Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Lessons from Kitchen Nightmares

I don't watch a lot of television and shockingly, I don't have cable at home. I see what I need to with a Netflix subscription and a digital converter box at home. However, I do see snippets of programming in passing at the studio where we have 200+ channels of DirecTV. One show that has captured my attention is Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (the UK version) that is shown on the BBC America channel. The appeal of the show to me is how Gordon Ramsay, a successful restaurateur and chef, forcefully points out some of the basic principles of business management that is critically lacking in failing restaurants he visits.

Watching how restaurants are run, even as small as a two-person operation, you can see a microcosm of all the things a business has to deal with and do well. The show offers insights on leadership, teamwork, delegation, communications, streamlined operations, quality control, customer service, market research, product mix, differentiation, marketing, promotion, entrepreneurial spirit, change management...etc. The resistance to change that Gordon encounters, even when the restaurant is on the brink of bankruptcy, is fascinating to watch. If a small, handful of people dig their heels in and refuse to change their ways even when they are about to lose their livelihood, imagine what a large corporation has deal with when management wants to enact change in strategy, organization, mind set, ...etc., especially if the employees are too comfortable. I can attest to how difficult that can be having personally witnessed it working at Sony for many years.

There are plenty of lessons here that are valuable and should spur you to take a closer look at how you are running your own studio. Making changes against status quo is always a challenge, especially if you have been doing things a certain way for a while. If this economy does not force you to review everything about your business, the large scale changes occurring in the music industry will certainly test your business acumen, adaptability and resolve in running any kind of recording studio today. The small tweaks suggested in Ramsay's show may not be enough to weather large tidal changes. It makes you wish for a show called "Studio Nightmares" except I think we are operating under conditions much tougher than what restaurants are facing. It might be time to think outside the box of the box.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Herd Mentality and Other Musings

It never fails. One week, the studio can be slow, even dead, and the following week everybody is clamoring to get into the studio all at the same time on the same day. Is there a conspiracy or some secret pact between those who want to record? Or is it some form of weird competition where everybody waits until one artist decides to record and then all follow suit trying to out-muscle each other? I don't think it is just us. From our conversations with producers, engineers, instrument techs, rental companies, even other studios, that is how it seems to work. If one artist broke ranks from the pack and decided to record one week earlier or one week later, they would have the pick of the rooms and get a great deal to boot. Are you listening out there?

Being someone who won't believe an anecdotal statement without supporting data to back it up, I decided to go back and take a look at monthly bookings from the past six years to see if there really is some sort of trend or seasonality to when people prefer to record. Actually, I get asked the question often whether there is a pattern to recording activity. My usual response is that every year is different, and it is. Each year, there are different circumstances in terms of what is happening around the world, how the economy is, what is happening in the music industry, down to what individual bands are doing. The result of my simple analysis is indicative of our experience and our experience only. From a studio standpoint, it is a sample size of one - not something I can say is statistically significant.

At a very macro level, conventional wisdom says that in general, most artists want to finish recording before summer so they have something to sell when they go out on tour. Post-July summer and the months sandwiching the year-end holiday season were considered to be slow times. The data seemed to support the existence of a pre-summer bump over 80% of the time with May and June being the best months of the year - that is up until 2007. Since then, we have seen a completely different recording behavior with peaks occurring in February for the last two years. The rules have seemed to gone out the window. It is hard to explain why since there are too many factors that could play into this. As a business owner, especially in a downturn, you need to be able to forecast and take corrective action as quickly as possible, but it has been hard to predict what will happen this year or the next. I am already seeing that this year is even more different, but then this year has not been like any other year in terms of the state of economy. What made the herd change it's mind?

*****

In the last post, I mentioned that almost 80,000 new releases came out in 2007. It takes time and effort to put together and finish an album, which is no small task. Regardless of how many units each release sold, the good news is that there were 80,000 artists who were resourceful and driven enough to produce their albums.

I was talking to a well respected producer, who was telling me that he has been inundated with more projects recently. The reason was that people who had been let go recently by major record labels have approached him with their own projects. These people - lawyers, A&R, publishing and promotions people - were now applying their trade and lending their expertise to help expose artists. Music people are pretty passionate - that is why they got into it in the first place, but they have to eat as well.

As soon as we see the light at the end of this recessionary tunnel and the credit market loosen up a bit, we should see funds become more readily available to these independent projects. We might even see more recording activity. There does not seem to be any shortage of people wanting to record. With talent to attract investors and funding to allow more options for production, we may see more artists needing help from experts. That is reason to be optimistic. I guess that is enough crystal-balling for now. Got to get back to work...