Emma Townsend, former studio manager of seven years at the small but mighty Strongroom, has embarked on a new venture at London’s iconic Metropolis Studios. Situated in the heart of Chiswick, it is a studio steeped in history, having welcomed some of the biggest names on the planet through its doors over the years.
Townsend greets PSNEurope at her new office, accompanied by her excitable (and endearingly noisy) pug, making for an interesting backing track to our interview. The studio is incredibly busy. On the day of our visit, it is hosting Genelec’s new ‘The Ones’ launch, leaving Townsend with her work cut out for her. Thankfully, she still has time to talk to PSNEurope’s Fiona Hope through her career to date, discuss how she landed her new gig and what the future holds for Metropolis…
How are you preparing for the future of Metropolis?
Getting back to putting the artists first. Metropolis has been through a lot of changes, and a few years ago it probably wasn’t being run in the best way. The CEO has changed and is trying to change things for the better. I’m trying to rebuild the reputation of the place and look at where the studio needs some attention, love, and investment. I’m talking to lots of people at the moment, asking them: ‘What is your experience of Metropolis? How do you find it here? What do you like or dislike about it?’ It is a super friendly place, but perhaps the perception of the studio has been something different. The engineers and the assistants are amazing. Everyone just really cares.
In terms of projects, we’re building a studio within Metropolis for the British pop songwriter Camille Purcell, who has written for Little Mix, Mabel and Olly Murs, and is managed by Raw Kingdom. It will hopefully be her home for the foreseeable future. A lot of her clients work in our bigger studios, and they’ll be doing lots of their writing and pre-production in her studio.
Where does the studio need attention and investment?
The way things are done hasn’t changed since the ’90s, and the music industry doesn’t really work in the same way anymore. In terms of investment, the equipment is amazing, but there are things that need to be bought, sold and changed. We’re refurbishing studio A and finessing the bits that are rough around the edges.
What brought you to Metropolis?
Metropolis approached me, and my ultimate decision was that I felt it was an amazing studio and that I could do some good. It was a new challenge for me. I was at Strongroom Studios for seven years, I made some changes and improvements during my time there and it felt like the right time to take a new challenge. I’m getting used to a new place and I think it’s beneficial that I’ve come from somewhere very different.
Tell me about your career to date.
I started as a receptionist at Strongroom, but that only lasted for a month and a half. Then the studio booker left and there was a bit of restructuring of Strongroom and Air; Air went on the market literally a week after I started. Before, the bookings of both studios was done from Air, so it was brought back in-house. I took over as the studio booker and combined the roles of receptionist and booker. It actually worked really well for a small studio like Strongroom, as you’re the person that’s booked it in and when the clients arrive you know exactly where they’re going and what time. It’s a very good vantage point to make sure everything’s working how you want it to. Then a few years later the studio manager left and I was offered that job and did it for four years. And I loved it, I really did. I put a lot into it. When I told people I was leaving they’d say: ‘You can’t leave Strongroom, you are Strongroom!’
How different is Metropolis to Strongroom?
It’s definitely a lot bigger. At Strongroom the core team was seven people. It was easy to get things done from a management point of view, but harder from an operational point of view, because we just didn’t have the man power. Here it’s almost the opposite. There are a few offices and we’re a 24 hour reception, so there’s a few receptionists.
The studio runs 24 hours?
We run three shifts – a day shift, a late shift, and a night shift. We get bookings enquiries at three in the morning. And we get a lot of sessions that run overnight. Some don’t like to start until 10pm.
We have assistants on the sessions and engineers if clients aren’t bringing their own. But we’ve had a lot of clients from Atlanta and LA who have almost been staying on that time zone. And when we get enquiries from musicians who, let’s say, have just played a show and want to go into the studio, we’ll get a call, because we’re one of the few studios that have a 24 hour reception. You can call at 1am for a studio at 3am and you might be able to get one.
What do you think is special about Metropolis?
You can’t deny the history, the calibre of artists that have recorded here over the years. That’s not a chance thing, it’s because the studios are arguably the last world class studios built in this country. They are absolutely fantastic, and the engineers we have now are amazing (Paul, Liam and Alex). We have people that come back for them time and time again; people come back just for Liam’s vocal sound. There aren’t many studios left that have in-house engineers and assistants anymore. On this scale, it’s probably only us, Air, Abbey Road and RAK. Freelancers are great, don’t get me wrong, but there’s also something to be said about homegrown engineers. Alex and Liam have worked here for over 10 years, so nobody knows the rooms better than they do, no one knows how to get the desired sound better than them. I don’t need to improve them because they’re amazing, so I’m trying to make sure we’re providing friendly, helpful services.
You don’t want it to be too intimidating…
No. I’m trying to bridge the gap, because we only seem to get the top end of label rosters at the moment, and it’s almost like they look at us and go ‘We can’t afford you for anyone other than the highest people on our roster’ and that’s not the case. We’re trying to appeal to a more indie market as well.
What do you have to say about the diminishing number of traditional high-end recording studios? What’s important about recording in a place like this?
It depends on what it is you’re recording. You can make electronic music on your laptop in your bedroom. That’s fair enough, people are always going to do that. But you can’t record a band, or an orchestra. There are certain things that you need these spaces for. Things like the outboard gear and mic selections, and the engineers.
There are so few of the big studios left that we all need to start supporting each other. We’ve lost so many amazing iconic studios over the last 10-15 years, so it’s really important not to be undercutting each other and driving the rates down because damn, this industry is hard. It really is. With the expectation for quality equipment, sound etc. and the cost of maintaining that, it’s not surprising that so many studios have closed. I feel like there’s just enough work to go around with the few of us left.
We have been driving a tax incentive with UK Music. Richard [Connell] our CEO has been working with UK Music to get all the studios in the UK to club together and lobby the government to introduce tax incentives for the recording industry, like the film industry has. There are tax breaks for films made in th UK, which is why Air and Abbey Road make quite a lot of orchestral sessions for film, as well as the big studios like Pinewood, but we don’t have it for the recording industry. There isn’t an incentive.
I was at a label a few weeks ago talking about their acts and how we could work together, and they said ‘we just don’t need your big studios that often, because we’re not really signing bands at the moment, and the few that we have are currently recording in LA’. We need to be making it appealing the other way.
What do you think makes a good studio manager?
It’s really important to actually listen to what is needed and to think about how the industry is changing and how we can adapt. With people able to make music at home on their laptops, why do people need a studio anymore? Well, we have to be able to adapt in order to meet our clients’ needs. We need to be able to facilitate that creative environment.
What do you look for when you take on staff?
What I look for more than anything is a friendly, helpful attitude. The technical side of things is no doubt very important, but it can be taught. The right attitude can’t be taught, and that’s what I’m looking for.