Crowning glory10 October 2016
When John Merriman was 14-years-old he sat down and designed his own studio on a piece of paper. But it wasn’t until he survived a terrifying experience 10 years ago in his late twenties – that he finally realised his dream. Merriman was driving in his VW with wife Ruth during a major storm in the UK – and their car was swept into a river. While the car started to fill with murky, brown water, bizarrely Lily Allen was still playing on the radio and the warm air continued blowing. Eventually, the couple were forced to scramble onto the roof and Merriman dived into the water, but was immediately dragged under.
Ruth thought she would never see him again. Luckily, Merriman was able to make it to the riverbank and collect Ruth, who was not a confident swimmer, once the car hit a tree. Merriman says: “We were incredibly grateful and said ‘What is it we are meant to be doing with our lives as life is quite precious’, so we handed in our resignations at our jobs and started construction of the studio.”
Based in Morden in south London, Merriman and his wife, opened Crown Lane Studio, a complex with recording, rehearsing and edit rooms, nine years ago. The studio is ‘green’ and tries to reduce its environmental footprint as much as possible through a number of initiatives. Merriman says the music industry is known for not being very environmentally friendly, in particular with music festivals, and they wanted to change the situation. In 2013, they swapped their energy supplier to a small business that is based in Scotland, called LoCO2 Energy, which uses hydro electricity. LoCO2 have also sponsored a series of local music events, says Merriman, meaning a benefit for the whole community.
Also part of the ‘green’ studio is an energy meter, timed lighting, full insulation so that some areas aren’t even heated, while their policy is to check the energy rating of every company used. Recently, Crown Lane also became a recycling drop off point with Through a Dream Cymbals initiative, because even if old gear is cracked, the value of the metal is maintained, Merriman comments.
“All our products are chemical free, everything is either recycled or made from sustainable sources, and all our assets such as drum kits and electronics we try to buy from the UK. Our cables are made in the UK from one of the only manufacturers (called Canford) that still does it,” he says.
The studio’s custom built gear includes a Liberty drum kit and a console by John Oram, which includes a latching talkback button. A small feature maybe, but one which means staff don’t have to continuously hold down the button to use it, which Merriman says has revolutionised their lives. “It means we are all hands free and all mixing desks should have that. Other things is the desk is really compact, its got 48 channels built into it and the way its routed is we have got two different rooms that come in to use the same desk and we can wire two rooms, so the desk is half the physical size footprint it should be, so it’s cleverly designed.”
The studio also has Genelec 8040 monitors and Westlake audio monitors as well as microphones from Sontronics and SSL XLogic’s MADI-AX.
In 2015, Crown Lane went fully carbon neutral. Part of this has been piloting a scheme where orchards are planted on council wasteland by a local charity called Sustainable Merton, with the project funded by off-setting the carbon used by the studio, for things like fuel and transport costs.
“They can’t plant trees quick enough and the pilot is entering its second year, Once the second year of the pilot scheme is complete, Wimbledon Theatre – part of the Ambassador Group – will also be entering into the scheme, and we are hoping it will be taken up by all arts organisations across the borough, then across London,” Merriman says. “Within five years, these orchards will not only be fully owned by the communities, but they will be fully funded by the arts in the borough.” It also means that every music release and rehearsal from the studio is carbon neutral. And the studio is being recognised for its green credentials too. Crown Lane won the Best Green Business and Best Overall Business of the Year at the Merton Best Business Awards – the first time a business outside of Wimbledon has scooped it – and was runner up at the London Federation of Small Businesses Awards.
Merriman is passionate about the local area and is keen to put it on the map. He wants to compete alongside studios in central London, but he says the issue is complex, not just in terms of price, but because people want a quick turnaround and are not going to travel 30 minutes on the tube.
He recently joined the board of the Merton Chamber of Commerce and runs a group called Love Morden, a community of business owners, who want to make the area a place to go. “I’ve realised that if I’m going to locate myself out here, I have to endorse the area. People will go to Soho for voiceover, for creative endeavours to Camden, so Morden isn’t on the map … I also met (London Mayor) Sadiq Khan very recently to chat and he was very keen on supporting small arts ventures and music venues and he wants to make a borough of culture and invest in it … so I need to be involved in decisions and work out how to get Morden to be the first borough of culture,” he comments.
Part of putting Morden on the map was the studio introducing a user loyalty scheme, so if musicians rehearse, they get points towards using the recording facilities for a cheaper price, Merriman says. The launch of this scheme also coincided with a new look studio, which was refurbished in August, including implementing 47 suggestions requested by users. Merriman admits a lot of the changes were aesthetic, including things like geometric shapes on one wall, but this is part of a clever marketing strategy. “Instagram is overtaking most social media platforms and we were realising the way we promote the studio is through people seeing pictures of bands rehearsing. We had a studio that was functional but was ugly, now every angle and space has something quirky and something artistic,” he says.
But it’s not just the studio that is keeping the Merriman’s busy. The couple have an ethical cafe, called Tariro Coffee House, which is not only the daytime entry for the studio, but it also converts into a hidden music venue called the Secret Live Lounge in the evenings.
There is also their partnership with the charity Zimkids, which works with children in Zimbabwe whose parents have died of AIDS. It aims to make families self-sufficient, such as helping them to build beehives to sell honey or keep chickens for their eggs. Merriman says he has been going out to Zimbabwe for the last 10 years, but 2016 was the most exciting yet, as they helped to build a studio.
“The teenagers are able to learn skills in recording, creating music, using music, photography and with everything getting smaller and cheaper we can do things that even five years ago were impossible,” he explains. “So we can take a battery powered device that can record really well and it can run for hours and hours and if power comes on then brilliant, then we get charged. It was about access to opportunities on this last trip … to build a space where people can learn skills that can cross pollinate globally.”
Meanwhile, even the music recorded at Crown Lane is global, with a focus on folk, world and jazz and recent projects with artists have included Sello Molefi, an actor from the Lion King musical, and Australian harpist, Tara Minton.
“World music is the music I love. I’m not one for people with egos – I would rather hear something that makes my heart move, and we see a lot of musicians from around the world not looking at hitting the top 40,” Merriman says.
For Merriman, the studio is not aiming to be big, just a fabulous experience from beginning to end for each artist who comes through their doors. “We would love our sustainability story to be one that grows exponentially from our tiny studio; although apparently ‘community’ and ‘efficiency’ are opposite ends of a spectrum, we would like to do the impossible and continue to make Crown Lane the most efficient, and yet the most community minded studio on the planet.”
Pictures: Top: The Crown Lane studios team. L-R: Engineer Alexi McNulty-Bakas, mastering engineer Bill Sherrington and diretors Ruth and John Merriman. Second: The control room features a custom-built console by John Oram. Third: A refurbishment of the studio included this design wall from Ruth Merriman. Fourth: Tariro Coffee House is owned by the couple and converts into a secret music venue at night (and is also the entry to the studio during the day!). Fifth: The microphone cupboard including gear from Sontronics.