Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Uncertain times for London musicians

Air Studios - George Martin's magnificently realised vision of a World-class orchestral recording studio in Hampstead - is up for sale by its owner Richard Boote, for an undisclosed sum.

He has stated that he wants to sell it as a 'going concern', but history suggests that recording studios have always struggled to make a profit and at a certain point many owners just want rid of them.

So what will happen if a buyer can't be found? Who cares anyway? Aren't there plenty of other recording studios?

The sad fact is that over the last 20 years many medium and large-size studios have closed. CTS (Wembley), CBS (Whitfield Street), Olympic (Barnes), Advision, Lansdowne... the list goes on.. are all gone.

Of the largest studios - those able to accommodate a full symphony orchestra - only 2 rooms remain in existence. Abbey Road Studio 1 and Air Studios Hall, are, as far as I am aware, the only studio spaces in the U.K. capable of holding 80 musicians simultaneously with full technical support for working to picture.

Working to picture (i.e. recording film scores) is the other crucial element. A large number of Hollywood composers - Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, Howard Shore and so on - regularly come to London to record their movie scores, providing valuable work for hundreds of freelance orchestral players, bookers, engineers, assistants, hoteliers, caterers etc.

If Air Studios closed, there would only be Abbey Road Studio 1 for a large film score. Already, there are occasions when composers can't get time at either Air or Abbey Road as they are both booked - without Air, many productions would simply not be able to record in London. (Abbey Road is also popular with many of the London orchestras, and the LSO and RPO are often to be found recording there.)

The current business for freelance players is precarious - one little change could upset everything. It's my belief that the closure of Air would lead to many of the older players opting to retire, with the younger ones scrabbling to earn a living wage. It would, without doubt, be the final nail in the coffin of the freelance recording scene.

It's likely that Mr Boote and his partners have had the building valued twice - once as a going concern and then as the base real estate. It's possible (I guess) the real estate value to a developer who was willing and able to put sustained pressure on the local planning authority for change of use (i.e. conversion to flats) is many times that of the building as it stands. The present owners may be holding out for an unrealistic price - seduced by Foxtons' (or whoever it may have been) slash and burn valuation.

Air Studios is housed in Lyndhurst Hall, a Grade 2* listed building designed by Alfred Waterhouse (who also designed the Natural History Museum). It's a building, clearly, of historical interest - but also in the last 20 years, it has acquired further cultural significance. Is it to be the victim of yet another case of a small number of individuals making a lot of money at the expense of the livelihoods of hundreds of working people?

Help save this historic building and the people who depend on it:

1) If you live in Hampstead, write to Glenda Jackson MP:
2) Write to the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt MP:
3) If you've a few million quid to spare, buy it and preserve an iconic recording studio.

Air's own website has details of the many artists and projects which have been recorded there:

Monday, 13 August 2012

In pursuit of excellence

The 2012 Olympics are finally over (with the Paralympics soon to follow) and I have to admit it - I was completely hooked. From the brilliantly bonkers Opening Ceremony through to the crazily chaotic Closing Ceremony I watched a huge portion of the BBC's output. Football, athletics, swimming, table-tennis, basketball, cycling, plus all the sports I'd hardly heard of - I found myself inexplicably glued to the TV screen. In the past, I've not been inclined to watch much sport on TV and I couldn't have told you any of the athletes' names two weeks ago. But this was different - I was addicted. I've thought a bit about why this was so, and I'll get to the main reason shortly.

But first, a compliment. In marked contrast to the BBC's coverage of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, this time the bods at the Beeb had done their homework and cast presenters who knew their subjects. Ex-sportsmen and women are, of course, very knowledgeable about their fields, even if their delivery may not always we as slick as career presenters. I even looked forward to the post event analysis, especially from Michael Johnson.

Technically too, the BBC seemed to have pulled out all the stops - with cameras and microphones everywhere and plenty of graphic overlays.

The pre-prepared mini-docs enhanced my enjoyment of the sports (aside from the odd occasion where they caused us to miss live action) giving useful texture and background to the athletes (I was meeting for the first time).

So, fair's fair - well done this time BBC!

Back to my reason for this post. What's so enthralling about watching men and women compete against each other in athletic competition? It wasn't the fact that Team GB and Northern Ireland did so well. I didn't care who was winning (well maybe I did shout some encouragement at the TV to Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah and Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendeleton and... OK fair point). But the real draw for me was this: Here we had people (and that includes the athletes' trainers and all the behind the scenes people) who had worked incredibly hard, for many hours each day, for weeks, for months, for years on end in pursuit of one thing - being the best. The pursuit of (sporting) excellence. I find that inspiring. I don't think the impetus to do this is fame and fortune - it's a hard life being an athlete, and the career is painfully short for most of them, with much financial hardship along the way, except for a select superstar few. It is the antithesis of the all-pervading cult of celebrity, which I vainly hope has lost some ground, at least for a few weeks.

We rightly celebrate the achievements of these athletes and I don't begrudge a penny of the support they get from Lottery Funding and other central government budget sources. But - wouldn't it be great if we could get equally excited about chemists, biologists, engineers, scientists? - physicists pushing themselves to solve impenetrable equations, inventors experimenting for years without guarantee of ever succeeding, etc. Or, dare I say it, professional artists, musicians, playwrights?

In the afterglow of a job well done, we need to expand our Olympic thinking not to "Sport for all" - that is missing the point entirely (as governments invariably do) - but to the pursuit of excellence - Faster, Higher, Stronger - in every field of human development in the UK. Let's celebrate the fact that some of us are better at running or maths or chemistry than others - and encourage and nurture those people to their full potential.