Debate: To Rent or To Own

A former employer once asked me, “Why on earth would you want your own toys when you can play with someone else’s for free?” Before following up with the sternest warning I’ve ever encountered: “Make sure you don’t get G.A.S.”
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No, he wasn’t talking about collecting G.I. Joes or eating Mexican food; he was referring to owning a studio instead of renting one for your clients and commenting on the dangers of catching G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) if you decide to go with the former plan of action. And even though my goal at that point in time was to build the hugest studio possible for myself — and his claim seemed like little more than seasoned-pro complaining — I look back now, as an engineer with a huge overhead, and realize that he just may have been speaking words of wisdom all along. I mean, it’s not as if owning a studio is necessary to work in the world of recording, and these days it can be quite a dangerous investment.

That said, there are some pretty obvious advantages to studio ownership. First, your potential profit is hypothetically greater; you’re not just charging for your services, but for the space utilized. Second, your potential workload is certainly higher, as you don’t have to bum around other people’s facilities day in and out as a freelancer. Third, having your own studio available at your every whim is just about the coolest thing in the world, and worth paying for out of the pocket.

But on that note, it’s a lot less rock and roll running a business than it is just showing up for sessions and hanging with artists — bookkeeping, financial planning, and marketing (should) have little to do with recording music. Plus, the sad fact of the matter is that recording studios are far from the first choice of investment for any entrepreneur with a half a brain (hint: That should be, could be, you). Owning a studio under the pretense of turning even a moderate profit is getting harder by the day, and your passion can soon turn into a pain when you’re forced to allow the local Dave Matthews cover band to book your spot for $50 an hour (including engineer) just to make ends meet.

I’ve seen the scenario play out plenty of times in the past: A talented engineer establishes a business around his/her reputation — opening a studio and hiring on employees simply to keep up with the demand. Unfortunately for this guy/gal, the more successful they become the less likely it is that they are actually going to be spending their time doing what they love: recording! Before long, they are overseeing studio maintenance, session schedules, and accepting or denying payroll advance requests. Trust me, it’s depressing.

This is where “playing with other peoples toys” starts to sound real good. I mean, as long as you don’t break anything you are largely without liabilities, and you’re free to focus solely on recordings without “business pressures.” Furthermore, working in various studios is a great way to be a life-learner, and thus a versatile engineer. If you get hired by an already established studio, that’s all the better as well: You won’t be out trudging the streets for work. And if you’re good enough, you won’t even need your own place — your clients will follow you . . . and doors will open for you everywhere, with hungry studio owners salivating for your business.

But being a producer/gypsy can get hard on the soul, especially when you need “just one more hour” and you’re being denied. When you’re working for someone else’s business or renting a space, you are at the mercy of the studio’s management, and there’s nothing quite like autonomy on a hot summer day. I can’t even count how many times, before I owned a studio, where I just needed a bit more time to finish my mix and was forced to tear everything down — only to spend four hours restoring it — due to the next booking beating on the doors.

But not all of us are in this to be businessmen; some of us just want to have a place to play, and we’ve worked hard to allow ourselves that luxury. So why shouldn’t we indulge, even if it may cost us? And who is to say that you can’t open a studio tomorrow and live off owning it these days? I see it all the time. As with all things, it depends not so much of what you do, but how you do it.

Nonetheless, it sure would be nice to go work a session at the Hit Factory right now. . . .