Playback: The Future of Austin Recording Studios
Studio owners look at different solutions to surviving in an increasingly expensive city
"The Wizard" vanished.
One of this town's finest album producers has turned up g-o-n-e. Not in a puff of smoke, but behind the wheel of a moving truck filled with equipment once used to forge breakout LPs by Spoon and Trail of Dead. Yes, Austin, Mike McCarthy's moved his operation to Nashville.
"I can't do it here anymore. It's just not possible," lamented McCarthy, who shuttered his local recording studio in February. "I'm fortunate for the run I've had in Austin, but I don't know how I could have made it last forever. I don't really work with Spoon or Patty [Griffin] anymore, and I can't afford to pay $2,000 in rent when young bands don't have much money to spend."
From the salad days of major-label budgets to scrambling for crumbs in a competitive indie market, Austin's studio landscape has changed thanks to high rents and rampant development sundering economic feasibility. Another acclaimed audio mystic, Stuart Sikes, nevertheless counters McCarthy's departure with local investment. The engineer, who mixed the White Stripes' White Blood Cells then earned a Grammy for his work on Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose (as produced by Jack White), has finally opened a studio in Austin nearly four years after moving here from Dallas.
"It was time to do it or shut the fuck up and just freelance," reasoned Sikes, who's produced LPs for the Riverboat Gamblers and Black Joe Lewis since relocating. He's now putting the finishing touches on his yet-unnamed sound laboratory on East Fifth Street and jokes that you can't throw a rock without hitting a recording studio in Austin.
"It used to be about the studio. Now people go to the individual," he points out. "I work with bands I want to work with and who want to work with me. Being a 'person-for-hire' doesn't help anyone. If someone's not into your band, you shouldn't work with them. Getting rich by doing this job shouldn't be anyone's goal. It's about making a band's record that they're fucking psyched about. Nothing else matters."
Despite McCarthy's exit and Sikes' entrance, recent trends in the homegrown recording industry aren't openings and closings, but rather studio owners finding variant solutions to continue in an increasingly expensive city. For Chico Jones, that meant teaming up. Operating Ohm Recording Facility from 2004 until 2016 – now Sikes' current space – the engineer felt the pressure of high rent and encroaching development, so in April he partnered with like-minded engineer Marcos Delgado on the MicroMega Records Studio.
"It's either get together or move out of the city," offers Jones. "I don't want to go out of the city to make a record, and I don't think other people do either. My gear is here and all my bandmates live here."
While Jones, who's engineered stellar releases by ATX avant-blues gang Churchwood and local doom trio the Well, was a longtime Eastsider, he now favors warehouses in the North Austin that MicroMega calls home.
"These industrial areas are geared to do recording in, and I think more people will end up there," he predicts. "It reminds me of those studios in L.A., where they're in a shithole warehouse district, but they make great sounding records!"
Trading the other side of the tracks for industrial grounds in North Austin allowed Justin Douglas to build his dream studio. In July, after nine years operating Shine Studios across from the Scoot Inn, the Royal Forest guitarist took up residence in the back of a furniture warehouse near Airport and Lamar. The new digs, dubbed King Electric, more than double the square footage of Shine with a gigantic handcrafted cutting room.
"The philosophy behind it is that isolation comes tertiary to the spirit you get of people making music together in a room and tracking to tape," Douglas muses. "When I listen to a record, I want to feel like I'm in the room with the band. I don't hear enough of that anymore."
Douglas has witnessed the tight-knit group of artists that once coalesced on the Eastside begin to decentralize, which he credits to rent hikes and the headache of construction, road closures, and property owners "developing with reckless abandon."
"A lot of the people who made that part of town vibrant and interesting are being forced out," he says. "My rent doubled in the last five years."
Another recent Eastside expat, Danny Reisch preemptively relocated his rented Third Street studio Good Danny's (Grupo Fantasma, White Denim, Okkervil River) to a house he bought in the southerly suburb of Lockhart. Rent had gone up, and he worried the property would be sold.
"I had to make a move before my back was against the wall and try to get into a spot while I had control over it," he recently told the Chronicle.
Just east of Good Danny's former location, another favorite Austin studio exists improbably on valuable waterfront property. Two years back, an investment group bought a strip of property on Red Bluff Road including the studio Erik Wofford had been renting for over a decade, Cacophony Recorders, where he fashioned platters by the Black Angels and Explosions in the Sky. Wofford knew the landowners would make more money on a restaurant, bar, or anything other than a recording studio, but Golden Dawn Arkestra leader Topaz McGarrigle, who happened to know one of the developers, informed them how culturally important Cacophony was, and they invited him to stay.
"They didn't want to kick out what's cool about Austin," confirms Wofford. "It gave me hope that, if we contribute to the culture of the city, people can understand our value."
It's a determined group, these knob-turners. Instead of digging their heels into the ground until their ankles break, they adapt – teaming up, spreading out, and upgrading. They have faith that making records still matters.
"I think quality and creative production has a little more value and merit to it than has been the case in the past 10 years," Douglas posits. "I see guys who understand recording on a higher level of pulling great performances out of people. I see guys who've really honed their craft. They aren't cheap, but they make most of the records that people talk about in this town.
"I think there's some respect and value to that that's beginning to be recognized."
George Reiff was discharged from the hospital on Monday following surgery to remove a brain tumor. Last week, the bassist/producer got a startling diagnosis: Stage IV cancer in his brain, liver, and lungs. The community rallied, raising $100,000 via GoFundMe, with celebrity donations coming from Jeff Tweedy, Mojo Nixon, and his Court Yard Hounds bandmate Emily Strayer. "The tumor was having a profound impact on his ability to think, to move, and to interact," writes brother Michael Reiff. "Its removal has brought him back in a very significant way." Charlie Sexton, Jon Dee Graham, Michael Fracasso, Nakia, Jeremy Nail, Dustin Welch, the Mastersons, and other friends to fundraise Friday at Strange Brew.
Central Health's Equity Policy Council is "pumping the brakes" on their proposal to ban smoking on patios, Communications Director Ted Burton tells "Playback." The health care organization, which funds HAAM and SIMS, now wants to expand dialogue with the community. Central Health reps plan to meet with ATX Music Office manager Don Pitts Thursday, followed by a meeting with Austin Music People's Jennifer Houlihan and venue owners next week.
Budget discussions within the city begin Thursday, and the Music & Entertainment Division remains hungry for a sizable cut of the pie. Historically, the "ATX Music Office" gets the smallest budget of the six entities within the Economic Development Department. Of the EDD's $14,819,600 total allocation in 2016, Music received just $690,903 – or 5% – and the city manager has proposed a similar allotment for 2017 despite a flood of music policy proposals outlined in the mayor's Omnibus Report. A public information request for EDD emails relating to the Music budget evidenced internal disagreements about the Music Division having to pay for fixed costs, including $35,000 in rent and over $6,000 for leasing a copier. The proposed 2017 budget also stands still on funding for the Cultural Arts Division, which holds at $1,325,159.