The Good Ship, London. The Boardwalk, Sheffield. The Astoria, London. The Blind Tiger Club, Brighton. The Kazimier, Liverpool. Sound Control, Manchester. The list goes on and on. It’s been a bleak few years for music venues. Many much-loved institutions, deeply embedded in local and international music scenes, have permanently closed their doors thanks to rising rent and rates, noise complaints, or buildings and land being reclaimed for development.
But it’s not just live music venues. Recording studios, too, have had troubles of their own. The advent of streaming, the plummet in industry value, the increasing availability of technology allowing people to produce their own music in ever more sophisticated ways, have hit studios hard (Olympic, 2009. Garden, 2012. Britannia Row, 2015. Fortress, 2017. State of the Ark, any day now). Studios have been closing at alarming rates, stripping the music and film industries of vital resources and leaving the market increasingly homogenous, and at risk of monopolisation.
In a miserable but depressingly predictable twist, Shoreditch institution Strongroom Studios is now facing its own battle to stay open. Strongroom first took root in a disused warehouse in the mid 80s, and has since grown from a handful of studio ‘pods’ to a lively complex of twelve world-class music studios, six edit suites, eight offices for a hive of creative businesses, and a thriving bar and kitchen, all wrapped around a large leafy courtyard swathed in Virginia creeper. Strongroom shares a party wall with the neighbouring building, a currently disused factory space which developers are hoping to turn into an 8-storey office block.
This, as you’ve probably guessed, would be a Very Bad Thing. So bad, in fact, that the planning application was fast-tracked without notifying or consulting the owners of Strongroom, who only found out about the application thanks to a chance remark from a local builder. After some vociferous protest from Strongroom, and a 38 Degrees petition which attracted over 5000 signatures, Hackney Council allowed assessments to be conducted into the likely impact of construction noise on the studios. Experts from both Strongroom and the potential developers agreed that drilling noise and vibrations (estimated to last for around 18 months) would effectively render Strongroom’s studios unusable for the duration of construction. In addition to this, fine dust and sediments from construction pose a threat to rare and delicate vintage recording equipment kept onsite, as well as dimming the considerable attractions of the courtyard for bar patrons and studio artists alike.
Like any business, Strongroom Studios can’t be expected to survive the loss of their primary source of income for 18 months. Nor can they put the business ‘on ice’ until construction is done. “Creative industries are job-by-job specific,” says Strongroom-based producer and engineer Drew Bang (Royal Blood, U2). “Nobody has a booking on a project for three years: it’s six months then another six months then another six months – people go where the job is. And if they’re prevented from going to Strongroom, then in a year-and-a-half’s time, all those people will be elsewhere.” In the words of Gareth Jones, acclaimed producer/engineer (Depeche Mode, Erasure, Mogwai, Efterklang) and longtime Strongroom resident, “if we have a bad two years we’re all out of business.”
However, there is more at stake than the potential loss of studios beloved by many of the industry’s top producers and engineers. Strongroom is home not just to world-class sound studios and the artists who visit or inhabit them, but to a whole creative community which has been thriving for over thirty years. Strongroom isn’t just a business. It’s an ecosystem, in the barest biological terms: a physical structure supporting an network of interdependent lives – in this case, the people whose work shapes British – and international – musical culture.
Full disclosure: Strongroom has been part of my life for years. I don’t work there, but my husband does, and over time I have come to regard many of his colleagues as friends. Much of this article was written in the courtyard, its leafy walls flushing from green to yellow to deep scarlet as the autumnal evenings drew in. From the standpoint of strict journalistic ethics, I am probably ‘too close’ to this story to be writing about it. However, it is this very closeness which has offered me a unique window into the life of Strongroom. From late nights curled on studio couches listening to Björk through majestic speakers to mornings spent typing as bar staff haul kegs in the courtyard, from chilly evenings huddled around outdoor heaters to their famous high-octane summer parties, I have seen Strongroom in many guises: industry powerhouse, live music champions, educational hub, life of the party, soft refuge, community centre, beloved local.
It is the multifaceted nature of Strongroom that makes it so unique amongst studios. “It’s very unusual to have a bar, and a restaurant, and record companies, and TV production companies, and renting out all the smaller rooms to individual producer-engineers or artists,” says composer, producer and former director of Strongroom Rob Kelly (artists including DJ Yoda and Modeselektor and composers Joe Kraemer and James Brett), who has been based at Strongroom for around 16 years. “Strongroom was pretty much the first, that I’m aware of, to have that sort of community model in London.” The more people I talk to about Strongroom, from runners to musicians to long-term residents, the more I am struck by the similarities of their responses. Certain themes recur again and again: the remarkable history of the place and the seminal music that has been created within its walls; the “brilliant” staff and facilities; the location and ease of access for clients; the way the courtyard and bar space act as a communal meeting-place for staff, residents and artists.
What elicits the most warmth, however, is Strongroom’s friendliness: its sense of care and community, and the willingness of artists and residents to share their knowledge and expertise – particularly with those just starting in the industry.
“I pretty much owe Strongroom, genuinely, my career,” says engineer Steph Marziano (Denai Moore, Kasabian), “and also my wellbeing. I’ve had probably a couple of hangovers from them as well,” she adds with a laugh. Steph first started at Strongroom as an assistant, after a grueling period at another studio “being treated like crap [and] getting paid terribly.” Strongroom, however, offered a point of difference: “I quit the other studio and went straight in and instantly loved it, loved the atmosphere. Whereas [at] the other studios it was very egotistical and everyone was trying to prove themselves, Strongroom is very welcoming with open arms – really giving. There was none of that competitiveness you see [in] other studios, everyone was just really lovely and instantly up for making friends.”
Runner and assistant Fi Roberts echoes her sentiments. Unlike the sense of fierce competition inherent to many running jobs, Fi says, everyone at Strongroom is “really encouraging. They just wanna push you to learn more and feel more comfortable and more confident. I don’t feel like I’m treated as a runner, even though I am [one]… I feel like I’m really respected and part of the team.” This encouragement has blossomed into more and more assisting jobs for Fi, as her confidence and knowledge of the studios grows.
The progression from runner to assistant to engineer is a well-trodden path in the industry, and fostering new talent is a responsibility that Strongroom seems to take very seriously. “I’ve seen hundreds of engineers start their careers at Strongroom,” Rob Kelly says. He reels off names: Danton Supple, well-known producer and long-term Strongroom resident; Neil McLellan, producer for The Prodigy; Marta Salogni, Music Producer’s Guild (MPG) Breakthrough Engineer of the Year 2018 award-winner, whose recent work includes Björk’s 2017 album Utopia and David Byrne‘s American Utopia; the host of women engineers currently running, assisting and engineering at the studios. “We try to take on runners and engineers in the very early stages of their career, to work with them and develop them,” says Strongroom’s Studio Manager, Emma Townsend. “We’ve seen so many people start with us as a runner who’ve gone on to have flourishing careers. It’s nice to feel like you’ve played a part in nurturing and building that.”
Drew Bang is another Strongroom ‘graduate’. His road into the industry wasn’t an easy one: after years of study, fruitless applications, and a stint of studio work that never paid, Drew wound up homeless in Shoreditch. For a few months he lived on a street behind Strongroom before being taken in by an old friend outside of London. Years later, he moved back, determined to make two things happen: “I’m gonna get a job at Strongroom; I’m gonna fucking win an MPG award.” He landed a running job at Strongroom at the age of 30. “Everyone that gets running jobs are like 18, 19,” he says, but Strongroom were “the guys that saw there was some virtue in giving me a chance. I don’t think it could’ve happened anywhere else because they look at things so differently at Strongroom.” In a few years, Drew progressed from runner to assistant to engineer, and went on to win not one but two MPG awards. “Strongroom’s a massive part of my life,” he says, “because it was a culmination of some massively difficult years. [They] gave me what I needed and helped me to progress in my career. If it wasn’t for Strongroom who knows what I would have done.”
Steph, too, speaks warmly about Strongroom “giving people chances and helping people out.” A few months after starting at Strongroom she found out the lengths they went to in order to offer her a position: “they didn’t actually have enough work for me, [but Emma] was like, we’ll make enough work, I’ve really got a good feeling [about Steph] – and they took me in.” She was soon being given engineering work. “They were the first people to let me engineer, which is normally quite hard to do but they’re so trusting of the people they employ. They like putting you up for challenges because they know you’ll grow and you’ll learn from it.” Steph is now a freelance producer/engineer working between several studios, and in 2018 was shortlisted for Breakthrough Engineer of the Year at the MPG awards.
When I meet with Emma she reiterates the role of inclusiveness in shaping the future of the studios: “I just think it’s really important for this to be a safe space for everyone to work.” Evidence of this approach pops up in thoughtful touches around the facilities: baskets of free sanitary products in the studio bathrooms; non-dairy milk alternatives in the studio kitchens. Emma’s currently working to change the studio bathrooms to gender-neutral cubicles. “We are in an ever non-binary society, so I think that’s really important. And also trying to make the studios welcoming for women and people of colour because they have – not our studios but recording studios in general – been such a white male-dominated environment, middle-class, for a long time.” This inclusiveness extends to staff well-being. “We’re all in it with our hearts,” she says. “I very much believe that staff are what make it. A lot of my team’s job satisfaction comes from the fact that they’re well looked-after when they’re here.” Emma talks a lot about building relationships – with clients, with Strongroom staff, with the bands that play at the bar. “I’m happy when everyone else here is happy,” she says.
This philosophy also extends to the bar and events programme, where locally sourced beers and locally sourced bands take pride of place. Events Manager Georgy Moore works closely with the team at Souterrain, who promote underground, unsigned bands, as well as doing considerable personal research to find interesting new talent for the weekly ‘Strongroom Presents’ series showcasing emerging artists from a variety of genres. The studios and their resident businesses do a lot of cross-pollination: Strongroom-based promotions companies assist with marketing and sourcing bands, while the studios offer discounted sessions to bands who play in the bar. Many bands who Strongroom supported in their infancy have gone on to get signed, returning to the studios to record their first album. “It builds a nice relationship,” says Emma, smiling.
What makes a music studio? I ask Rob Kelly what it would take to rebuild Strongroom elsewhere, if they were forced to abandon their current home. He snorts – less at the question, I sense, than at the fact that it needs, now, to be asked. “Tens of millions of pounds-worth of investment, maybe more,” he says. He points out that the convenience and centrality of Strongroom’s location – invaluable to residents and clients alike – would be almost impossible to replicate given London’s current property market. Moreover, “studios have to be very carefully designed for their acoustic properties, and they require extensive consultancy, design and measurement work, and acoustic treatment. Strongroom has some of the best-sounding studios in the world – to create that from scratch in a new site would be an enormous endeavour.”
But there’s more to Strongroom than buildings and equipment; staff, residents and visitors. It’s an intangible, indefinable something: the difference between a freshly-built house and one that’s sheltered a family for generations, ivy curling up its walls and apple trees growing broad and lichenous in the garden. Several people I talk to mention the “sterility” of many new-build studios, contrasted with the wild, living history of Strongroom. Gareth Jones describes it as the embeddedness that comes with settling into an unloved area and playing a part in its regeneration. Gareth, whose studio was one of the first ‘pods’ built onsite, remembers when Shoreditch was a largely abandoned district of old warehouses: “It was totally derelict man, the whole area. There was one sandwich bar, and all the warehouses were boarded up. No one wanted anything to do with the area.” Over time, the pull of artists and creatives towards Strongroom and other early businesses sparked Shoreditch’s evolution into the artistic and cultural hotspot it is today. Strongroom played such a part in this that its founder, Richard Boote, was given the Mayor of Hackney’s ‘Businessman of the Year’ award in 2006, in recognition of the economic and cultural benefits his work brought to the whole area.
Now Strongroom is at risk of becoming a victim of its own success. Shoreditch is so popular that gentrification is pushing out many of the businesses that gave the area its personality. “I think it’s important that some of the studios and the artists stay in Shoreditch, if we can,” says Gareth. “I think everyone knows that that kind of diversification makes for a more amenable city. I mean hey, I like a beer, right? But it seems to me there needs to be something else in this area other than just bars.” Even the bar at Strongroom stands apart from its neighbours. “We’re such a family,” says Georgy, “and it’s quite hard to find that in Shoreditch at the moment. There’s not really many bars around this area that are like us, in the way that we are independent, and we can kind of do our own thing” – things like starting, earlier this year, a not-for-profit kitchen, which sells pub food at modest prices and donates all the profits to a range of local charities.
So central is the bar to Strongroom’s identity that local drinkers are often surprised to learn they are sharing the building with a whole studio complex. But the bar is a crucial space for staff, residents and visiting artists alike. Everyone I talk to cites the bar and courtyard as an integral part of Strongroom’s appeal (curiously, the developers have misclassified this space as a carpark in their application). Few studios have the luxury of a communal space to escape to. Mostly, says Drew, engineers “just sit in their own studio, staring at a computer for 18 hours a day, just in a box. It’s such an antisocial industry.” Fi, who has assisted at a number of other studios around London, agrees: “Often people aren’t really around, and you’re kind of left to your own devices. There’s just not as much buzz about it.” Gareth and Steph reflect on how appealing the bar and courtyard area is for bands: it’s a neutral space outside of the work pressures of the studio environment, a place to relax and unwind, and somewhere to return to and reminisce long after the album is done. It also helps with business: “I can have a meeting in the bar with a record company, or with a new client I’ve never met who’s just come in from America or Europe or something,” says Gareth, “It’s a vibe. That’s important.” Moreover, it’s an educational space: residents gather to swap stories and advice, and less experienced engineers receive the benefit of their friendship and knowledge. “You walk in here and it’s just a lovely atmosphere,” Georgy says, “everyone’s chatting, everyone’s friends, everyone’s joking around.” Emma describes a typical summer lunch hour: “you sit in the courtyard and the residents will come and join you and before you know it there’s a table of eight or ten of you.”
By providing musicians and creatives with a such varied and interesting space to work, Strongroom in turn has played a significant role in the musical culture they created. “Strongroom has always as a policy adopted newer technology quite often before other people did,” Rob notes. He tells me how music studios in the 90s were a little spooked by the cultural shift towards electronic music: “if you have a drum machine, why would you spend a week recording a real drummer with microphones and a nice drum kit?” Strongroom, however, embraced the new technology: “They built a studio so that it was easy to incorporate synths and samplers and drum machines and computers and sequencers and midi, where people who wanted to make electronic music were very welcome, and that was part of at the same time the whole rave scene that was taking off in the 90s.” Strongroom’s early enthusiasm for electronic music made it a key player in the EDM and synthpop scenes. It provided studio space for bands like Orbital, Underworld, Erasure and The Chemical Brothers, while their legendary parties were stomping grounds for a new generation of genre-defining DJs. Music production flowed seamlessly from day into night; according to Rob, “People would literally do a remix or make a new piece of music during the day, take it into Soho to master it onto vinyl, then come back and play it at a party in the evening to test it out.” Richard Boote, in an interview for Time Out, recalls how “The Spice Girls used to practice dance routines in the car park,” before exploding into the international consciousness. Throughout its long and distinguished career, Strongroom has played an integral role in the UK music scene – which,
as Drew points out, is “world-renowned… one of our only long-enduring exports.”
Strongroom’s dedication to innovation and creativity is literally inked all over its walls: by employing punk rock artist Jamie Reid (of Sex Pistols fame) as Creative Director throughout the design process, Richard Boote ensured Strongroom’s distinctive, colourful rooms would become some of the most instantly recognizable studios in the world. And the staff today continue in the tradition of embracing the new: “It’s just this amazing thing of really young people running it that are just really eager to get stuck in,” says Steph Marziano. “[They’re] so open to different ideas and new things, and they’re always investing money in new gear and interesting things.”
In turn, that combination of heritage and innovation informs the work that is made there today. Music producer and Strongroom resident Ben Baptie (Adele, U2, Laura Mvula) describes Strongroom almost as a living canvas: “It is not something that can be planned or purposefully created, as, like all great art, it is inspired, refined and a one-off.” Producer and DJ Leon Vynehall (Sven Väth, Formation), who shares a studio with Ben, agrees. “There’s so much history in this building as well. When you become part of it you sort of become part of musical history.”
This alchemy between place, culture and creativity results in a connection to the building, the area, that is unlike any other. “You can’t manufacture [this] type of microcosm,” says Drew. Gareth gestures around his cosy studio decked in patterned textiles, his movements encompassing instruments, gear, books, lamps, and the bustling environs of Shoreditch which cocoon it. “There’s some kind of psychogeographical connection between me and this place,” he says, “This is my life. There is no other life that I have. There’s all kinds of incredible music embedded in this room.” Leon Vynehall describes how “your room becomes almost an extension of your workflow, like your studio is also an instrument.” This results in an artistry of place: an enmeshing of history, atmosphere, and the building itself. “I wouldn’t be producing what I am if it weren’t for that room over there,” Leon says, “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
I started this piece with a list of places which have closed. Let’s finish, instead, on a note of hope. With public support and protest, some venues have defied threats of closure and live on to foster new and developing talent and create precious (if occasionally blurry) memories for fresh generations of music lovers. Places like Fabric, in London. Manchester’s Night & Day Café. Abbey Road Studios, London. The Fleece, Bristol. The Moon, Cardiff. AIR Studios, London. May Strongroom soon join their ranks.
If you would like to protest the development plans which would close Strongroom Studios, Hackney Council are accepting emails of objection until Tuesday December 11, 2018. For more details, click here. Please note that signatures on the petition, while a nice gesture, will no longer have any effect on the planning outcome: emails are the only way to make your objection heard.
There will be a Save Strongroom protest party on Weds 12th December. Come and make your voice heard.