Here is the story of how we, Bally Studios, came about.
In 2003, Bally Studios founders Jimmy Mulvihill and Francesca DeLuca ran a live music club night called The Dirty Rider Club, which was held at various venues around London - The Dome in Tufnell Park, The Verge in Kentish Town, The Black Horse in Richmond, and The Pleasure Unit in Bethnal Green. In 2004, we started our own venue in Kilburn, North West London, above a pub called Southern K, which in itself came to be known as The Dirty Rider Club.
In September 2004 Jimmy was looking at starting a recording studio in London as he has been engineering on many sessions he had been playing on and was keen to take it a step further, having just finished his studies in sound engineering and music production at the Islington Music Workshop. We were already meeting plenty of bands from the club night whilst immersing ourselves in the London music scene, and it was through the experiences that we had from being in bands ourselves, and from coming into contact with so many bands - over 600 of them in 2003-2005 alone - that we realised that many found it hard to find a good rehearsal studio in London without stretching the budget. More specifically it was the unreliability of the rehearsal studios on offer that was the most infuriating aspect of booking rehearsal sessions. All too often bands found that sessions would be booked, yet when the band turned up someone else would be in their studio slot, PA systems would be working one day and broken the next, the equipment was consistently changing and the staff members were on constant rotation. It made rehearsal sessions unpredictable and stressful.
As club promoters we had the exact same experience with the venues that we were working with - it was not uncommon to be told that the venue or date for a show would need to be changed after having 2,500 flyers printed and distributed after weeks of publicising an event, or that we would turn up to a venue on the day and find that the PA system had been lent out to someone else instead. Putting on live shows is stressful enough as it is, but sadly many venue owners were making it much more stressful than it needed to be. With this in mind, we felt that if we could set up a recording studio that could be used for rehearsals when recordings were not taking place, then we could have complete control over our own destiny and we would also be able to provide a consistency of service that many bands yearned for. The early plan was to conduct recording sessions in the daytime, and still run the club night at the weekends in the evening, at which time we would rent out the empty studios.
Being broke at the time, we went to The Princes Trust and received valuable help, both in helping with our business plan and also in getting the funding to get the studio going, and by July 2005 the business was weeks away from opening. The studios were originally going to be based in Bermondsey in an already established studio complex, but within 1 hour 15 minutes of moving in it was clear, to our huge disappointment, that the studio was not as sound proofed as we were told it was, or as it needed it to be. The owner of the property had told them that it would be "perfect" for what we wanted to do, and our youthful innocence and naïvety meant we foolishly believed him. After 3 minutes of playing a guitar amplifier on half volume we were getting knocks on the door from 3 different directions, and it was clear that nobody could ever operate a recording studios from this facility. It was a real emotional wrench to have to load everything back into the back of a taxi van and bring everything up to Tottenham, where we were living at the time, but the business plan had always said that unless the premises were perfect for the recording and rehearsals, we would hold out for a better venue. The opening of Bally Studios had to wait.
We resumed our search for a suitable venue, but it was proving extremely difficult; with land at a premium in London there was no need for any landlord to consider renting out a unit to someone who could cause plenty of noise complaints and problems for them at a later date. Many landlords asked us to soundproof the unit with the condition that they would give 28 days to see how well the soundproofing had been completed. At the end of that trial period they would decide whether to allow a longer lease to be signed. However, this would mean investing lots of money up front with the strong risk of having to walk away from that investment within a month, a risk that would be hard to take. Also, the few buildings that could be converted that were on offer were very large and expensive, and so they would need plenty of sessions to be booked to earn the money back. We were in a bind.
After looking for a building that would lend itself well to rehearsal/recording studios for 12 long months, with over 650 potential properties and numerous fruitless leads, we were coming to the end of our tether. On a rare day off in September 2005, Jimmy went out to a guitar shop in North London where he spied a poster for a rehearsal studios complex in Tottenham, called Sync City. Having lived in Tottenham for over a year, and having spent up to 5 nights a week rehearsing and carrying his guitars all over the place on the bus, he was somewhat surprised that he hadn't heard of a studios in the same part of town as he lived. He decided to call them to see if they had a room that they didn't use much that he could maybe take on in downtime for recordings, even if it were to act as a bridge between securing a full time permanent studios. Upon calling up, to our delight we found out that the owners were looking to sell the whole set up, which had 2 main rehearsal studios, and a 3rd small studio which was not fully soundproofed yet. The third studio had recently been let out monthly to a band who had just signed a publishing contract, and about 40% of the forthcoming months rent was already covered by a few sessions that were already booked in, meaning the studios would get a bit of a rolling start. Even better, we realised that by cutting across the Tottenham Marshes it was only about 12 minutes walk from where we were living at the time, which would save on both time and money in travel expenses.
It was agreed that the current owners of the studios would get a one-off payment to pass over the soundproofing, the goodwill of the business, and customer base and the fixtures and fittings of the studios to us. With a single payment, we could finally put to bed over a year of searching for a venue for the studios. Unfortunately 2 years of working as full time band promoters and having a policy to not rely on bands to bring people to gigs, but instead to spend money to really promote each gig, with the considerable cost of advertising, meant that we were pretty much broke. We got turned down for 7 different loan applications, and finally, after going back to the same place for the third time, we finally got just over half the money needed to take on the studios. We suspect the bank gave the loan not because they believed that it was a good business - otherwise they would have invested from the start - but because they were getting sick of us repeatedly making loan applications. 2 maxed out overdrafts and 2 maxed out credit cards later we nearly had the full amount needed to take over the business. A week later a deal with the current Sync City owners to pay off the rest of the balance from the first 6 months trading was made, and with that, on 9th October 2005, the lease was transferred to us.
We were originally toying with the idea of maybe keeping the already established name, as so many people knew it as Sync City, but after calling up bands who had been to the studios before and hearing that they wouldn't want to come back as they were not happy with the conditions of the studios before, we decided to go under the name that we had originally intended, and Sync City because Bally Studios. Straight after taking the studio on, the work began. Over the first 6 months of the studios we sold 3 guitars that we had (a 1982 Tokai Stratocaster, a Gibson Black Beauty Les Paul and a modified Fender Telecaster that we had between us), and spent the money on tins of paint to freshen up the place, getting 4 amps repaired, buying a snare drum (at the time, the place had 2 shell kits, with no cymbal stands, snares, stools, kick pedals, etc) and buying some hardware on eBay. This involved travelling for up to 4 hours on buses to collect a good quality kick pedal that was within our budget from someone's house on the other side of Essex. We took no wage for the first 14 months, none at all.
Birthdays were worked through, our social life was put on the back burner, but we loved every minute of it. Meeting bands, making friends, and seeing the progress ourselves while hearing the positive feedback from the bands that came to us brought us immense joy. One day a band member got to their session 15 minutes early, walked into the room and his jaw hit the floor. He got onto his phone and said, "Dave, Dave, you'll never guess what's happened? You know the studios, it's been cleaned!! I shit you not, they've even washed the carpets, it's incredible!! It smells great, and they're doing tea now." Things like that gave us the energy boost we needed. Profit would go towards new drum skins, a kettle, incense, a TV, buying a website domain, and general improvements. We sub let part of our office to a guy who was starting a courier company to help meet the rent, and agreed to pay the landlord of the building every week with whatever money we had leftover, agreeing never to go more than 1 month behind in the rent. On the first day we were £2,800 behind on the rent, and there were times when we came within hours of missing the deadline to make the rent. After 4 months we were finally up to date.
On the first day of cleaning the studios we went through 6 hoover bags on an industrial vacuum cleaner, and we found a mummified mouse in a bass speaker. :-( Jimmy spent 60 hours over 2 weeks repairing guitar, speaker and XLR cables that a friend of his had thrown out that we could use. We added extra doors so that all of the rooms had a double door system (some of them actually have a quadruple door system). In March 2006, we decided that our office was way too big and that it was silly to have so much space wasted, so Jimmy split the room into 2 with a double wall, with each layer being 10 inches thick with there also being a layer of lead and an airgap between the 2 layers. 3 months of intensive hard work later we had our 4th rehearsal studio, with all of the money generated from this room going towards getting up to date on all of our bills, covering the cost of the new equipment and wiping the credit card debt and overdrafts. The first £400 of proper profit we made from that room went towards buying a Premier Cabria drum kit. The next bit of profit we made 2 weeks later, a £150 payment from a 2 day booking in that studio, was going to be spent on a weekend away for us, our first holiday in 3 years, until a band said, "It's a shame you guys only have a 12 inch TV, as Italy vs Ghana (in the 2006 World Cup) is on today. It would have been cool to see it here." 45 minutes and a trip to Comet later we had a 28 inch TV in the office, with 19 band members from 5 different bands watching Pirlo put Italy 1-0 up. Beer bottles and cups of tea were clinked in celebration, especially as Francesca is Italian. The holiday money was spent, but to have our destiny in our own hands, and to have so many people enjoying the fruits of our labour felt better than any holiday we could have imagined.
Over the first year we were spending an average of £350 a month in getting new equipment, and thankfully word of mouth was serving us well so we never needed to take out adverts. This meant that we could keep our rates low. In October 2006 we had the money to open our studio shop for strings and spares, and over time the popularity of the studios continued to grow. It was all a lot of hard work - in the first 4 years of the studio up until June 2010, Fran and Jimmy only had 89 days off, including Weekends, New Years Eve, New Years Day, Christmas Day, Birthday's etc. Even on days off, we were still receiving phone calls, which we were always more than happy to take. Old plugs were replaced, speakers re-coned, light fixings were upgraded, and progress was made.
From 2005 - 2009 the rehearsal studios had gone from a sleepy 2 studio complex to a bustling 5 studio complex, and all of the equipment, (the guitar amps, bass amps, drum kits, PA systems, microphones, etc) had been upgraded. The service dramatically improved with the vast majority of the bands who used us, well over 95% of them, returning for multiple sessions. In 2005, before we took on the studios there was an average of 1.3 bookings per day. 2006, we had 2 rehearsal studios and averaged 2.1 sessions per day. In 2007, now having 4 rehearsal studios, we averaged 4.7 rehearsals a day, and in 2008 the figure hit 4.9 rehearsal sessions a day. In 2009, we opened our 5th rehearsal studio and averaged 5.6 rehearsals sessions a day, and in 2010 we broke the 6 rehearsals a day barrier as the studios popularity continued to grow. This is only counting "by the hour" sessions, excluding long term rehearsals, of which we also had quite a few. This figure grew to a peak of 6.7 rehearsals per day in 2012, before dropping to 5.8 sessions a day in 2013 when we decided to rent out our studio 2 on a full time long term basis, and thus reverted to a 4 studio complex.
The recording side of the business had now reached the stage where there was an 8 month backlog for recordings, mainly due to the fact that many of the bands that Jimmy works with really liked the raw live sound that our recordings have. In early 2011, we were looking to open more studios, both recording and rehearsal, as well as a dedicated 26 studio - yes, 26 studio - complex not far from the current premises. Sadly the funding for this broke down in 2012, and so we were unable to proceed with the plans.
in the meanwhile we were in a fortunate position where we were able to take on staff members and allow ourselves some time off. Our first employee, Simon King, started working with us in early 2010 and did every Tuesday so that we could have a designated day off every week. In September 2010 Mark Edwards came to us for a drum session, as he was based in Tottenham at the time. At the end of his session he chatted to Jimmy about the Premier Cabria drumkit that he had used for his session, which had a smaller than usual kick drum, and they got into a conversation about how different bass drums sound in different venues. He turned up on time, left on time, was really friendly and when Jimmy went into the studios to set the drum kit up for the next session Mark had tuned it up perfectly. That day Jimmy said to Francesca "the next time he's in I'll see if he's on the look out for a part time job, it'd be great to have someone like that around the studios." The next day we got a phone call from Mark, asking, "have you got any drum sessions available during the week, and also I was wondering if you are looking for anyone to do any part time shifts?.........." As of 2016 Mark Edwards is in his 7th year with us.
By now the studios was still growing in popularity, but we were faced with a dilemma: we only had 5 studios, and in 8 years we had gone from having 2 studios with a 46% occupancy rate to having 5 studios with a 96% occupancy rate. Logically the only way to grow the business was to expand to have extra rooms, and herein lay our problem. If we were to expand then we would have huge up-front costs, yet there was no guarantee that we would have a long enough lease to earn all of the investment back. It was easily possible that we could invest £40,000 into expanding, take on the rental of new units and at the end of the first 6 month rental period the landlord could double our rent, and what could we do if that happened? We would have invested so much into the venue that we would have no option other than to continue to pay whatever rent was charged, otherwise we would lose all of the investment that we made into the building. Rehearsal studios need a huge amount of investment up front, and without any kind of regulation or protection that is next to impossible to make. Upon taking on the business we bought a company that had been trading since 1989, and with that comes certain rights and protection, but by contrast if we invested into a new unit there are no automatic rights that come with renting a unit for 6 months. We didn't have the money to buy a place in London - who does? - and by renting we leave ourselves in the mercy of the rental market, and bare in mind that there is no rental market on earth that is quite as mental as the London one. With heavy heart we had to accept that it would be impossible for the studios to grow beyond it's current level without huge investment.
In the meantime Jimmy had been working with many companies within the music industry in regards to financial planning, and in January 2013 he was offered the opportunity to turn his passion for writing about the business side of the music industry into a full time position, and was given a regular wage to commit to this fully. Living in London at the time, there was a period of several weeks where he was working 70 hours per week to make some money from his writing whilst also topping up his income from supplementary incomes, which meant he was paying London housing costs without getting any of the benefits of living in London - no time to visit the art galleries, sports teams, music venues, fine restaurants and fantastic history that the capital has to offer. The nature of his job also meant that he never left his apartment for days at a time while writing so much, and with this in mind, and coupled with the fact that by now Francesca had new acting opportunities open to her in Los Angeles, both Jimmy and Francesca decided to leave the UK, with Francesca moving to America and Jimmy travelling Europe for 2 years while writing, before eventually settling in Valencia, Spain, where he still lives. At this time Mark Edwards made the step up to manager, a role that he still fills today. Jimmy still has an input into the studio to the present day via Skype and online chatting, whereas Mark handles all of the on-site challenges that running a studios involves.
The main thing that we feel sets us apart from many rehearsal rooms is how much effort we put into our studios. We're not happy with doing just enough to get your money, we want to make sure that you have a fantastic time and leave with a smile on your face. Not only does this give us a great amount of satisfaction, it is also plain good business - a happy band means one less band that we need to advertise for, and a delighted band will be on that spreads the word of the studios to their friends too. Why spend money in attracting more customers to the studios when keeping the people who are your present customers happy will mean you won't need to advertise as much? Getting to know the bands that come to us is a lot easier than having to get to know new bands every few weeks, and it makes the job a lot more pleasurable too. Working with bands who are happy at having a great rehearsal is a lot more fun than working with bands who are unhappy at paying money for a studio that they don't like, so when we make you happy it makes our jobs a lot more fun; and who wouldn't want a fun job?
We value everyone who comes to us - not just as customers, but as people - and we really try our best to make sure that your rehearsal is as successful as possible. Small things that many rehearsal rooms are unconcerned about - such as a tom drum that is stuck in slightly the wrong position, or a microphone stand that is not staying exactly in place - we're happy to put extra effort in if these things are causing you problems. We have a great community board that many of the bands use to recruit extra band members or to look for gigs, and we remember the bands that come to us, and let them know how much we appreciate their business. We have a small chill out area now that bands use to relax in, and there really isn't a week that goes by without us making some sort of improvement in the studios. Many of the bands that come to us become good friends of the rehearsal studios, and we even have a community called The Fractured City Collective, which is a collection of bands that rehearse at Bally that pool their collective resources and efforts to put on their own gigs, promote their music and generally support each other. All of our staff members currently play in bands, and all live locally to the studio, within a 2 mile radius.