This story first appeared in Trust Me, I’m a Scientist, January 7th, 2013.
I’ve visited, worked at, and written about a lot of recording studios over the years and there seems to be no standard answer to this question. But today, I wanted to see if I could find one.
While I was at it, I also wanted to crunch the numbers to see if we could figure out how much studios should charge based on current market conditions. That’s probably the second most popular question I get from new studio owners.
Should We Print Our Rates?
I’m of two minds about this question. My own preference as a consumer of studio time is “yes”—with a few “buts”.
When I’m shopping around for a new space to bring a client to, I do like to see rates printed on websites because it makes it even easier for me to narrow things down when I’m helping a client create a potential budget for a project.
Seeing a published rate also tells me that the studio owners have come to respect themselves and value what they have to offer. It says: “We know what we’re worth, and we know we can get it.” To me, that’s a good sign. It also telegraphs “We’re open for business. This is not a part-time clubhouse.”
At least, these are the thoughts that go through my head when it comes to fairly average, mid-priced studios that are open to bookings from the public at large. I know that no studio likes to think of itself as “fairly average”, but let’s face it: Most are. That’s just math.
In cases when I see no rates published on a website, it usually strikes me as meaning one of two things:
A) If I haven’t heard much buzz about the studio, I am led to imagine that the owners are instead thinking “OhEmGee, I sure hope we can get some clients!!! I wonder what they’ll be willing to pay!!”
B) On the other hand, if I have heard a lot of buzz about the space, I’m inclined to imagine that the unlisted price will be a bit on the high side of things. That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it’s a good rule of thumb.
At least, those are my gut instincts, formed over a decade of working in studios for money. But are they right?
What are the norms?
To try and answer this question, we narrowed things down to take a closer look at all the recording rooms that have appeared in my Brooklyn Studio Tour series on SonicScoop.
I understand that Brooklyn is not representative of the entire world, but it is among the most varied and cosmopolitan places on planet earth. We may have developed an unfortunate reputation for being a bunch of homogenized plaid-wearers, but the truth is you’re likely to find more people here working on more genres of music, and at more divergent price points than perhaps anywhere else in the world.
Thanks to this, the studios in this series offer a good sample size of some of the best and busiest recording rooms across a multitude of price points and musical styles. And isolating this list to a single geographic area to serves to create a stable point of comparison for other locations.
So what did we find? Out of the 29 studios in the series so far, 16 of them had publicly printed rates—a total of 55%.
At first glance, that might seem about as random as a coin flip. But if you look a bit closer, interesting trends emerge. Here’s the most notable one:
With few exceptions, the rates at the 13 studios that didn’t print their prices tended to be more expensive than the median, and the rates at the 16 studios that did print their rates tended to be more affordable than the median. That pretty much confirmed my hunch.
There were other related trends as well:
1. The studios that did not publish their rates tended to have client lists with more names that would be widely recognized by the average music fan.
2. The rooms with listed (and usually lower) rates had less wiggle room and did more short-term bookings of a few days at a time, and the ones with the unlisted (and usually higher) rates sometimes had a bit more pricing flexibility and did more long-term bookings, sometimes a few weeks at a time.
3. The studios with published rates tended to be owned and staffed by younger engineers. The average owner’s age at the studios with printed rates was easily under 40, and at studios with unprinted rates it was easily over 40. Whether this is due to generational preferences regarding transparency, or to economic factors, is up for debate. The real answer is probably “a bit of both.”
4. Although both groups worked on a large volume of self-financed productions, the studios with unprinted rates tended to do a higher percentage of work that was backed by labels, film studios, and other media firms.
What do they mean?
It makes a lot of sense: If your primary asset is affordability, lead with it. If your primary asset is track record, lead with that instead. And if your primary asset is gear, then I’m sorry, but you are screwed. I have never, ever, been in a truly busy recording studio where the primary asset was gear. Ever.
At any rate, people who are more interested in the face value of their dollar will look at price tags first, and shop based on those numbers and their current resources. Meanwhile, people who are interested in adding value to their project will look at past work first, and then figure out how much things cost and how to come up with the resources.
Both these options are equally valid for different people with different goals. If you want to build volume and clientele, then printing an attractive rate can be a great benefit. If the volume of business is already there, and you’re most interested in preserving reputation and perception of value, then forgoing the public rate card is a pretty common option.
But choose wisely. Because pretending to be in one camp when you’re really in the other will only work against you.
What we can’t judge
There was one factor however, that seemed to have little correlation to price or whether it was listed: busyness.
Part of that might have something to do with bias: For my articles, I tried to focus only on spaces that were known to be doing a healthy business and working on some interesting records. I’m proud to say that not a single one of them has gone out of business in the three years that I’ve been adding entries to it. Some of them have even upgraded, or expanded, or increased their rates.
But I’ll also admit that I was slightly more likely to include a particularly breathtaking or historic studio in the tour, even if it was a little less busy than the average for the series. Because of that bias, the “busyness” factor in this sample of studios may have tilted ever-so-slightly in the favor of the studios that had publicly listed their rates and therefore fell onto the more affordable side of the spectrum. But I wouldn’t read into that too far.