A few months ago I started a session with a local band. While booking the time, the singer/guitarist told me one of the main reasons he was coming to record with me. It turns out that a year earlier he had called a bunch of local studios asking how to go about insuring his home studio. I was the only person that called him back, and we had a short chat about what insurance agents would deal with studios and what they would cover. He ran his home studio commercially for a few years and then tired of it, deciding to focus on his own music. When it came time to make an album he called me, as he had already felt we had a good rapport and he'd heard a few records I'd done.
Years earlier, not long after Jackpot! started, we were really busy. When a single person manages and engineers their own studio, the hardest thing is keeping up with the business while doing a large amount of sessions. Returning phone calls, paying bills, doing the books and cleaning up become overwhelming after 12 ten-hour days in a row. After my complaining about folks calling in asking about recording "a demo", a term I still do not really understand, I caught my assistant answering the phone and saying, "We don't do demos, we do albums," as she hung up. All of a sudden I got rather nervous — were we scaring off future business? We had a talk and decided to investigate each call that came in, no matter how pointless it might sound at first.
Many people call and ask for the studio's rates. When calling back I hate it when all I get is voicemail. It's so much more rewarding to talk to someone in person and figure out what it is they plan to work on. Getting people to drop by and do a quick studio tour is a great way to meet the band/artist and figure out if you "click" right away. For bands to see where they will set up and play takes a bit of mystery and nervousness out of it too. I don't know how many "punk" sessions I've probably gotten because I talked to someone and told them if they wanted to bash out six finished songs in a day, I could do it. Fast, fun, furious work — but the word of mouth from happy clients and a few hundred bucks adds up over time.
Not long ago I was completely slammed with sessions. I had talked to a few people who wanted to intern, but I hadn't had an opening yet so I didn't want to take them on. One of the guys asked if, since he couldn't intern, he could just come down and check out the studio. I declined, since I was so busy and stressed out, but soon wondered if I'd made a mistake. What if that guy was gonna bring in some cool band he's in or recommend a friend's band? Now he might think I'm an ass and couldn't care less about recording here. Next time that happens I'll try to find 30 minutes before a session to have someone drop by and chat for a second. Maybe even have an intern show them the place if I have to. At least get them to drop by somehow.
I recorded an album for a singer/songwriter last year that I really enjoyed. She told me that in calling studios beforehand she'd had a conversation with a studio manager that started with him bluntly asking, "How much do you have to spend?" Wow. I'm always trying to get people into my studio on measly budgets, and sometimes I'm shocked when they don't care about saving money with used tape or want to spend several days recording one song (not that I mind!), but asking a question like that seems out of place. Shouldn't the studio find out if they can accommodate the project time-wise, if their rates are too high for the artist, and what it is they hope to achieve before tossing a bill in their face?
It's other people's dreams that we deal in. Why randomly eliminate clients or alienate them by not returning calls or asking how much dough they have?
I frequently take on "job shadow" students for a partial day or do short classroom visits to the studio for high school kids that teachers bring in. I figure that I would have died to have seen the inside of a studio when I was 16, and maybe one out of 100 might become an engineer or producer and remember that place that inspired them. There's probably no direct financial reward for this, but it makes me feel like I'm doing something good. Plus I love to teach kids about this stuff!
One "hard to quantify" but "recognized as valuable" strength of any business is referred to as "good will". It is all those calls you return, phone numbers you pass on, gigs you attend and people you help out that create a sense in the community that your business is a good place worth spending one's money at. If you want to play "ivory tower" and keep your studio out of the reach of mere mortals, that's great, but I hope you have another source of income. If you want to be part of your "scene" and work with lots of local talent, then spread some "good will". It usually comes back to you.