Interview with Jimmy F Mulvihill by UkIndieTouring.com

Bally Rehearsal Studios might be tucked away on an industrial state in Tottenham in North London, but it’s seen some pretty high profile acts come through its doors such as Coldplay, Bombay Bicycle Club, Caribou and Snow Patrol. Founder Jimmy Mulvihill is no stranger to the music scene, having played in bands, promoted shows, recorded and produced bands and written for music press. So we were pretty chuffed when we got to have an in depth conversation about the studios and the state of the ‘industry’.

What is the history behind Bally Studios?

Bally Studios was started back in 2005 by me, Jimmy, and my partner Francesca. We had been putting on live bands and club nights in London for about 2 years at about 5 or 6 different clubs, so we were already friends with about 150 different bands. I was also playing in a band at the time, The March Hares and we were practising 3-4 times a week. I had also just finished a course at a sound engineering college.  We were putting a lot of effort into our club nights, at one point getting 20,000 flyers printed up and distributing them around North-West London for our main club night in Kilburn. The tipping point that made us want to set up our own studio was that we wanted a project that we have total 100% control over as opposed to somewhere we would run for 3-4 days a week.

We were turning up to the venue some days and the PA subwoofers had been lent out to another venue, along with the mixing desk! Another day we turned up to a gig we had flyered for 40 hours for, only to be told that the council had contacted the venue 3 weeks earlier to tell them to cease all gigs as they had had complaints from local residents about the noise and we had not been told. We thought that if we could use the contacts that we had built up over the last 2 years, keep up the hard work, and put all if that into something that was a bit more within our control, then we could make a great project. The difficulties we ran into made us determined that when we had our own project, we would inject as much positivity as possible into it.

At first, we went to set up a recording studio in Bermondsey, South London and found a “soundproofed studio complex”, but after about 2 hours it became clear that it was far from soundproofed, and would cost a lot to complete the work needed, so we started looking for another location. While sifting through nearly 600 potential locations, one day in a guitar shop (on my day off from looking for a location) I saw an advert for a rehearsal studio in Tottenham. I contacted the owner to see if I could use one of the studios in downtime and it turned out that he wanted to sell the existing business, which had 2 studios and a big storage room.  We would pay to take over the running of the building.  We borrowed money on credit cards and overdrafts, as well as deferring some payment for 6 months. We took over the studios in 2005 and immediately we converted the storage room into another rehearsal studio, split up the large office to create a 4th rehearsal studio and small office in 2006. In 2009 split up our giant Studio One into two different rehearsal studios, meaning that we now had 5 rehearsal studios

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We also recorded bands here and there over the years and set up a brand-new recording studio in 2010. We have now just opened an analogue and digital mixing facility in Muswell Hill.  We really put a lot of effort into making the studios as nice a place to rehearse as possible.  Thankfully we have not had to spend much money on advertising as so many bands are loyal customers, something which we never take for granted, especially with the difficulties we had at the start. We have also become good friends with a lot of bands that come to rehearse with us, which is a great social aspect of the job.
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What makes Bally Studios different to other rehearsal studios?

I know it sounds like an advertising spiel, but we are genuinely enthusiastic and passionate about making the rehearsal studios as great a place to rehearse as possible.  A lot of rehearsal studios will have invested a lot of money at the start, and then take their foot off the pedal. But we have done it in totally the opposite way.  We only had 1 drum kit and 1 guitar amp between 2 different studios when we started, so we had to put a lot of effort in to compensate.

Thankfully, over the last 7 years we are now at a stage where we have 5 fully equipped rooms, with about 35 different amplifiers between them, but we still put the same amount of effort in that we did in the beginning. Each of the rooms get vacuumed daily, and we even shampoo all of the carpets once every 10 days.  Some rehearsal studios will try to make things just good enough for bands to come back, but we want to make the room as good as possible, if not only for the sense of personal pride we get, but also because we have been to other studios where staff generally wouldn’t put in as much effort as we would.

We donate money from every session booked at the studio to charity, like Guide Dogs and SoundSavers because we want the studio to really stand for something good, to benefit more than just the people running it.  This month there is a charity gig happening in King’s Cross that has been put on by people working at the studio, as well as featuring bands that come here to rehearse. We even had a little “collective” of bands between 2008 to 2011 –  we would introduce different bands to each other at the studio, and soon they worked out that between them, one of them had a van, one of them had a PA system, one had a drum kit and one of them worked at a live music venue.  So they managed to combine all of their resources and put on a few gigs.  We lent them guitar and bass amps for the day to help out. In London it is very difficult to find the sort of atmosphere where there is genuine community, we really do feel that the studios have a much more community-based atmosphere than other studios.

What’s your current thoughts about the music industry? Where do you think its headed?

Although it will sound a bit dramatic, I am not actually sure if there is too much of a music industry at the minute. Using the word “industry” would imply that it would have, on average, a financial and economic reward. Although, of course, there are bands that are making quite a bit of money, the vast majority of bands that we have come across are not. We have come across about 400 to 450 different bands in the last 6-7 years and we would estimate about 12 to 15 of them are actually living off of their music. Quite a few bands, I would say about 10%,  are meeting their costs, or making a massive dent into them, but not many of them are actually making a big enough profit to both live off, and to reinvest back into their band.  So while many bands are gaining followings and fan bases that even 10 years ago would have been extremely difficult to do, not many of them have actually been able to convert that into a financial reward.  So I would say that the “Music Community” is building all time, and the future looks positive for it, but the “Music Industry” is dying out. You only have to look at companies like HMV that are really suffering financially to see that in practice.

I know that might sound like semantics, but we actually think that it is something that not many bands stop to think about: the difference between the music industry and the music community.  Back in the 1980s and 1990s, it was not that rare for a band to be turning over hundreds of thousands of pounds, but then back then, promotional and distribution costs were a lot more. So the band would have a big turnover, but they would also have a large amount of costs. There was money swilling about all over the place, hence the music industry was at its peak.  If you suggested back in the 1990s some sort of system where people could listen to your music all over the world, on demand, without actually buying it, eliminating the physical format, I am not actually sure how they could have done it.  But now it costs about £30 to put your music on Spotify, and even £150 worth of Facebook advertising could mean that your band is put in front of 50,000 – 100,000 people. So even if the band is making a lot less money, relatively, with their costs being so much lower, it all evens itself out. So the financial aspect of the music industry is actually becoming less and less.

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We think it is a great thing, as the main point of the recording industry was to generate the profits needed to get the music to as many people as possible, to make it self sustainable. But now you don’t need the money to do that. In the same way that people used to be paid as telephone exchange operators to connect one call to another, technology made that job obsolete. So whilst the music industry is declining, on the whole it is only because the barriers that needed the financial clout to overcome have been removed. Therefore there isn’t a massive need to make as much money, to the benefit of the music community.  The music industries death is the music communities gain.

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Of course we can only comment from the angle of the mainstream rock, indie, blues, etc, guitar based music industries. Another point is that there really is no such thing as one music industry, because the different genres of music are run so differently. We are good friends with a lot of recording studios that are based in the same building as us and they mainly concentrate on Rap, R&B and House music, and they seem to be operating on a 180° opposite angle as most of the bands and record labels that we meet. They seem to put a lot of money into short-term acts, singles and music videos as opposed to most of the bands that we work with, who all have a 3 to 4 year plan and operate on making their money from albums and touring, with singles and videos being loss leaders.  How can they both be in the same industry if the music they sell is so different, it is sold to different people and it is sold in different ways?  It would be like saying, a company that sells microwaves is in competition with a company that sells amplifiers on the basis that they are both electrical products.  They may be, but that doesn’t mean much. So again, as opposed to there being one big industry, there seems to be about 50 different smaller industries being run under the big umbrella classification of music, with them being divided by geography, genre, market and scale.  So while we have strong opinions on the mainstream guitar based music, we would not hazard a guess about how the other music industries operate.

What makes a band stand out to you?

When we meet bands with a view to recording them, first of all, we always look for a band that actually knows what sort of music they play. It is quite surprising the amount of times that you ask a band “so what sort of music are you into, what does your band sound like?” and then they will reply “oh, a bit of everything really!” If your band really does sound like a bit of everything, i.e., It mixes jazz fusion with folk, has African drums in it, has a heavy metal undertone, can be played in nightclubs, has hints of power ballads and reggae side-by-side, etc., then I guess it could be described as “a bit of everything.”  Unfortunately, it does not really help to narrow down what sort of music the band makes, so it is not really that helpful when a band gives that answer as a reply.

We really like it when we ask a band what sort of music they are into, and they are very direct.  To us, it shows that the band realises exactly where their market is, who they will appeal to, and how they can go about building their fan base. After all, if the band does not even know what sort of style they are, how will they know who to appeal to?

So if band says something to us like “we sound very British, with very clean guitars, melody lines a bit like the Beatles, but with the subject matter a bit like The Kinks, in that we write a lot about London, but also, when we play live, we tend to be a lot less restrained than we would in the studio, a bit like The Who,” something with an extremely clear direction, we think that it’s great. It means we don’t waste time experimenting in the studio, and the band can have a much more productive session.

We also really like it when a band realises that until they have one person to handle their marketing, one person to book gigs and another to raise money for the band, they are going to have to do all of those jobs themselves. It is really great to meet a band who is willing to roll up their sleeves and take on all of those jobs with gusto. We have had a few bands that have done very well at the studios, Caribou, Bombay Bicycle Club, Kyla LaGrange, Neil’s Children, as well as bands we have also worked with in the past like Mystery Jets and Enter Shakari, and you could see at the time that they were really willing to throw themselves into doing everything they could to build up their fan base, and it is really great to see these bands get the rewards that they deserve.

Needless to say, a band really needs to love what they’re doing. When speaking to all of these bands in the past, most of them, when you asked them about their band, were grinning like cheshire cats, thrusting their demos into your hand and waxing lyrical about past gigs and past recordings. So when you ask a band about how things are going for them, and when they start complaining about how hard it is to build up a following, or when you ask them where their next gig is and they say, “oh, somewhere in South London, I think it is in a few weeks time, I’m not sure”, then it is hard to really get excited about bands like that. If they cannot even get excited about their own band, and their own gigs, how can they expect anyone else to?

So I really love it when a band both has talent, is really passionate and bubbling with enthusiasm about their band, as well as being clear about what music their band actually plays. Enthusiasm is infectious, so in order for something to stand out to us, that usually happens when the band itself is proud of their music, and makes us want to hear their band.  Needless to say, the music has to be great too, but we find that that will take care of itself, and doesn’t need to much analysis.

Future plans?

We were looking at opening a second rehearsal studio complex in Bow, East London, this year. We have had a little hiccup with the funding, so instead we put the money we had into the mixing facility in Muswell Hill, and from this we hope to make enough money to self fund the 2nd rehearsal studio complex in Bow. It makes sense, as we currently have about 115% – 125% demand compared to the amount of space that we have, so not only will it be great for the business, but also it will be great to open our doors to as many new bands as we can, and hopefully meet some more great people.

Apart from that, I am currently working with a publisher about getting a book published, called “Headliners Must Provide Backline” which hopefully should be out early next year, in 2013, which is a look at the financial aspects of the unsigned band industry. We are also toying with the idea of opening another 2 rehearsal studios at our current premises. The main reason we have not done this previously is because we are keen to trade under the VAT limit, so that the session fee is kept as low as possible, but we feel that at some point we will need to start adding extra studios, to satisfy the demand we have, so hopefully we will be taking the plunge with that sooner, rather than later

Anything else to add?

In case it  hasn’t already come across, we genuinely feel that there has never been a better time to be in the music industry.  We have spoken to people in their 70s who still played in bands, and they tell us about how their dad saved up for 18 months in the 1950′s to buy their 1st guitar.  But now, the minimum wage is about £6 per hour,  and you can buy a Squire Telecaster for £120. Over 2 weekends of a minimum wage job, you could buy a good quality guitar.   There are even cheaper guitars that are available for £80 or so.  Guitar amplifiers are also a lot cheaper than ever. We recently bought a 100 watt Fender Performer for £100 on eBay, and that is a great guitar amp, definitely gigable. Digital stereo recorders are about £75, brand-new.   So for kids that are looking at starting a band, there has never been a better time, we feel, to start one.

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The other day we had a 5 piece band, who were all about 16-year-old.  They paid £50 to rehearse for 8 hours, so between them it was £10 each. One of them had a guitar that cost him £150, another had a bass guitar that was about £200, and the 2nd guitarist had a guitar that cost him £20 on eBay!!  We provided all of the backline, including drums and cymbals, leads, etc, so for little over £1 an hour each, and an initial investment of about £370 between them, they had everything they needed to start rehearsing. Between them, all they needed was to work for 60 hours at minimum wage, 12 hours of work each on average, and they had everything they needed to start a band. For every hour that they worked at minimum wage, they could have 5 hours of practising!  If they clubbed together and each put about £15 in each, they could buy a digital recorder, and they were telling us they were hoping to record something quite soon, themselves, and put it up on Facebook for their friends to hear.  With that, they could start to build their fan base.

You could visibly see how passionate they were about how they wanted people to hear their band, and to them the possibilities were endless, because even though they were only 16 years old, they did not need a record label to get their music from A to B; from their instruments into other peoples ears.  They were saying that they could put up all of their recordings online and see which ones were the most popular, something which years ago would never have been possible. It is a really satisfying part of the job, that we see so many new bands all the time, and not only is being in a band a dream for them, it is something which is firmly within their grasp.

It is great being around people who enjoy themselves so much.  While some bands hope that the band will generate the funds so that they can live off of it, it is brilliant to see bands who see music as its own reward; something they can do that is rewarding socially, artistically and something they can pour their energies into, that both challenges them, as well as being incredibly enjoyable.

Even coming across blogs such as this one too, the internet means that people can turn their passion into really worthwhile projects, that people can find both entertaining, as well as informative.  So while we work in the music industry, to us, music is something we fell in love with first and foremost, and it is great to see so many bands and people who feel the same way as us, such as yourself!  We’ve spent about an hour reading through your website today, and we’ll be firing emails across to a few people tomorrow, people who feel as passionate as we do about music.  To us, that’s the best thing about our job.

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