In this series of articles, I chat with people who share my love of recording so much that they make their career out of it. Here's what Jon and I spoke about when we chatted recently
From a young age, Jon Lawton was making and recording music. So it was almost inevitable that he would set up his own music business - Crosstown Studios - which he started back in 2008.
Here he tells me how he used revenue from renting rehearsal studios to fund his passion for recording; how his musical abilities differentiate him from the competition and what he thinks are the challenges for the music industry post-Covid and post-Brexit.
What inspired you to start your studio.
To be honest, I've just always wanted to do it. I've always played music. And I just saw making music and recording music as the same thing; as going hand in hand. So the music I was listening to growing up, you know, the musicians approach their music in that way. The Beatles or Jimi Hendrix were recording and writing at the same time - the same thing. So I've always recorded myself.
And a big part of it was that I was really young when I started. So I couldn't have afforded the studio, even if I wanted to. I was just using a really small cassette recorder and it's just grown from there. It's the same thing I'm doing now, but I just spent more money on it.
You've obviously seen the technology evolve over time; has that created more opportunities to do interesting things? Or has it just added another layer of complexity?
I mean, for me, it's been interesting, because of the age I was when I started. Recording to tape wasn't really an option anymore. So some people have been in the industry a bit longer, you know, if you've been recording for 30 years, and it must have been a huge shift from tape, going more digital with that technology. But for me, it's always kind of been this way. It's because of the reduced cost of technology that I was able to even get into the industry.
So it's been been a massive enabler for you then?
Yeah. And I guess with the digital side, I was in pretty early with it, you know. I was using Cubase 3 to start, and they’re about to release 12. So, when I look back at it, it was still quite primitive. And even before the computer, I was using this digital boss recorder that was recording to zip disks. So for me, from the zip discs onwards, it feels like it's just opened the doors really to enable me to get into the industry and work without having to buy a tape machine and a £500,000 mixing desk.
Yeah, it's just been a great enabler for me and for lots of people that I know really.
Could you tell me a little bit about the studio?
Yeah, so the studio is called Crosstown Studios. We started in 2008. And the original business was more rehearsal space, I managed to rent a large building and sublet all of the rooms out apart from one, which is where I was. And I kind of used the money from the rehearsal rooms to build my equipment and my skills. Getting some practice recording with the bands that were coming through to rehearse. One thing led to another, you know, usual landlord issues and that fell apart, which meant I ended up taking the leap to just recording. I found a smaller space and carried on from there. Before long, it’ll be 15 years we've been running.
What does a typical day in your life look like then?
It depends. I would say I tend to record about 60 hours a week. So it's a lot of time sitting in the dark. But I tend to get up, have breakfast, go straight to the studio and start working at 10. And I would generally do anything up to three sessions a day. Which, you know, we work in like four-hour blocks. So it's often that I'll do eight hours with a band, and then maybe four hours with the singer in the evening.
But I also perform as a session player too, in lots of different groups. So sometimes in the evening, I rehearse and I'm getting ready for a concert somewhere. And I get back home about 10:30, cook the tea, do the dishes, the usual stuff!
What sort of artists do you normally work with?
We've literally worked with an unbelievable amount of artists and styles in the studio. I thought it would just be the bands, like my band coming in, you know, just do what I do. But you've got no idea who's gonna call you.
We've done spoken word stuff, audiobooks, we've done stand up comedy recordings. But a lot of the music we do is singer/songwriter. Maybe one difference between our studio and some of the others here, is that I play a lot of instruments for people. Say if you play guitar, and you've written a song, but you want the recording to sound like a band, we can do that without having to hire five session musicians to come in. So we get a lot of that type of work, working with songwriters and helping them kind of, you know, hone their songs a little bit. But we also do a lot of stuff with bands, lots of young bands coming in, who are more interested in just recording what they do live.
But really, it's a wide array of music, rap, rock, reggae, heavy metal, country, and I kind of just embrace it all in one place.
Have you worked with anyone famous?
There's one guy who is much more famous than anyone else I have recorded; or, not famous I guess but has sold more records. A friend of mine who lives in the Middle East, his name is Sami Yusuf. And I've worked with him for a long time now. As well as recording stuff for him in the studio I play live with his band as well. So it's quite a good relationship where he can send me ideas, and I can work on them, send them back, you know, we're very rarely recording in the same room.
That's cool. So it's like remote recording almost?
Yeah. We were doing that before the pandemic and we've done it for years. His music has changed a lot over the years. And for a lot of it, he’s let me be involved in playing on it, live and in the studio.
That's really cool. So you've mentioned you’re almost looking at different business models or different kinds of ways of working post Covid-19. What do you think the challenges or the opportunities are for the industry? I guess the wider media music industry, but also for independent studios such as yourself?
Yeah. I think we're in a bit of a transitional period at the minute after the lockdowns. When that first lockdown came in, everyone, you know, the majority of the sector understood what was going on. Luckily, there were a couple of artists that had just finished recording with me, so I got to mix them records through the lockdown, which helped us.
Basically, once it eased off, everyone was ready to come in. So either they were ready to finish what we'd been recording, or they’d written a new album during the lockdown, and they were ready to record it. So it feels like everything's full steam ahead.
Well, I think there might be issues on the horizon, in terms of, are the venues going to be able to stay open? Are people going to have a place to perform stuff they record? I think they'll sell tickets from the records and get a feel of it. It’s a strange transition at the minute where no one's really sure what's happening, but everyone's taking it day by day. It's been busy and I hope it carries on. I hope the records that we're finishing now can go out and be performed. You know, that's where most artists thrive is live performances. We all know about streaming revenues and all these things to do with recording music. But live performance still has to be there for all the parts of music to work.
And in a way, it almost took the pandemic for people to really realise how little they earn or how unfair the split is with streaming services. Because people were making money from live shows. You sell a t-shirt, you're selling vinyl, you can make a living. But on top of that, you know, Brexit happened at the same time. So if you are a touring musician, it's now not a straightforward, hop into Europe and perform, you know. There's all these other things that it's difficult to do at the minute anyway, with the Covid restrictions. But Brexit happened, and, the knock-on effect of that we haven't seen yet. You know, trying to get these festivals, the stuff we used to take for granted, you know. I could travel to Europe anytime and perform no questions asked. That is all changing as well.
Yeah, it's a bit of a strange time for music. But on the positive side, musicians always find a way. We've always been told “it's the end”, you know. Like when Napster was happening, it was “the end of music”, everyone was panicking. And musicians found a way. Musicians always find a way around it, you know. When gigs got cancelled, a lot of people found ways around it. Okay, well, I'll perform online and I'll have a PayPal link. We'll do it every two weeks, you know. Luckily, people in this industry are, by their nature, creatives. I just hope that it carries on that way without people getting disheartened and thinking, okay, well, I’ll get a ‘proper job’. And that's the scary side of it. It takes a lot of effort to keep being creative, find a way around the obstacles.