A block over from the tourist-filled restaurants and shops of the world famous Santa Monica Promenade, sits a small recording studio in an unassuming building. 4th Street Recording is easy to miss in a town where everything competes for your attention. There are no obnoxious signs, flashing lights, or human billboards out front. However, once you find your way inside, you know where you are. Gold and platinum records hang on the wall to your left, telling of the accomplishments of those who have recorded here. Band stickers hang on the wall to your right, telling you who they were before they accomplished it.
I am greeted by Kathleen, the owner of 4th Street Recording, whose personality is as warm as the Santa Monica sun. She’s owned the studio since 1989 and in that time, 19 artists have been signed off of demos recorded here. The client list reads like a who’s-who of the music industry; Mick Fleetwood pounded on the drums here; The Beach Boys recorded Kokomo here; LA Guns entertained cigarette smoking 14-year-olds here. We walk into the “live room” and I find the usual suspects of a recording studio: guitars, amps, drums, and of course, candles. I can’t help but notice the calming effect that the studio has; an effect I attribute to a well soundproofed room that keeps the music in and the noise out. Sand soundproofs the walls here; a fitting form of insulation for a studio by the beach.
We walk passed the piano on which Fiona Apple recorded “Shadowboxer”; the first single on her Grammy-nominated album “Tidal”. The piano sits there, half-covered by a canvas, waiting to be played.
I can feel the electric warmth of technology as we approach the control room. Once inside, I am greeted by Sejo, one of 4th Street’s producers. I make my way to the back of the room and sink down into the couch. In front of me is the recording equipment of yesterday and today; analog and digital, and it is the obvious conversation starter. I ask Kathleen what she misses most about the pre-digital era of music.
“I miss the money,” she says smiling. “Jim (her ex-partner) used to have what they call “first look” with one of the labels and they would pay him $75,000 a year just to send them whatever he was working on. I don’t think he ever even went into the building. That’s an example of waste right there.”
It would seem that those big budget frivolities are gone; the playing field having been leveled by the internet. “I read a statistic that two-thirds of the people offered a record deal today turn it down,” Kathleen says. Sejo then adds, “For a good band, good management is definitely key right now. They need someone to get them radio promotion, good shows, good support for tours, and get their stuff placed on TV and films, because you don’t sell CDs. No one sells their music, you just get that for free.”
4th Street Recording was here in those analog years when bands did sell music, funded by big budgets provided by big labels before the MP3 came along and brought the industry to its knees.
I ask Kathleen if she longs for the “good old days” before things went digital. “No,” is her reply. “It’s been a mixed blessing. Someone said it’s going to be a music middle class now and that’s basically where I threw my hat in. We lowered our rates to be more affordable to independent artists. We do half-day bookings now because some people work during the day and can only come in at night. So we’ve worked with it, seeing that this is the future.”
I’m slightly depressed by this future and find myself momentarily sidelined by the thought that today’s rock star might also be my mailman. The big labels have been replaced by that dirty little acronym: DIY. Who’s going to pay for all those trashed hotel rooms if not the labels? Certainly not the music middle class. Kathleen then reminds me that being signed to a label in the 80s or 90s didn’t necessarily guarantee success. “It used to be, a label would sign maybe 20 acts and you’d hear two of them. The signing was the first level of competition. Then you got into the next room and you still had to duke it out with the other bands that got signed.”
While that sounds like fair competition, there were drawbacks to being signed that extended beyond a band’s control. “I saw so many great artists not happen because of something that had nothing to do with them,” Kathleen explains. “Maybe the president of a label got fired. Maybe they were an end of the year tax write off. Maybe the East Coast promo team hated the West Coast promo team…it was so unfair because the band suffered.”
She then went on to discuss the pros of the digital age. “One thing that is really positive for musicians right now is that there are more places for your music to be heard than ever before. It’s come at a price, the price is that they don’t pay as much as they used to…but musicians have more control over their music.” Kathleen then says, “You are literally sitting on top of amazing music.” Before I realize that she is not speaking metaphorically, Kathleen pulls out a large container of recordings from underneath the couch I’m sitting on. She wasn’t exaggerating. I was literally sitting on top of dozens of albums that, for whatever reason, never saw the light of day. Now with the internet, they have a new chance at life.
With everyone having worldwide distribution these days, the question now is, how does one rise above the musical mediocrity found online? “If you’re good, I think the fans will find you,” Kathleen says. “…And that’s another wonderful thing about the internet.”
Kathleen firmly believes in this “cream rises to the top” form of marketing, so much so in fact, that she is willing to stake her business on it. 4th Street gets most of its clients by word of mouth. “We get a lot of people making pilgrimages from all over the world,” Kathleen tells me. “They want to record here because their favorite record was done here.” Sejo adds, “People will look on the back of “Science” and see that it was recorded here.”
“Science” was the first album by Incubus and it was recorded here at 4th Street. Kathleen remembers it well. “You just had a feeling of greatness,” she says. “I went to Mexico for vacation after we finished the album and I remember listening to it while standing on a balcony and reaching my arms out to the sky and crying tears of joy.”
There’s some irony in the fact that Incubus was one of those early bands that helped usher in the digital age, but Kathleen doesn’t waste time thinking about the past.
“I’ve noticed that people come out of here with a radio-quality product…but if you’re not signed to a label, how do you know what to do next?” Kathleen says. She is referring to her plans for 4th Street Republic; a business cooperative that will act as an umbrella for its clients, providing them with professional guidance that reaches beyond the recording. “Booking, licensing, college radio promotion, styling, social networking…bands are expected to be their own business units nowadays, and maybe they just want to focus on their music.”
While the business of music may not be great, we have more music at our fingertips than ever before. The one certainty in an uncertain industry is that music will continue to be made, and those who are passionate about it, people like Kathleen and Sejo, will be there to make it. “I’ve always said, if there are three recording studios left in LA, we’ll be one of them,” Kathleen says with a smile. I believe her when she says it. If you find yourself on the Santa Monica Promenade one day, walk over a block and look for 4th Street Recording. It may be hard to spot, but it will be there.
You can find out more at: www.4thstreetrecording.com