Jammed interviews with music studio owners

Simon Claridge, SALTBOX Studios

We take some time out to speak to Simon about his experience as a Radio Station Manager and Recording Studio Manager and what advice he has for others in the industry.

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 Simon and I spoke about when we chatted recently.

It’s fair to say Simon Claridge is a real music professional. His CV shows he’s actively involved in the industry as a Radio Station Manager, a Music Producer, a DJ, a Record Label Owner and now also a Rehearsal/Recording Studio Manager.

SALTBOX Studios located in the SALT District of Central Christchurch, Ōtautahi, New Zealand has just been refurbished and relaunched under the management of RDU 98.5FM the not-for-profit alternative music radio station that Simon manages. During our discussions, I learnt about:

  • Using community fundraising to bring life back to a dwindling stud
  • Innovative ways to brew up some interest and keep your brand on the lips of your target customer
  • How alternative revenue strategies are key to funding business growth
What inspired you to start your studio?

Well, I can go deep or I can go short. Let’s go deep. The studio that we’ve now taken over was originally constructed immediately after the Christchurch earthquake in 2011. So, after the Christchurch earthquake, the community, locally, nationally and internationally rallied behind the city to keep the music industry on its feet. This one done through donations, fundraising and private investment.

So obviously, having that money come into Christchurch, it had to be delegated properly, so trusts were set up, community organisations and not for profit business, that sort of thing. And this particular studio, was the first erected building on the site that it currently exists now. So it was a rehearsal studio space for musicians in Christchurch post-quake. It was kind of like a bit of a band-aid to help musicians to rehearse because there were no buildings.

Within the four avenues, which is the main CBD of Christchurch, there were about 1,600 buildings that had to disappear or be demolished, which was pretty much like 70% of the city.

They spent a lot of money on it and they got the University of Canterbury, which has a very good engineering department to help construct and design it. And they did all the acoustic treatments and everything correctly. And then for the last 10 years, it's been sitting there just kind of dwindling away with no real strategy behind it.

And then we - being RDU 98.5FM, the biggest independent radio station in the South Island - all we get all day, every day is musicians coming through our business with their music. "Play my music, play my music. Book me on the gigs, put me on stage." So we started to understand that there is quite a big gap between people who are really good songwriters and also people who don't have much, or any, production skills or money. So we were like, OK, we can begin to marry this up here. We now have a new space because RDU, after the original building had to be pulled down due to the earthquake, we moved into this premises, which is called The BOXed Quarter. We moved in here knowing that that space below us was there because we were already linked to it. So we moved in and we linked into it straight away so that we can broadcast live from that space. So essentially, musicians from around New Zealand or specifically Christchurch can come in there, they can record, they can be simulcast live online or through the FM. And we also have a vinyl lathes as well, so we can cut them direct to vinyl too.

That's really impressive.

Yeah, I don't actually know anyone else who can do that. I mean, I don't have my pulse on what’s happening over in Europe much. But on this side of the world, I don't know any other broadcaster who has that ability to be able to, you know, go digital and analogue and also cut live direct-to-disc which is cool.

But I guess one of the most important things in between there as well is that because we started as a university radio station in 1976. We have this strong tie to the University of Canterbury, so we have lots of ex-managers and ex-staff members who are now the head of departments and things at the university. Dr Zita Joyce was a previous RDU station managers in the 90s and heads up the research department at the university. So she actually helped us develop a survey to go out to New Zealand musicians, and then we used the rest of our alternative student radio network across New Zealand to push that survey out to actual musicians.

So we gathered this massive amount of data and out of that data helped us inform decisions to do what we're doing downstairs. We started doing that and it was executed, pre-pandemic, in February 2020. So we pushed it out and we got thousands of people filling out the survey, which was extremely valuable because these people are all grassroots, semi-professional, amateur musicians who told us what the problem was in the New Zealand music industry, which I'm sure is pretty much universal. And one of them was about building community. And one of them was about access to higher production values. So we were like, Okay, well, we're already here, we're already broadcasting, we've got a studio in the CBD. We've got a studio at the university campus. Let's put all our eggs in one basket over here and work towards building a studio so that musicians can essentially get access.

And so you've been doing a fundraiser recently?

We did do a fundraiser, yes. We use the platform called Boosted in New Zealand, which is it's a specific platform set up for arts organizations in New Zealand. And they've had a lot of success at fundraising for various topics within arts whether that's physical or visual arts or whether it's music-related. They were the right platform for us to use, and we just needed to get that last little bit of money off the ground to kind of do the aesthetic stuff inside the facility. Build the kitchen and, you know, put a wee bar and things in there.

Yeah, those are the bits that are actually quite important as a musician though

Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. Because we want the studio to be to a standard where we can also, as a revenue option, be able to have people come in and hire the space for commercial reasons. So whether it's like live streaming events or they have various things they want to record or not just production work.

So the fundraiser has come and gone, which is cool. We were successful, we got what we wanted luckily, because it's one of those campaigns where it's all or nothing. So we got that last little bit of money which again was actually quite valuable for us because, you know, we're the alternative, we're the underdog. So in the New Zealand music industry, everyone kind of is like 'eugh, not these guys again'. So when you go to a whole bunch of, you know, funding agencies or funding organizations to try and get money for programs we want to run, or trying to get money for things we need to make the space fit for purpose, we can now go back to various funders and show them, well, the community wants it, the community's into it – will you support it too?

So what does a day in your life look like?

Right now, mostly my job is day-to-day management of running a small media company really. SALTBOX, the rehearsal room we have at the moment, is entirely separate to RDU. We have a couple of people working down there now, a good couple of students working there who are already graduates that are continuing to study. One’s an electrical engineer which is really helpful.

When we start kicking off all the other elements to SALTBOX, not just the rehearsal facility but the actual educational programs and other programs that will run in there, I'll move out of RDU and focus more of my time on SALTBOX.

But right now, I spend my days managing the station. My day-to-day job is about managing what goes on within the four walls of the station. Whether it's administrative work whether it's sales and sponsorship work, training hosts, training people for broadcast, organizing events, programming events, we do quite a lot of events over the summer where large, you know, 25,000 plus festivals in Christchurch where we get asked to program a stage so, you know, facilitating that, organizing bookings and so on.

We do all sorts of things, We even brew our own beer. It's a great way for us to raise some money, and it's also a great way to connect with all the essential industry partners like venues who support RDU because it's just one big circle. Because all the bands are on RDU, heaps of the hosts go to the bars or they work in hospitality and they can just, you know, go to the local pub, go and see a buddy, go to a dive bar and watch a punk band and drink RDBrew. So we do so many different things.

RDBrew, that’s amazing! So what sorts of musicians do you typically work with?

Here in Christchurch, we have a real big rave scene. James, RDU 98.5FM and Saltbox studios director, was one of the first movers in the early 90s when it came to dance music and helped kick started the New Zealand rave scene. So he's got a massive reputation for facilitating that scene and the subsequent dance culture. I think because it was in Christchurch to begin with, we have a real massive stronghold on rave music and rave culture in the city.

So a lot of music that comes through RDU is electronic. But that's only been in the last 15 years, whereas previous to that, it was real indie.

If I went down to SALTBOX and the current booking system that we have that was just a Google form, maybe it's like hardcore heavy metal bands. And then there are singer-songwriters. It is quite diverse.

So what do you believe is the biggest challenge the industry currently faces?

I mean, it's f*cking heaps man. But I think one of the big challenges that people face is trying to be able to get music out and paid for. I think, you know, the old problem that still exists is getting people's music heard. I think it's a big one because there’s, what, 60,000 tunes every day go up on Spotify. And yeah, you know, we're not into Spotify. We don't push it, we try not to do anything with Spotify on our website. It pops up every now and then, but I think that's the big challenge. Artist to Audience is the challenge. The our an area we want to innovate and improve.

And then artists getting what they deserve in terms of sales revenue. So one of our next big strategies is, obviously we've been working alongside a few different people and working and trying to understand blockchain further and understand NFTs and how we can turn our industry into a platform that could potentially be run off blockchain so that musicians can actually own copyright outright and that they always do and they can make money out of it. Because we see so many talented musicians and I'm sure you have in your life as well who are so good and like when we see them we’re like what are you up to? What are you doing? And it's just like, Oh, I'm still making coffees at a local café. And it’s like what the f*ck?

Yeah, I hear the same from every studio owner, basically ‘The S Word’ has come up for Spotify.

You know, it’s broken. The system is still broken. It’s the same major labels still kind of dictate what happens on those streaming platforms. Whereas I think on the whole, you know, blockchain and stuff, that's going to be an interesting next step, I think it can be something very real that comes out of that. The music industry and arts more so than anything else, like being able to trace streams and everything always zoned correctly. And it can't be, you know, bought. And if it is ever bought, the originator always gets a cut and gets the money.

Yeah, it’s the only kind of application of it that I've seen that could work. So the next question is, what do your business plans look like post-Covid?

It's a hard question to answer, I guess. Because I think, you know, because of Covid and there have been restrictions, you know, people can’t come to New Zealand unless they have an exemption whether a citizen or a resident. So I think the business plan for us, as there are so many revenue strategies for SALTBOX, other than just rehearsal we’re very lucky.

So we want to be able to build programs, and we've already been funded for a series of programs, but we want to start building even further into those programs.

As mentioned before, RDU do some large scale festivals where we actually programme a stage and we push artists who are locals who are on the up and rising into these stages in front of big crowds. And those people who run those festivals have very good contacts internationally. So this is where we can start opening up the international portion of what we do here at SALTBOX to be like Okay, well, we're going to bring artists to tour, well, let's get them into our space and offer them another fee and get them to teach something or have a Q&A or do those masterclass type things.

I think we're pretty lucky in New Zealand. Like, most artists who come to, especially Christchurch, it's not like going to L.A. or going to Sydney or London. It's like, people don't really give a shit. Its safe and inviting. Like Billy Bragg and Queens of the Stone Age originally donated some of the gear downstairs and they were just like, you know, that's kickin’ around. They don’t care. They just wander in. ‘Hey guys, what’s up?’. It’s crazy. There was a guy, Page Hamilton he’s in a band called Helmet, and they just walked in like ‘Hey man’ and we’re like ‘Holy shit’. So I think that when we get started that’ll happen more. So I guess we're looking forward to having the international plane back as well because we do have revenue options and business plans in place for those international visitors.

And again, the studio gets utilised by those people too so when bands are touring, especially if they're from Australia or New Zealand, they use this facility. They were using it before we took over. They might come to do rehearsal or just quickly get something out.

And lastly, who are the local up and coming bands that you're excited about?

We have a lot of electronic artists / producers who come through our doors who are starting to get that real good kind of international recognition. We have a couple of young people they make like techno and dubstep and they're called Texture, she’s also a host on RDU [Listen to Texture on Spotify or SoundCloud or follow her on Twitter], and Ebb [Listen to Ebb on Spotify or SoundCloud or follow him on Twitter or Instagram] You know they’re really, really cool, talented. They're going to go places. We've got a local cool band here, which is called Marsha [Check them out on SoundCloud], that it's another indie band.

It was really interesting to see that there's been a lot of bands come out of university because after the earthquake, there was next to none. Before that, every year we got to see 20 new bands coming out of uni. And now, like only in the last three or four years has it come back up to that level. So there's quite a few bands like that around, you know. They're kind of limited as well, because the current restrictions mean they haven't been able to travel into regions and have been able to go to some places but, I think once we get over Covid, we're definitely going to start humming, that's for sure.