Jammed interviews with music studio owners

Stephen Gilchrist, Brixton Hill Studios

We take some time out to speak to Stephen about his experience as a recording studio owner 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 Stephen and I spoke about when we chatted recently.

October 2023 marks 10 years since professional drummer/percussionist and composer Stephen Gilchrist started Brixton Hill Studios located, as you might imagine, right in the heart of Brixton, South London

During our chat, I learnt about:

  • The important work being done by Brixton Hill Studios and a Brixton charity to create opportunities for young musicians from the local area
  • The talented folk who work with him in the Studio
  • Why the word 'industry' might just be the biggest problem facing the music industry right now

He also shared his advice for people looking to set up their own studio, and musicians looking to make more money out of music (and not just by producing 'content').

What inspired you to start your studio?

I was fed up with studios that smell like cat pee with equipment that didn't work in them.

I was in a band and we were at this particular rehearsal room - which is now closed down - and I'm saying "if it's between this and not rehearsing at all what would you rather?" and everyone said not rehearse at all. So I went and found my own little room and then thought 'you know, why not start a business out of this and get other people to contribute'. So I started renting it out to local bands, started looking at how I could do that, insurance, PAT testing blah, blah, etc. etc. The main idea was to create a cool little adult playground.

You couldn't find a good place to rehearse around where we are. So that was why I started it.

THe idea had been hanging around in my head for a while about starting a rehearsal room business, but it was just like one of those things in the back of my mind, I was too busy with touring and stuff like that. I wish I, kind of, had started it earlier in a way because there was just like nothing in Brixton - we're the only thing apart from a few shop basements people in the local band network knew of.

So when did you start the studio?

I started my initial studio in 2011 and then this place in 2013, so we've been going for nearly 10 years. As of October 2023 it will be 10 years... it’s gone very quickly. Well, these grey hair were not there 10 years ago!

Yes I’m dreading the day when my beard starts to go grey…

Oh, well, you started your own business so I'll give it 20 minutes!

... so I went and found my own little room and then thought 'you know, why not start a business out of this and get other people to contribute', so I started renting it out to local bands

Stephen Gilchrist - Brixton Hill Studios
So what does a day in your life look like?

Well I still do other work, so for me it's different on a day-to-day basis. I've got a team of really good people who run the place.

To be honest I spend most of my time in front of a computer doing administrative tasks. I get involved if I'm here, obviously. But a lot of what I do is talking care of back of house tasks.

But you know, on a typical day like today, we've got a really busy day - we've got two big rooms full so we've got people coming in throughout the day in those rooms. And at the same time our tech guy’s going around servicing PA and backline.. Jenny and I are working on socials to go out before Bank Holiday Monday. So no two days are the same.

What kinds of musicians do you get work with?

It’s a real mixture. We’ve got cover bands that come in, touring bands, we get DJs in to practice their sets.

We’ve got some really great bands coming in. There's a great sort of rap rock crossover band called AV Dummy who come in quite a lot. [Listen to them on Spotify or Soundcloud. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram.] We've had The Orb in, The Damned. I think by definition of being a rehearsal room, it's going to be a kind of rock and indie band types because they make the most racket, but we have had a real mixture over the years.

We have School Ground Sounds we do a lot of work with and we're hoping to partner up with in the future. They have all these varied projects they run like The Grit School. They’re trying to create opportunities for young musicians from the local area who wouldn't otherwise be able to get into those networks. Some participants may be from a less economically prosperous background, so it's trying to create those opportunities for them so it's not just the privilege of the middle class upwards to be able to get into music and the arts.

If you're missing out a whole kind of social demographic, there's are essential members of creative society we’re missing out on. So we offer what we can to help them.

If you're missing out a whole kind of social demographic, there's are essential members of creative society we’re missing out on.

Stephen Gilchrist - Brixton Hill Studios
I think of Jarvis Cocker and David Bowie they didn’t come from well-off backgrounds, they went to art school for their leg up; they were really just allowed to muck around and experiment

I would suggest that Jarvis and Bowie were privileged in comparison to the demographic of the participants in SGS projects.

We just try and give them as much free support as we can. If they are not paying us, they can put more money into the projects and resources. And everyone who runs it are just absolute diamonds. They run a mentoring scheme, some high profile figures as mentors too. Their work is essential. There should be more projects like that throughout the country.

With the amount of arts funding being cut these groups are more important than ever. More and more art seems to be is cheap to those who can afford it and very expensive to those who can't.

So has your studio worked with any famous names?

In terms of the studio it's been a real mixture. I mean, it's one of those things I can't remember all the people that come. We've had Jim Bob from Carter. Big Joanie and Black Midi are two bands that are to our hearts because they were more or less were embryonic when they came here. Fat White Family, we've had in, Misty Miller, Deaf Havana, Dinosaur Pile Up.

Personally, what I think is really good here is that we always have people who are into music. I seem to have employed a lot of friends, or everybody who you employ becomes a friend, so it's reasonably tight-knit and we have a relatively small turnover of staff. Feels like a little family.

Jenny, who is behind me, is a world renowned guitarist, musician and musical director; her band Hurtling are amazing. [Listen to them on Spotify or Soundcloud. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram.] But she also plays with Brix Smith from The Fall and a touring guitarist with My Bloody Valentine plus we played together in Graham Coxon's band.

Nick who works here has got an mind bending, unworldly, psychedelic band called Ham Legion. [Listen to them on Spotify or Soundcloud. Follow them on Twitter.]

Charlie, who works is in Roscoe Roscoe who we've been doing some recording with and there’s a real buzz about them at the moment. [Listen to them on Spotify or Soundcloud. Follow them on Instagram.]

And then there's Alessio who has a small child, so he has no time to do music anymore! He does production and stuff.

Oh I've missed out Jimi! Jimi is also a guitarist, he's currently touring with Gabi Garbutt and her band The Illuminations so he's not here a huge amount currently. They're supporting The Big Country and they're doing lots of touring and radio sessions. Plus they have a new album out very soon.

Oh yeah and my band Stephen Evens. That's the best one. That's the best one of all the bands, forget everyone who I mentioned earlier - Jen and I are on the same record label… forget the fact that her record’s almost sold out and there's plenty of mine still wedged under the record label virtual bed… unbelievable!

What do you believe is the biggest challenge the industry currently faces?

The industry had so many problems before this.

I think the main problem is that there is not enough financial support down at the bottom. Even in America I have friends who make a living, a meagre living, playing bars. I've got a friend who earns a good living in New York from basically doing quite interesting projects and putting on nights. If you go and play in a bar in America you get this thing at the end of the night they go ‘ok so there's your money. Oh, and there's your split from the bar.’

I'm not blaming venues here necessarily because, you know, rents are so high around here I'm surprised most bars and restaurants are able to keep going. But there's that thing of just going ‘you don't really value the actual music part of what we're doing’.

So from a point of view of what we do, we try not to be too expensive. You know, we need to be able to make a living but we know that we're serving an industry that doesn't make money, it loses money. And we want to be there for the ‘big guys’ as much as we want to be there for the little guys. It's about having a safe, creative space to work in. We never increase our prices in a cynical profitiering way, it’s usually due to a rent rise or increased costs of running the business.

We need to be able to make a living but we know that we're serving an industry that doesn't make money, it loses money.

Stephen Gilchrist - Brixton Hill Studios

What a horrible word. I mean ‘the industry’ might be the problem with that whole sentence. The music is the least important part of it, you know. All of us who do creative stuff, if you do that you can go and do a gig and we get paid £400 and you go ‘oh that's amazing’. If you think about it, you just go ‘well, that's £400 off the debt of some tens of thousands I've spent on my music career.’ If you think about a professional fiddle player, essentially takes out a mortgage to be able to buy an instrument

Yeah I know a concert-level violinist and the most he ever got paid, like per hour, was standing behind Susan Boyle pretending to play the violin which tells you everything you need to know.

Well they probably got paid those rates because of the MU made sure those TV rates got negotiated in the first place. Someone was telling me the other day that you're more or less expected to give your recorded product away for free now. But people will pay for content.

And that could be having a Twitch channel where they sit there watching you play Mario Kart or something like that. I'm sure you'll probably know a lot more aware of that than I do - but it is kind of cool. I quite like the idea of doing a channel going, ‘alright, you don’t buy my music, but here, pay a fiver to watch me put on records I like and discuss them with my beloved in front of the fire.’

So how did your business plans change with coronavirus?

It's ever evolving but I don't think there is a huge amount of change. The last two years have been about getting through this, and now it’s about getting things going again. So we did offer a bit of flexibility with our hours at first which, now things are building up, we’ve gone back to our evening hours being pretty much blocked off in three hour sections, because that's the rent-making time.

We've pushed recording a lot more, Nick has been especially active recruiting quite a lot more in terms of recording. And recording isn't a big money-spinner but it is great to have that facility. It’s very difficult to make a studio affordable because it's an expensive thing to install and it's an expensive thing to maintain, but it's all about creating a space that people can come to and achieve what they want without a huge amount of expense.

We're actually just starting to build what we're referring to as a Swiss Army knife studio that has DJ decks in it, but also has Pro Tool Suite and podcasting.

We also got Mevo cameras which people can use for free during their sessions and we've upgraded to a 1 gigabyte fibre internet feed, to the premises. So everybody waits till they come to work to download their movies and stuff off Netflix or whatever because it is literally snap fingers like that - it's amazing.

We’ve got the opportunity here for people to broadcast - it is a bit of a slow builder but there are a lot of musicians and bands, mostly drummers coming in and filming themselves. We're going to start our own online channel for people with an RTMP server. So we'll have a sort of Youtube-type presence you can broadcast from it. And also we want to be able to put in a paywall there if people want to earn from their “content”.

We get quite a lot of teachers, so it might be a good way for teachers to be able to collect their fees. The opportunity will be there for anyones, bands and individual musicians a like to connect with their audience around the world and monetise it if they wish to.

Do you have any advice for someone starting a new studio?

Yeah - for a start I would get in touch with AIRRS - the Association of Independent Recording Rehearsal Studios, there’s a good support network there. Also, talk to other studios. I think you'll find the kind of people who run studios are very free with their information and we're not guarded bunch, we're all part of the same community working towards a shared goal. Plus there aren’t a huge number of secrets.

I would say - don't skimp on the build. Get a good designer, good sounding room. With as much separation as possible, it's going to sound better. I know that if I were to build this place again it'll be 10 times better because I've got 10 years experience and there are many mistakes you learn from along the way.. But, I mean, everything's fit for purpose, do come, great rates, great equipment! ;-) ;-) But, it’s like everything, there's a very real learning curve involved.

Talk to other studios. We're all part of the same community working towards a shared goal.

Stephen Gilchrist - Brixton Hill Studios

It's quite funny if I think about my first year in this business and how different… what I know now… the amount of grey hairs. I wonder if those have just cropped up because of that, because the thing about having your own business, you never leave it, it's always there. You can go on holiday, but it's still at the back of your mind. You’ve still got to be on the phone 24/7. If something happens, the buck stops here. Everyone else can walk away from it, you can't. I’m not asking for sympathy, nobody asked me to do this. It just comes with the territory.

I've been self-employed pretty much all my life. There's working for people, there's being self-employed and then there is being self-employed and responsible for other people. You need to make sure that they're in a safe working environment, that there's enough money to pay them at the end of the month and you have a certain duty of care.

Studio ownership, and employing people to work for your studio, is not for everyone, that's for sure. But it’s also pretty amazing.