The biggest thing for the industry now is its grassroots, it’s collapsing
As a well-established, inner-city rehearsal space, Old Chapel Music Studios CIC has had many famous faces cross its threshold, from Sisters of Mercy to the Kaiser Chiefs, since it opened its doors in 1992.
But even after having a long history and a successful track record this sadly has not been enough to shield this Leeds-based music studio from hard times.
Old Chapel’s CEO, Katie Hayes, tells us how she’s keeping her beloved not-for-profit studio afloat after being hit hard by the pandemic, rent increases and a cost-of-living crisis. She also shares with us her passion for community and grassroots music opportunities and gives us the lowdown on which band to watch out for.
What does a day in your life look like?
A day in my life at Old Chapel Studios… I get here for about 10 o'clock in the morning, get everything open, do a quick run around, empty bins, check toilets, restock the tuckshop if it wasn’t done the night before, and then get ready for the daytime activities of welcoming the community groups, the free music groups, bands, partners customers and everyone else.
I will then usually sit at reception on a laptop doing accounts, HR, socials, reports, business planning, website development and everything you can imagine to do with running a business. I will be managing 3 different email accounts, answering the phone and dealing with bookings. I am very busy but it's really good fun.
I love meeting different people who come through the door, some daytimes can be quiet, I miss the conversations and variety of music coming from each room so I put some music on because I’m not hearing it, but it’s also a great admin day, I get so much done.
What are the biggest challenges in the music industry in your opinion? Or, specifically in this area, in Leeds?
The biggest challenge right now in the industry is money, absolutely. For those of us who survived Covid and kept our doors open when many didn’t, it has been so hard to make ends meet and so sad to see venues and other rehearsal studios close for good. Building from that and with the current cost of living crisis, inflation, and what we are in, people are trying to put food on the table and booking a room for rehearsing is now seen as a luxury by a lot of musicians and musicians aren’t known to have much money.
The passion at Old Chapel has always been in supporting people to make music, so for a musician to be able to afford to do this we keep our prices low. If we were full 7 days a week 365 days a year at full price (£12 per hour) we now won’t make enough to cover the costs involved in being open thanks to all the inflation. Our rooms are currently on offer in the daytime to help struggling musicians, it's either £8 or £7 an hour with all hire included and we still have musicians saying they no longer can afford this. On an evening we only charge £12 or £11 an hour with £1 per hour charge on amps, drum breakables, keyboards etc. For those wanting to record with Dave, a Bafta nominated Producer with over 45 years experience it’s £25 an hour and this includes mixing and mastering. I mean, it’s so cheap, but making music is now a luxury item, this is so very wrong.
So, the biggest thing for the industry now is its grassroots, it’s collapsing. Without the grassroots, without the studios where people can come and actually practise, rehearse, record and get that professional feel, learn from each other, mix with like minded people and develop, who are you going to have to put on your stage? We know that people can do it at home, but it is not the same. They still need to be able to go somewhere and learn from others.
If the grassroots go, the affordability to people who want to be a musician goes. Yes, it's actually quite scary, but it all boils down to money and not enough being funded into the bottom, into the grassroots, where we support musicians.
So, you just mentioned about Covid. Do you think this has affected the business and have you had to change the way it works since then?
You can't really change it because it's an in-person thing, so it was awful shutting the doors and it was about 15 months until we could access and get work done. During this time we made the place Covid safe within the guidelines, but we couldn't allow anybody in until they said we could.
People were desperate to get back, we were overwhelmed when we said the doors are open and people were booking and asking when can they come
In terms of coming out of that and how it's changed, I don't think it has for the rehearsal side. People were desperate to get back, we were overwhelmed when we said the doors are open and people were booking and asking when can they come. We are running as we would pre-Covid.
Since April of this year we have seen a decline in bookings. This is when the minimum wage went up and the cost of living crisis hit, and everything else that came with it, but I don't think there's any real change to the studio, not down at the grassroots level, apart from people being able to afford it.
I am interested to know, since you have a lot of the community walking through your studio doors, if there are any local upcoming bands that you are excited about or that we should watch out for.
Do you know, there are so many that come through our doors! I love them. But there's one in particular that stands out for me and that I am passionate about because they do feel like my children.
Watching them as they create their music, their music is amazing! It really is.
They are called The Slates. They came here in 2020, they were 14/15, and they’d already made their band at school, but they didn’t know what to do with that, so they had just short of 2 years of mentoring, most of that through Covid, so online and they were able to go to a barn to rehearse, I think a grandparent owned a barn somewhere. They have literally just boomed, they have started university this September, and they're all 18, they've been on their first lads’ holiday, played the Isle of Wight festival this year, supported Embrace and so much more…
Watching them as they create their music, which is amazing! It really is, you just feel a sense of pride. If Old Chapel didn’t exist, would they have achieved so much? I’m going to say Yes, because they are hard working, dedicated and talented, but probably not at such a young age and so soon. To see that first track they did with us, and then watch them grow and develop on their own, they've achieved so much and should be so proud. They are amazing! So The Slates is who I’d be saying “watch out they're coming, those boys are coming”!
Last thing – can you tell us a little bit more about the fundraiser that Old Chapel’s doing?
The landlord increased the rent by quite a lot and then backdated it with a legal claim they could do so, so we had to pay a backdated increase as well
Yes! So the fundraiser… we held out and held out because we’ve been here over 30 years and never asked for any money from anyone. We've survived and done everything we've needed to do. Sadly, this year, the landlord increased the rent by quite a lot and then backdated it with a legal claim, they could do this sadly, so we had to pay a backdated increase as well, with an indexation on top of that, which is an annual thing.
So we paid out and got everything covered and thought we would be okay, until April hit and we had to increase the minimum wage and more money was coming out which we didn't account for. We then saw fewer bookings and community groups stopped coming because they weren’t getting their funding. For those who were, it certainly was not for things like music groups, which they now deemed as a luxury (taking people out and paying for a room for music). They realised they could do this in house, if they had a worker who was musical, and save some money on an already cut budget. No matter how much making music improves people's mental health, groups like ours get cut, it’s the first thing that gets cut. I worked in mental health advocacy for 11 years and saw this happen year on year till there were barely any funded groups left, no arts and crafts, music or things which genuinely improved wellbeing.
So we hung out and hung out, and then went, we just need some help. What we have had to pay upfront we needed to get back and cover some of the other costs. If we manage to raise the funds we could carry on with all the plans we've got for the future. We just needed that little bit of support to get us to that point. Thanks to our amazing community we raised over £10,000 and we are still here.
Old Chapel runs regular songwriting courses and monthly interactive heritage tours as well as having some great deals on room hire - find out more on their website.