The oldest and arguably most famous purpose-built recording studio in the world, London’s Abbey Road has been at the forefront of the music business for close to 85 years. Synonymous with The Beatles, the Grade II listed complex has also played home to everyone from Pink Floyd to Kanye West to Adele, with a host of famous film scores and classical works recorded within the building’s iconic white walls.
Owned by Universal Music Group since 2012 following its acquisition of EMI, the facility has recently begun a program of significant expansion, building three new and more competitively priced recording spaces and launching a number of tech and brand partnerships, including a VR tour courtesy of Google. Billboard spoke to managing director Isabel Garvey. who formerly held senior executive posts at Warner Music International and EMI, to discuss the changing role of recording studios, appealing to new artists and breaking into the tech sector. “We’re not just a museum to The Beatles,” says Garvey. “We’re a living, breathing studio making future music history.”
Billboard: You became MD of Abbey Road in 2014. What's your remit on developing and growing the business?
Isabel Garvey: Universal views it as a real treasure within their asset set, which is why we’re building new studios here to really solidify Abbey Road’s core business as the premier recording destination in London. Secondly, Universal want to expand the brand in a respectful and credible way. In the past, EMI never really looked at what Abbey Road meant beyond the physical building. What is really interesting for me is that you have this strong core business, which runs incredibly well, and then the exciting new element of taking the Abbey Road brand outside the building, and being very entrepreneurial with this hugely revered international brand.
The music industry has changed beyond recognition, not just in the 85 years since Abbey Road opened, but also in the past decade. How has that impacted on business?
The industry has been through massive turmoil, but that has never negated the need to record music. The big change is that A&R budgets have got smaller. As a studio, we appeal to the top end of the roster, so we haven't been affected as much. I guess if you did a quick timeline, The Beatles would come here and spend six to nine months recording an album. Right now, a rock and pop artist will come in and maybe do two weeks. That's been the transition over time, but it's been accelerated over the past few years as technology has advanced. Encouragingly, artists still and always will want a quality space with respected engineers to capture their creative work at its best.
How is core studio business performing?
It’s as busy as ever. Studio One, the biggest studio that we have, is now mainly used for film scoring and that’s super healthy. Our film business is just going from strength to strength. Studios Two and Three, what we call the rock and pop studios, are at a capacity that we’re more than happy with. We’re such a premier brand in the studio world that we haven't suffered [from the downturn in the industry]. Whereas, around five years ago a lot of new studios popped up in different places and they really have struggled to stay afloat.
What new studio facilities are you building?
We are building a post-production theatre that is Dolby Atmos gold standard to bolster our film business. The idea being that you can record the score here and use state-of-the-art post production facilities as well. We’re also building two rock and pop studios, and they will be more competitively priced. We recognize that our existing studios are at a premium price because they are large spaces, have access to an incredible amount of state of the art and vintage equipment and, of course, their heritage and history. Where we’re missing out is developing a pipeline of new artists who can come and have a taste of Abbey Road as they start their careers and then migrate through the studios as their career advances. We’re hoping to have all the development works finished by the end of this year, ready to open in January 2017.
You recently partnered with Google for a virtual reality tour of the studios. Why did that initiative appeal?
The whole premise of our brand strategy is to expand where we are most credible. The beauty of this place is that it is shrouded in mystery because you can only really come through the door if you’re here as a professional to record. What we loved about the Google project was that it lets people have a taste of the excitement and experience of Abbey Road in an innovative and interactive way. We are picking brand partners that help us reach a broader fan base outside of professional musicians and remind them that we are a living breathing studio making future music history.
In March you launched the Abbey Road Red, an incubation program for music tech entrepreneurs. Is music tech an area that you are increasingly focusing on?
Abbey Road has a vast history of innovation, which we want to carry on and keep alive. In the modern world it's very rare that a corporate comes up with all the answers on its own. We spent a whole year investigating the start-up scene and also academia, who do a lot of research into sound. It's a hugely vibrant space, with really varied approaches to how technology can change the creative process and consumption. We felt there was a huge opportunity there to step in and start knitting together our experience, the reach of Universal Music, with what the start-up world was doing around music.
Last year also saw the launch of the Abbey Road Institute, providing training in audio engineering and music production. Is that something you are looking to grow and develop?
Certainly. Education feels like a very natural brand expansion. People always joked that it takes longer to become an Abbey Road engineer than it does to become a doctor -- almost eight years. So with that kind of deep-set apprenticeship culture launching an education program was a natural step and it's off to a fantastic start. We have 20 students enrolled in the London school, with more about to start. We have franchised the concept to France, Germany and Australia and schools have opened in all those countries. It reinforces to us that the brand is as powerful as we thought.
In light of George Martin’s recent death, how important a role did he play in Abbey Road’s development?
He’s a huge part of our history. He was absolutely revered as a character and so well liked by everybody who worked at the studios. On top of that there’s the immense creative output that he had. So he is very sadly missed. His son, Giles Martin, is a producer in residence here, so we still felt very close to George even though he retired decades ago. He was a big character in the studio’s history, and we are very proud to be part of his story.
85 years after you first opened, what continues to distinguish Abbey Road Studios?
We have amazing spaces and facilities, including one of the biggest treasure chests of recording equipment and a team of hugely talented engineers who strive for creative excellence. All of that put together makes for the ‘Abbey Road experience’ and a sound many artists say can’t be reproduced anywhere else. We’re also very client-focused. There’s something wonderfully British and honest about how we work here where, if you have booked the space, you have booked the space. We would never cancel a booking because a big name artist wants to come here. Our view is that no one creative is better than anyone else. Finally, the thing that a lot of other studios don't have is just this heritage and history that we’re sitting on. A lot of artists who come here say that they feel immense responsibility to do their best creative work because of all the people that have written and recorded in these rooms before.