Studio Profile: 25 years of Metropolis
What are the secrets behind the London facility's endurance when others of its kind are struggling? Matt Fellows went along to find out.
The age of the large-scale recording studio is slowly becoming a distant memory as headlines in the pro-audio industry seem saturated with reports of yet another significant closure. But despite the increasingly hostile climate, after what is now a quarter of a century, not only is London’s Metropolis Studios surviving; it’s thriving. Claiming to service on average 50% of the UK Top 40, the facility is enjoying a particularly strong position in the market.
But the team at the Chiswick complex aren’t content with resting on their successes, as Audio Media International discovered when it paid them a visit recently.
The studio’s rich history goes back even further than when it first opened its doors as a recording facility. Originally built in 1901, the Grade II-listed structure acted as a power station for the trams of West London, and Metropolis proudly embraces this preceding phase of its existence. 'The Power House' also wears its Victorian identity on its sleeve, with the interior today boasting a unique fusion of traditional architecture and contemporary design.
A New Beginning
Since its original opening, the studio itself has provided recording and mixing services to legendary artists such as Queen, Black Sabbath, U2, Michael Jackson and The Who over the years. But Metropolis’ position hadn’t always been so favourable. After the turn of the millennium, the studio slipped from glory into a bit of a slump. Threatened by the stormy waters of the industry, the turning point came in 2008 with the arrival of current CEO Ian Brenchley.
“At the end of 2007 you had the economic crash. You had the collapse of Woolworths and all of those distributors in the UK literally the month I joined. It was a perfect storm of shit we had to contend with,” he tells us. “You couldn’t have had more challenges to face in updating a business. It hadn’t had any investment for five years in equipment, in staff, in anything, so it was very underfinanced. It was on its knees financially in terms of turnover; it was a third of what it had previously been. So there was a bigger job to do from day one and a lot for me to learn very quickly.”
Coming from a background in major labels including Universal and Virgin EMI, Brenchley found himself facing unfamiliar challenges with the odds stacked against him and his team. But, with what he describes as a ‘superhuman amount of effort’, they rose to the challenge and Metropolis fought its way back to the prominence it had experienced years before.
“In eighteen months, we doubled the turnover which was just from sales and outreach,” he continues. “It was a very old-fashioned business that wasn’t going to update itself. Everybody worked very linearly; you had to re-educate everybody to start thinking differently and get more proactive.
“The thing that makes the difference is staff knowing the direct correlation between what they do and how that benefits us financially, because when you’re in a major record label, you’re so removed from the actual cash transaction coming in the door. Here, everybody understands what it takes to make this business work.”
Studio A's live room can accommodate up to 26 performers.
Metropolis has not been exempt from the growing presence of ‘cottage industry’ that has hit the recording business in recent years. With the rise of technology, it is now easier than ever for producers to build home studios, reducing the demand for traditional facilities.
“We’re in an environment where everybody is their own producer, mixer – everyone has Pro Tools, everyone has their home studios these days,” notes PR and communications director Emma Bartholomew. “So competing with that in 2015 is probably one of our biggest challenges.”
But Brenchley believes his studio still has a great deal of relevance despite the changing climate and its strong service offering is more than enough to keep clients coming through the doors.
“You and I can go and buy a Mac laptop and have Pro Tools on it, but you can’t download 25 years of experience. For rock music people still want big rooms, nice microphones and in some cases analogue tapes, but you also need very good engineers to get the best out of that and I don’t think you can substitute that.
“You’re seeing this sea change of big facilities going down and little one-man bands popping up in sheds and bedrooms, but that’s OK because there’s lots of different clients who want different things and they want the choice; Metropolis doesn’t suit everybody, but we try and cater to as many different people as we can with our unsigned services to our indie services, through to our major label services.”
A recurring theme in the brand’s philosophy and a cornerstone which its strength in the industry hinges upon is sonic excellence, and this is drawn to a large extent from the array of high-end gear across the facility’s four main suites, including 9000 J, 4000 G and XL 9000 K Series consoles from SSL and a VR-72 from Neve, with main monitoring courtesy of Genelec and PMC.
And in control of all this kit is a team of seasoned and up-and-coming engineers including names such as Tony Cousins, Stuart Hawkes, John Davis and Tim Young who help drive the facility’s commitment to quality.
The comfort of clients is another prime concern
But hand in hand with this commitment is a dedication to top-class service. Studio manager Saima Bakhtiar spearheads the brand’s pledge in ensuring all clients have everything they may want or need while working at the facility.
“We provide a really good service here – even if it’s after-hours,” she tells us. “Last year U2 held their international press event here for two days, which was a big success, and they had a particular rider list which we sorted out. Snoop Dogg wanted everything American! I found out he was a big football fan and got Chelsea and Fulham shirts with his name on them and presented them to him. It’s that kind of personal touch. I think it’s really important for an artist to come in and feel comfortable.”
“These are human beings who have come in to do their job in a very pressured, stressful situation,” Bartholomew agrees. “They’ve got deadlines and budgets to stick to. But at the end of the day, the most important thing is ‘does my material sound good once it’s been serviced?’”
For Metropolis’ clients, the answer, it seems, is always yes.
“We’ve never had a complaint. Never ever,” Bakhtiar continues. “People walk out of here 100% happy with the sound of their recording,” while Bartholomew adds: “If the core of what you do is offering a good service in a world-class facility and you’re genuinely passionate about it, it speaks for itself.”
No Time for Rest
But just because the Metropolis brand has managed to re-establish itself as a world-class studio service doesn’t mean there isn’t more work to be done.
“We don’t sit here and relax and feel smug about it,” says Bartholomew. “It’s about always looking to the next thing.”
And the studio has made good on this pro-active approach with a full calendar of supplementary industry events and complimentary ventures. The venue recently played host to live cut-to-vinyl shows with artists including Public Enemy, Kelis, Soul 2 Soul and George Clinton, with the performances later released in a limited capacity to vinyl and CD, in addition to regular monthly live music nights, masterclasses from industry greats like Eddie Kramer, and even a live jazz and eight-course dinner event in association with champagne house Krug.
Also in the pipeline is a new Channel 4 TV show, a partnership with Shazam and forays into the budding app market through a partnership with talent scouting app ‘Feels’ and the studio’s own vinyl player app.
To ever push the quality and breadth of service it presents, Metropolis also offers iMixing and iMastering services, which allow clients to place their work in the hands of its skilled engineers remotely, as well as VIP packages, with the firm handling an artist's entire studio experience from recording to marketing. The brand also shares an educational partnership with the Academy of Contemporary Music, providing its high-end facilities to students who wish to pursue a career in music production or songwriting.
The brand’s ambitions even extend beyond the facility itself. While Metropolis sees itself as ‘Europe’s best recording and mastering studios’, the group has plans to make its mark on the Middle East too. Launching next year, Katara Studios in Qatar will expand the company’s global foothold and sphere of excellence with an institution that it's confident will be ‘the world’s most technically equipped audio visual facility’.
“We are positioning the facility in Qatar as the world’s best orchestral, film and TV studio, whereas we [at Metropolis] are constantly striving to be the world’s best rock and pop studio,” Brenchley explains. “Dovetailed together we’ll have a global footprint and there won’t be any genre that we can’t excel in from a production standpoint.”
And the list of reasons to get excited about the new facility isn’t a short one.
“That place has so many USPs it’s embarrassing,” Brenchley continues. “It has the second-biggest mic collection in the world, we have fantastic engineers there, we have an in-house orchestra, we have an amphitheatre, a private beach, seven-star residential accommodation and, I would argue, one of the best Dolby Atmos rooms on the face of the earth.”
Even as the company seeks to diversify itself and explore new avenues of business, the fundamental values of sonic excellence and service remain key, as Brenchley notes:
“We’re branching off in lots of different complimentary areas. Everything that we do has to be core to music, core to sonic excellence. We want to be known for producing absolutely world-class label releases, be it physical box sets, be it digital releases, be it a piece of vinyl, be it an app.”
Metropolis' Studio E
Breaking the Cycle
The brand’s unfaltering dedication to this level of quality across all bases has helped elevate it into a relatively safe space in an unpredictable market. The team at Metropolis pair this with a positive and pro-active outlook; Brenchley believes that while many are bemoaning the industry through rose-tinted glasses, there is no better time to strike than now. This also sheds light on another core tenet of Metropolis’ work: its drive to innovate.
“In my whole career at major record labels, the music industry has been in decline. I’ve never known an industry that’s been growing,” he recalls. “All I have ever heard at major record labels is moaning about how rubbish it is and how it used to be good in the good old days, and I think it’s the opposite: there has never been as many opportunities in this industry as there are now; you just have to be a bit creative in how you monetise them.”
The key to survival, according to Brenchley, is to always seek to innovate, and failure to do this is largely to blame for the grim state of the current studio sector.
“I would say most studios die from complacency because they’re so used to doing things in a certain way and when it changed and they didn’t change with it, they died,” he explains. “You’ve got to break the cycle, and people have been so nervous about breaking it historically that they just don’t do it because they’re worried about upsetting the artist or recording company. For us, it’s about trying to break those stigmas by working closely with them.”
The Path Forward
Brenchley admits that there is a great deal of uncertainty when it comes to the future of traditional studios, but that’s no reason to just give up striving to be the best. And it’s this drive, encompassing its commitment to excellence in sound, service and innovation that has ensured the company’s survival.
“I’d like to think ahead of the market in some instances because nobody knows if there’s a place for something like Metropolis anymore in the music industry or whether there’s going to be, so we’re ensuring that there is by trying to be dynamic and trying to come up with different ways of monetisation,” he concludes. “In the simplest terms, records don’t sell like they used to sell. We have to take control and forge our own path forward to make a difference.”
Main image: Metropolis' Studio A