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 Joe and I spoke about when we chatted recently.
Over the last decade, Joe Doyle has successfully transitioned from a 'small, home-studio' setup to 'recording studio owner' and has been running Pigeon Coop Studios in Leicester's Clarence Street Studios alongside his studies since 2019.
During our chat, I learnt about
- his passion for turning acoustic songs into big productions
- why he likes to keep the musicians he works with as diverse as possible
- his prediction that we're edging towards an era of grassroots music
He also shared his take on the (many and varied) challenges currently facing the music industry and his advice for people looking to set up their own studio.
What inspired you to start your studio?
So initially I started as a solo artist writing songs with my acoustic guitar in 2013. And looking around at the studios that were available, it was all £20/£25/£30 an hour. As like a new artist going out on a solo adventure, that kind of becomes infeasible when you just need a couple of demos, because 1 hour is not really enough to get three solid takes down of three different tracks, you know. You want to spend about an hour on each track really. So I thought that I would, kind of, make a leap.
I had some insurance money from when I was in a car accident from when I was younger, so I used that to purchase Cubase and the desktop and, yeah, I started kind of recording my own thing. It was mainly affordability, but it was also the idea that I could start working on, rather than just writing the songs of acoustic pieces, I could put in drums and strings and keys and record other bits and bobs to try and see just how far I could take these trucks and, kind of, test the limits with my composing and arrangement skills. As well as the engineering skills, of course, and mixing skills.
You know, it was dreadful when I first started, I'm not gonna lie. It was about 5 years after I’d studied at college as well so a lot of that, kind of, knowledge had kind of slipped from my memory.
But after starting, I kind of wanted to start with other artists. As soon as I realised, like, you know, that these acoustic songs can suddenly turn into this huge thing, it made me feel like I wanted to start working with other artists and, kind of, taking their acoustic songs and building them into these big productions.
What does a day in your life look like?
Currently a lot different to pre-pandemic. However, I have had some luck out of the pandemic.
So I used to be in a significantly smaller space than I am now and it was costing me more than twice as much as what I'm paying now so, you know, opportunities arose. But also all of my savings that I've built up through studying which I finished during lockdown, I had to use on surviving basically. Because I was still a full-time student I couldn't claim universal credit. And my only other job was a part-time job in a bar so I didn't really get, I think I got about £160 a month for furlough from that. So I just had to eat away at my savings which were going to be used to upgrade the studio and get myself driving so that I can, you know, get out and do some more work outside of Leicester.
So since lockdown it's been very different. A lot of my days are usually taken up with trying to find funding that the assets are eligible for. So that's been a tediousness. Otherwise, I mean, I continued with my solo project as an artist and over the years, I've now got a band, for the last 5 years now. So the lockdown was good as a kind of reflective period I think for a lot of artists and musicians as well. And it, kind of, made us realise - we do something called Gyp-Hop, gypsy hip-hop, kind of rock and funk stuff - so it's quite upbeat. We’re really effective as a live band but, um, Leicester's got a reputation for being a bit of a dream killer and through lockdown we kind of made the conscious decision to step back from doing live gigs and start focusing on content. Especially after releasing our second EP as a band last year. Literally about four or five days afterwards our page of about 8 years had been hacked and stolen by some Russians - so, yeah, that was uh 1400 organic followers gone. So we were kind of back to square one as far as our socials were concerned. I mean our Instagram's still got alright but we didn't really use it too much so we kind of thought this time, let's just sit back. I have tons and tons of songs that we hadn't even started working on yet, so we kind of decided to focus on content and we wrote up all of the songs, about 24 songs, arranged them into different EPs of different styles and genres and we’re, kind of, just grinding through them at the moment. We’re kind of getting into the completion of one of them now, so a lot of it's been working on our stuff really.
[Side note: learn more about Joe's band - Homeless Shakespeare & The Pigeon Theatre - on their website, listen to their stuff on Spotify, follow them on Instagram and help them get their Facebook follows back here]
Yeah, other than that, it's just funding, trying to find work, because I go out as a sound engineer as well so that takes up fair bit of my time.
So as a sound engineer, who do you work with like, what kind of musicians?
So when I set up the studio, the idea was to offer this accessible, affordable space that I didn't have when I started as an artist. So I've kind of put my price in at rock bottom in the hope to appeal to younger artists and the less financially stabilised; so new artists, amateur artists, hobbyists basically.
My main intention with that as well is to kind of help develop them, ‘cause I've taken part in a lot of artist development programs as a session musician so I've been around that kind of environment and those kinds of operations a lot. And with all of my, over a decade of, experience being a musician and doing all sorts of roles in the industry, I like to share that and I like to nurture people. So they are the kind of people that I usually get in.
"When I set up the studio, the idea was to offer this accessible, affordable space that I didn't have when I started as an artist"
But the music, the type of music ranges. Like, I've had some kind of a folky dad rock kind of stuff in, I've got some kind of comedy punk, I have Indian singers coming down, I get hip hop and rappers coming down. So yeah, quite a variety of people. I quite like to keep it diverse though ‘cause you get bored like, you know. My first band was an Indie band and I just got so bored of Indie music. I wouldn't want to do that with the studio as well, you know.
Yeah, it shows the diversity of the UK music scene doesn’t it. So what do you believe is the biggest challenge that the industry faces?
Ohhh, there’s a lot of them at the moment.
We've had our right of freedom and movements stripped away. So touring in the EU is going to become a lot harder. And having successful tours in the EU is going to be hard. Because now we have to pay VAT taking merch into the EU, we have to pay VAT taking the merch back out, we have to pay income tax on everything that we've earned in the EU coming back into the UK… it is just lots and lots and lots more costs that make it so unviable to actually go out to Europe now. So, you know, I think artistically, I think that British music is all of a sudden becoming very isolated.
Post-Covid as well, I mean, so many artists including myself - I had it bad, but so many other people had it so much worse. So people are trying to get back on their feet and it’s proving more difficult as well. Especially with the cost of living increasing as well, people aren't going to be able to afford to go out and enjoy gigs and drink as much which is noticeably already having an impact on some of the venues that I work for.
Even some like, from a manufacturing point of view, like some of the sound systems. I work with somebody who just hires systems, light and sound hire; and he's trying to find certain speakers but a lot of the ones where the cabinets are made of wood, they've been shooting up by 60 to 80% in cost just because of the wood. And even then, there's so many minerals that are in shortage that go into building, like, the circuit boards and even the cables and stuff. I mean the war in Ukraine is going to have a huge impact on that as well because if you look at Ukraine it's in the top 10 in terms of natural resources for so many necessary minerals and ores. And while they’re not able to, kind of, produce that, then I think it is having an impact on the wider industry in Europe.
There's a lot. There's a lot of new challenges we're facing now.
But I kind of feel at the same time we're edging towards an era of grassroots. ‘Cause, as these challenges are happening, I mean, for example, Arctic Monkeys when they went out on tour last the tickets were £100 each just off face value; and Foo Fighters drummer has died recently - we’re losing all of these iconic bands, and we're losing access to all of these iconic bands, and I think that more and more people are going to start going to tributes instead. They’re going to start exploring their local scene. So I kind of feel like it could be a good thing for grassroots music.
"But I kind of feel at the same time we're edging towards an era of grassroots"
-- Joe Doyle
We know that major labels are starting to get stumped now due to the new policies regarding royalty splits. Because artists are starting to protest that quite successfully now as well. So I kind of feel like pay cheques are going to start shrinking and I think that power in the industry is going to start dissolving and kind of going down to a lower level which is good. I think because, especially with our isolation from Europe, I think it will be healthy to have good grassroots scenes that are self-sustainable in the UK.
We're gonna have to, aren't we, basically, we have no choice. I've heard similar stuff. My brother-in-law is a symphony grade violinist, he used to do tours and things and basically he just can't know, it's just not profitable.
Yeah, and the government's ambition to cuts, and turn the BBC into a private company is what they've basically aiming to do isn't it. I feel like that's going to have a huge impact on the radio stations, on festival stages and, you know, as you say to the orchestras and symphonies.
So did you have a business plan and has that changed because of COVID?
I kind of had a plan before. I studied music business & entrepreneurship. It wasn't necessarily a university course, it was kind of like an alternative higher education. It was set up with just the two courses, the music business and the music performance courses. So I had written tons of business plans for the course, and I spent about a year or two updating them, but when Covid happened, I mean, I struggle with mental health at the best of times and it just, uh, disengaged me completely from the course and I kind of I did slip away from doing the business plans and kind of focusing on it. Especially having had to move. The previous place that I was situated in at Stayfree Music was a rehearsal room and there were other recording studios there, so it was a good, kind of, community area and a lot of my business plan at the time revolved around being there. But as soon as I couldn't afford it and I moved to this area [Clarence Street Studios] which is it's, uh, you’ve still got another recording studio here, there's somebody who teaches drums here, and another band rehearsal space here; so we've still got that kind of community feel, it's just smaller and not quite as established as where I was previously.
So yeah, I’ve kind of had to play it by ear since then really. Especially considering, because my business plan was basically at the end of universality, all of the savings that I had would then spend on the upgrades that I need. But now I can't do that. I kind of have to play it by ear. I'm trying to find funding and stuff, but until that happens… well, if I can't find it, then I'm gonna have to write a business plan up ‘cause I think I'm going to just go to a bank and get a loan. As much as I don't want to, but if it comes to it, then I think I'm going to have to. So yeah, I’m kind of having to play it by ear for the time being.
But as soon as I know exactly how I'm going to fund my upgrades, I've kind of, I've got to a point now that I feel more than confident with my ability as an engineer, as a producer and mastering engineer which was the aim ‘cause I didn't want to spend loads of money and then not know how to use it properly or utilise it. So now that I am at that point, I think it's just a case of waiting until I can purchase these upgrades and then it's going to be a case of okay, now I know what I'm trying to do.
I'm, kind of, sticking with the same marketing plan in terms of focusing on the local area and the upcoming artists. So I engineer at a few small venues in Leicester, I’m the select engineer for one of our universities music and bands societies. So I'm going to be having meetings with the society leaders about offering post-graduate offers and stuff like that. But it's also a case of just going out to the open mics and kind of seeing who's new, seeing who's about. Particularly open mics because I do want to get the acoustic artists so that I can kind of expand their music and show them, you know what, you can have a band and it will work. Because there's no reason an acoustic artist couldn't have a band production and then just go out as an acoustic artist, because it's good for picking up radio plays and the playlisting and all of that lot as well.
"I do want to get the acoustic artists so that I can kind of expand their music and show them, you know what, you can have a band and it will work"
-- Joe Doyle
Yeah. Being in a band, and we've done open mics and stuff, the people that were acoustic by themselves sometimes just lacked a little bit of confidence in themselves
Yeah which is another reason I want to kind of take them so that I can nurture them and show them tips. I took years to develop. I was very meticulous about how I did it. I would focus on one thing and I would almost, kind of, go over the top with the rest of it to kind of show the development. Like, my first album I produced was, I basically overcooked, overdid everything because I wanted the first album to sound and be presented as amateur so that over the course of the releases of as an artist it showed the progression. I don't think there's enough of that. People just, kind of, hit the ground running and then it's like well, where do you go from there? You just kind of stay on one line. And I thought, you know, what I think the best way to do it would be constantly stepping up. It also gives you reason to revisit it later down the line. It keeps the keeps the songs alive.
So the last question is do you have any advice for someone that was in your boots looking to set up their own studio?
So do not invest in the best gear and the best equipment - you’re going to bankrupt yourself before you even know how to use it frankly. All you really need, like, I started on a £20 microphone and an £80 interface it's all you need to start with. Oh, granted, you know, I had the £400 computer and the £350 door, but, I mean, you can get REAPER as well really if you were recording. I mean REAPER you can do production on as well, as well as Fruity Loops I've got a friend who has a very professional studio and he's still uses Fruity Loops.
That’s what I was using like 15 years ago, just mucking around.
Yeah, but he comes out with some great productions with it. It's all a case of knowing how to use the tools that you've got. Like, you don't need, even if you're at a very high stage and high calibre as an engineer and producer, you don't need to be Abbey Road. Especially in the digital age, you know, you barely even need a mixing desk frankly. So don't go a bit overboard with your spending.
I would recommend partnering up as well because that's going to alleviate costs and you can also help each other develop, you know, it's always good to have somebody else to identify your weaknesses and your strengths and vice versa, and to kind of help each other out so that you elevate together as well. But I think that depends on your personality. Because me, when I first started outside of my bedroom, it would be me and a friend but I was in a very bad place mentally at the time and I got very paranoid and I kind of just abandoned the partnership. We're friends again now so it's fine but, yeah, it kind of got sour for a few months. But if you are very close to somebody, you've worked with somebody and you feel like you can communicate with them efficiently, then there's no reason you shouldn't partner up.
Come up with your name first before you do anything. I went from HS Records - my artist name is Homeless Shakespeare - so I went from HS Records to HS Studios and when I formed the band which is The Pigeon Theatre, I decided the Pigeon Coop Studios would be the one because it was it was a tiny studio so it it reflected the size, the approach, and the fact that I just wanted the pigeons - the everyday artists that are walking down the street, you know, they are everywhere - they're the people I wanted to appeal to as well. And, you know, brand consistency is good.
The last one and I cannot stress this one enough wow - be organised with your receipts! Because now I'm getting to a point that I'm looking for funding and the easiest way for me to look for funding at the moment for what I need it for is probably match funding. But now, to do that, I need to go digging through nearly 10 years of emails to find all of these receipts for all of the purchases I've made whereas if I had some consolidated and organised I could just open a folder and it's all there. So, yeah, keep your receipts and be organised about them as well.