small Business Administration (www.sbaonline.sba.gov) offers free advice on all of those matters.
What to Charge
To determine your daily and hourly fee, consider what the studio's expenses and overhead (including your salary) are, and find out the going rate for similar studios in your area. Inexperienced studio owners/engineers should price themselves at 80 to 85 percent of the market rate, and then raise their rates as their skills grow. Experienced engineers can match the market rate or price their services somewhat higher.
It doesn't matter what you charge if you can't collect. Billing COD is the best policy. Ask for a deposit on larger projects. Some corporate clients may ask for 30 to 60 days before paying the bill. If that doesn't work for you, offer to bill half now and half in 30 days.
Open a business account at your bank so that you can keep your studio and personal finances completely separate. Keep good records of your expenses so that you can deduct the maximum at tax time.
Equipping for Business
You do not need to have everything in place before opening your doors to the public. Start with the basics and grow with the business. Don't forget about necessary gear that's unrelated to music recording, such as a business telephone line, a fax machine, and voice mail. Design and order letterhead and consider purchasing software to help with scheduling, contact management, and bookkeeping.
It's increasingly important to have a clean, businesslike Web site that can serve as a primary information source for potential clients. Register a Web domain name for your studio; it's inexpensive and worthwhile. Use that domain name for business email and for the site URL.
Having a studio in your home comes with its own set of potential troubles. Do you really want strangers traipsing through your living room? Consider separating the studio from the living quarters, especially if there are others in the household. A separate entrance and bathroom are essential. Residential areas usually aren't zoned for business, and your local government probably has rules regulating home businesses. Contact your local county clerk's office for more information.
If you have the wherewithal and can get permits, you could construct a separate building for the studio. Alternatively, if a large garage can be spared, you can redesign its interior and build the studio there. The best solution, however, may be to rent a commercial space and build your studio somewhere other than in your home. That could solve many problems at once, although it will give you a bigger financial issue to deal with every month.
Don't neglect aesthetics and client comfort. Make sure you have sturdy furniture for equipment and comfortable chairs in the control room (assuming there is a separate control room). If you work with corporate clients, consider adding a desk, a phone, and a computer for clients to use.
A separate, comfortable lounge area with computer, TV, and even a few video games can speak volumes to some clients. Bands appreciate having a place to go while you and the drummer spend hours perfecting the kick drum.
Install a dependable security system and lock up supplies, microphones, and so on. Hiding what you do from those who don't need to know is another way to minimize problems. Leave the address off of literature, giving only your telephone number and email address, and give directions only to serious clients. (For more on security, see “Working Musician: Don't Get Ripped Off” in the February 2004 issue of EM.)
For the sake of your business, don't neglect your studio's acoustics when planning your transition to project-studio status. In the best-case scenario, the sound in your tracking room should enhance recordings, but at the very least, it shouldn't detract. Your control room shouldn't color a mix to the point that you can't make good mix decisions. If your mixes don't translate to the outside world, you're unlikely to get much repeat business.
Beyond getting the sound right inside your facility, you'll need to soundproof your studio so that inside sounds can't get out and the outside sounds can't get in (especially if you're in an urban or suburban environment with neighbors close by). If you have to stop your session every evening when the freight train passes or when the planes at the nearby airport take off and land, you won't stay in business long.
Put aside part of your gear budget toward acoustic treatments. Get your space analyzed by a qualified acoustician and go with the recommended treatments. It's probably going to be a steep initial investment, but it will pay off over the long term. Although you might think you can't afford to do it, the reality is that you can't afford not to.
As you should do in any studio, learn all you can about keeping your gear in top running order or hire a technician to do it for you. Institute a routine maintenance plan and fix any failures immediately. Clean and “zero out” your gear after every session. Avoid temperature and humidity extremes, and steer clear of disastrous spills by keeping food and drink in the lounge only.
When you're in a session, you don't have time to run to the store for supplies. Stock up on basics such as blank media, batteries, and guitar strings. It's prudent to have backups of important microphones, cables, adapters, and anything else that might help your session survive a breakdown.
If your studio is computer based, file all software updates in case you need to reinstall them. Take notes about all of your special tweaks to keep your computer system fine-tuned. Power conditioners and a UPS are essential investments.
Design a backup procedure for all of your session files, and execute it religiously. The last thing you need is a hard-drive failure to wipe out a critical recording. Use established backup software and reliable backup drives. Consider saving incremental copies of session data so that you can go back to a previous version in case the latest file becomes corrupted.
Work out an archiving strategy in the event your clients want you to maintain copies of their session files and mixes after the project is over. Consider charging for that service.
Promoting your studio is crucial because without a steady stream of customers, all the work that you put into the studio is pointless. Prepare a flyer or a simple brochure and distribute it to music stores, clubs, colleges and universities, and anywhere else potential clients hang out. Approach corporate marketing departments, ad agencies, video production companies, and local radio, TV, and cable stations and pitch your services to them.
Nurture your word-of-mouth by asking for referrals and rewarding those who send business your way. Become friendly with the workers at local music stores. They can be a good source for referrals. Sponsor a contest, such as a battle of the bands, and give away studio time to the winners. Follow up with all the “losers” to generate more business.
The recording business is a tough way to make a living, but it can be done. If you are serious about taking your studio pro, start by making a realistic business plan. Make sure you have all the bases covered and that when all is said and done, you have a clear path to profitability. Otherwise, you're courting financial disaster. If you plan ahead and put good business practices into place, you will be ready to make your dream come true.
Jeffrey Fisher has written six music and sound books, including Profiting from Your Music and Sound Project Studio (Allworth Press, 2001). Get more help from his Web site atwww.jeffreypfisher.com.
TEN TIPS FOR GOING PRO
- Decide in advance what the focus of your studio business will be.
- Determine your rates based on your experience and on the marketin your area.
- Establish a billing policy that you can live with.
- Keep accurate and complete financial records.
- Make sure you have such necessities as a business line, voice mail, and letterhead.
- Set up a Web site to promote your studio.
- Make sure your studio is comfortably furnished. If possible, provide a lounge area where musicians can hang out during downtime.
- Take security precautions and consider installing an alarm system.
- Make sure your studio's acoustics have been sufficiently treated before opening your doors for business
- Promote your studio consistently and creatively.