10 things I learned from chatting to over 100 other rehearsal studios during the COVID-19 pandemic.
by Jimmy Mulvihill
October 1st 2020
2020 has been a wild ride for everyone, to say the least. On March 23rd 2020 we (Bally Studios) closed our doors to the public, and for the next 124 days we had no bookings. None. For perspective, in the previous 8 years there had been 19 days that we were open where we had no bookings. Thankfully most of our staff members were eligible for the furlough scheme that was announced by the UK government on the following day, and those that didn’t had full time employment elsewhere. However, we knew that we would still have approximately £2,500-£3,000 worth of costs to pay for rent and bills each and every month with no income to cover it, so we made an application to our local council for a grant to cover this. If you’ve been following our progress in that time you’ll know that it was only on 3rd July, 4 months into the application that this grant was finally paid out, by which point I had personally paid out £12,000 of own personal money to keep these bills paid and the business solvent, having to sell personal possessions and rely on my partner to cover my share of the mortgage payments to do so. At a time that I had a 16 month old baby, it wasn’t ideal to say the least. Thankfully (in the short term at least) our story had a happy ending and we got the support we needed, which we were super grateful for, but the sudden news that we had been successful in our application came without warning, and left me in a kind of limbo. From working 55-60 hours a week in talking to people who may be able to help us, reaching out to people on social media and reading legal papers to see how we could improve our application for weeks on end, I was suddenly told that we had the funding we needed to stay open, yet we couldn’t open our doors to trade for the next 3 weeks.
I had already planned a campaign of contacting as many other rehearsal studios as possible to rally support. With generic emails already written and nervous-energy to burn off I decided to contact the list of emails that I had compiled from googling “rehearsal studio UK” and copying and pasting multiple email addresses into an OpenOffice document. 279 to be precise. Before I was going to contact them to swap information for our mutual benefit, yet now I had what I needed, I figured that even though my objectives had already been reached I may as well complete my end of the bargain, so a template email was created, and with my fingers hovering above “Ctrl”, “C” and “V”, the emails began. I chatted to nearly all of them that replied, at least the ones that needed a reply, and here are 10 observations from those 107 conversations that I had from the 279 studios that I emailed. (If you were one of the people that we contacted, don't worry, we're not saying who said what, or divulging any info that may be sensitive.)
1) Many studios didn’t understand that there was financial help available, or that they qualified for it. Thankfully we managed to get in touch with a lot of them before the deadlines to apply for grants had passed, as 24 of the people who got back in touch with us incorrectly told us that there was no schemes to help them, or they incorrectly felt that they didn’t qualify for funding, when in fact they did. (This is not to say that they all were successful in their application for grants, but that they at least had the right to make an application.) Some of the reasons given were that they had not been founded for more than 3 years, (which is a requirement for the furlough scheme, but not to qualify for a grant), that they were not a Ltd company, that they hadn’t made a profit in the previous year, and many of them just didn’t know that the grants existed in the first place. If it was the odd studio here and there that had made the mistake then it would be easy to say that the fault was theirs, but when more than 20% of studios don’t know about help being available it either indicates a lack of faith in there being a support system to help them, or that the government has not been pro-active enough in getting in touch with businesses to let them know what help there is. The whole point of these grants is not that they act as a nice little gift for these studios. As a collective these businesses act as a sizable part of the economy. The government are giving them grants so that they can hopefully stop unemployment from running out of control, and so that they can save a profitable business that will hopefully pay tax for years into the future. It is an investment to save the long term economy. When the government fails to contact all of the businesses to explain what help is out there, the economy is not being saved as much as it should be. 2) Most of them needed someone to vent their frustrations to.
Having sent out the generic email en masse to about 140 different studios on the first day, I checked on the replies later that night to see if anyone had replied, to see 7 emails from businesses saying that they had received their help and that things were in hand, a 5% reply rate. I’ll be honest, that kind of took the wind out of my sails a bit, since I’d expected a bigger response. When logging on the next morning at 9am the inbox had 23 more replies, and it quickly became clear that the delay in the replies was due to the fact that so many rehearsal/recording studios had gone into quite a lot of detail about their experiences, which took them time. From one saying that they’d “been emailing the council every single day for the last 3 weeks without any reply”, to the studio just north of Birmingham pointing out “how much tax we’ve paid over the years, and then when the country shuts down we aren’t supported?”, to the studio who wrote a 2,700 word reply about how how they were torn between “either breaking the law and feeding my family, or doing the right thing and not being able to keep a roof over my family’s head”, the responses were dripping with justified frustration and, in many cases, anger.
The phrase “I’m so relieved you’ve got in touch,” “I’m so happy that someone got in touch” or variances of it appeared more than 10 times in total, and it’s no wonder; these studios will have worked on tight schedules with even tighter staff rosters for years. If my personal experiences are anything to go by days on end would consist of vacuuming rooms, taking payments and welcoming multiple bands at the same time for 10+ hour shifts, for not much money, with barely a chance to take your breath. It can be underestimated how physically exhausting that can be. Suddenly the rooms were empty, the PA systems silent, the phone calls stopped, yet the bills still coming; physical exhaustion turns to nervous exhaustion. Many studio owners will not have planned for this because not only did they not have time for it, but even if they did the margins in most rehearsal studios are so tight that it wouldn’t have been possible to put money aside for a hypothetical situation when there were so many imminent necessities that needed to be taken care of.
Their bands would not only be customers but friends too. The long hours meant studio owners would see the studios more than their actual homes. For reasons out of their hands their work, their second home and their social circle had been ripped away from them in an instant. It’s one thing to be made redundant at a company with a severance payout in your back pocket where you can start to apply for new jobs, it’s another thing to have all of your income lost with the bills of that business still to pay, and no new job to apply for. Frankly you’d be a sociopath to not be affected emotionally by that, and many studio owners took the opportunity of being contacted to vent their frustration to me about the situation.
3) Many studio owners saw the pandemic as a good way to close down a studio that had been clinging on for years
Perhaps the biggest shock I got was that 19 studio owners communicated to me that they saw the current situation in an opportunistic way to finally get out of the music industry without the usual baggage and risk that that entails. “If ever there’s a time for my business to go bust, it may as well be now when it’s happening to everyone.” “I’ve been running (the studios) for 23 years, was worried how it would look on my CV when they asked what happened to the business, you know, would I look like I was an incompetent business owner? Who would want to employ someone like that, yeah? If I go bust now everyone will disregard it, it’s a good time to let the business go to the wall.” There was some solid logic behind the timing of choosing to wind up your business now.
Some studios pointed out that they could move out of their rented premises and into their bedroom, cutting their monthly costs by 80% or more and still run the business, meaning they could claim the furlough money and make it go much further than before, with the added benefit that they could quarantine at home. As a result their business was, effectively, being wound down. A few also pointed out that getting £2,000 a month for the next 3 months gave them a great opportunity to spend that time working out what they finally wanted to do in their life, an opportunity never opened to them before, and another claimed to “not usually (be) into mystical stuff, but I’ve seen that a few music venues are saying that they’re going to close, I’m taking this is a sign that it’s a good time to get out of the industry and get a proper job.” From chaos comes opportunity, and many studio owners saw this as a way for them to draw a line in the sand and move onto something new, with the pandemic giving them an excuse to wind up the business, and the furlough scheme being a bit of support that would not be there in the future.
4) Fast action and open communication by a council authority is the most important thing that a government can do for a business.
The biggest differential between both how likely it was that a business could survive this pandemic, and how supported a business felt, was whether or not the action that was taken by the council and the MP in their constituency was proactive or reactive. Many studios in Brighton, for example, told me that they were contacted by their council within 2 weeks to explain what could be done for them, what they needed to do, and the emphasis was on the council to make the first step. Such a proactive attitude both ensured that businesses did not slip through the cracks of getting whatever help they needed, and also reassured them that they were not in this challenge alone, that the council was on their side. Other council’s such as Lewisham Council didn’t reply to emails from businesses for months on end, which caused many of them to give up on their application, as well as causing them a huge amount of stress. There was a huge correlation between the sense of optimism between businesses, how likely they were to survive, and whether it was the council/local MP who had contacted the studio in question, or vice versa. In an age where it is so easy to gather information about businesses from publicly listed information, there really is no excuse for the local authorities to not contact each and every business in an e mail send out to explain to them what can be done and what support is out there for people. That’s literally the whole point of having a council. In some cases it happened, in most it didn’t.
5) There was an overwhelming feeling of wanting to “do the right thing.”
The music industry is sometimes seen as one that is big on talk and short on detail, and one that’s so ruthless that you’re advised to get legal representation as soon as you start to make progress. So you’d be forgiven for thinking that in this time of being confronted with such dire economic realities that studios would develop a wild-west attitude of taking whatever risks they needed to to get through the period, but I can honestly say that not one person conveyed to me that they would be taking risks to try to get through the situation. “I’ll be closing it down until we know what the situation is,” and “ we won’t take any chances” were among common phrases I would receive back, and most, if not all of the studios I talked to felt a duty to be responsible for the bands that come to them. There wasn’t so much a feeling of wanting to abide by the governments guidelines, but instead a feeling of wanting to protect their customers. 6) The importance that many rural rehearsal studio have in being a social hub.
There was a marked difference in the responses from studios that were based in the cities compared to the countryside. Studio owners in the big cities would usually go into details of how many sessions a week they needed to cover their running costs and how their overdraft was about to be pushed to it’s limit, but there was also a demographic that was shared by 7 studios; of a rehearsal studio that had 2-3 rooms, was based on some kind of farm or at the end of a country lane, sometimes in former stables or a former cottage, where the owner was in their 60s or older, had a one page website, and to them their studios were a way to supplement their retirement income whilst building a social circle around them. These 7 studios didn’t mention the financial aspect of the lockdown at all, but commented about how “the wife was happy that I had something to focus on, I’m going to be under her feet now”, or how “hopefully the bands come back at the end (of lock-down), I like the bustle of having the younger kids practising here.”
One commented “we had a gig here in our biggest studio and about 60 people turned up, just before this happened, I’m worried that it might have spread at the party to be honest.” I had to reassure him that within 3 days of that event “Supergrass played at Alexandra Palace to 10,000 people, and that had been allowed by the government, so I wouldn't beat yourself up too much.” Their first thought for this demographic was not for the income lost, but on the fact that they wouldn’t see the usual people who used the studios as much. I know first hand how much you get to know bands that come to the studios, especially the ones that you see weekly over many years, but for some rural studio owners this was the main benefit of their rehearsal studios, as opposed to a side benefit, and they would lament that no amount of financial assistance from the government would replace this.
7) If you own the building that you’re based in then you’re a lot more likely to get through this pandemic than if you rent. I touched on this in a previous blog post, but there was a marked difference in the response from people who owned the building that their business was based in, and those who were renting. Out of all of the other factors, including the location, the amount of studios available, the type of bands they attract, the pricing of the sessions offered, how many years they had been established and many other factors, this was by far and away the factor that was the biggest differential in their optimism. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic the UK government announced that they would be giving a 100% business rates refund for the 2020-2021 year, but some landlords decided that they would not be passing this onto their tenants and pocketed this extra money, (ours included) despite the fact that it was meant to compensate for the loss of income that the pandemic had caused. These landlords were still receiving the rent in full from their tenants, but still claiming the money that was meant for their tenants. It is happening a lot. Owning your own building meant you could avoid being taken advantage of by a greedy landlord looking to grab any government money that was meant to be passed on to the people actually directly affected. Being in control of your own destiny just makes things easier.
Businesses who had a business mortgage were usually given a mortgage payment holiday by a lender who was worried of the prospect of the borrower defaulting on their mortgage, and they could also tap into the equity from the building as a way to cover their loss of income. Many also took the opportunity to use the studios for alternative uses, including turning them into temporary extra offices or even isolation pods, being able to invest the relatively small amounts of money this needed to do this. Such an investment, whilst small, was not as attractive a prospect to renters worried of further investing into a building that they did not own.
8) Most of them didn’t actually respond to the emails.
Times are chaotic at the moment, and maybe there are many emails that are sitting unread in the spam boxes of rehearsal studios all over the cloud, but of 279 studio contacted, only 107 replied to the email at all. Whether it was a skepticism of why I was contacting them or forgetting to reply to me, more than 50% of the time no response came back. No offence was taken, of course, but I did wonder what stories lay behind this statistic.
9) Us rehearsal studios have a common enemy….. Of the 107 studios, 29 of them mentioned a company that has been aggressively expanding into the UK rehearsal space industry over recent years, with this company having opened upwards of 25 locations across the UK. It was by far and away the thing mentioned the most. The company behind the studios had an investment of $20m in 2018 alone, and their end goal seems to be to swallow up as much of the market for band rehearsals in the UK as possible, a fact that has not been lost on the studios who mentioned them in their replies. For obvious reasons I won’t name them, (not least because they don’t exactly need the publicity) but there was a genuine fear amongst many people that this oncoming pandemic would allow the company to overpower an already weakened industry and quicken up their expansion.
From the feedback that I’ve heard from the bands that come to us that have used them, (which has mainly been passed on through staff members), most bands see the service that this other company offers as different and much less personalized to what most other studios offer, with a common observation being that “if you go there as a band you’re getting a 10% discount on the session price, but the time lost in setting up the room means you’re losing 20% of the session time,” and there have also been stories of whole sessions being a write off due to the previous band taking a piece of equipment with them. The fact that these studios do not have staff members present both increases the chance of this happening, and also makes it difficult for such occurrences to be fixed. As a result we never really considered them a rival as such, but this sentiment was not shared by other studios, two of which actually admitted to having set up Google alerts with the company name and the name of their city, to warn them if news broke of the company planning to open a studio in their territory. A few months later one of the other studios that I was in touch with actually emailed me to tell me that he had found a link on the internet about this company planning on setting up a rival studio in the very part of town that Bally Studios is based in, Tottenham, N17, so I guess that that’s a subject for a future blog post……
10) One of the biggest factors that is being overlooked at the moment is the amount of emotional energy that this pandemic is taking out of people.
It’s easy to look at this pandemic solely through the prism of numbers: the amount of cases, deaths, hospital admissions, how many businesses have gone bust, the hit the economy has taken and so on, but the emotional burden for businesses has been largely ignored. Social media and the press in general has made a distinction between, on one hand, families that have not been able to attend weddings and funerals and see loved ones, and, on the other hand, businesses that are going to the wall, but there are emotional stories that lie behind every business too, even the ones that get through this.
Take our studios, Bally Studios, for example. On one hand we were able to get the grant needed to get through the first few months of the pandemic whilst many others weren’t able to do so, and from speaking to so many other businesses in that position we feel super grateful, but there’s a lot behind this that gets lost: the fact that from April to the start of July I averaged 4 hours 55 minutes a night sleep from the stress of not knowing if we would get the grant, a fact that I was faced with every time I synced my Fitbit.
Getting the grant was great, but up until the point that we actually got it we had been told on 6 separate occasions that we were not eligible for it, and that brought an incredible amount of stress and frustration with it. I'd go so far as to say it was akin to gaslighting, to read the regulations, to know that they apply to us, but then to be told that they didn't. To say it was an emotional roller-coaster would be to underplay it. Putting my own money into the business and seeing the money that was meant to be going into giving my daughter a good start in life diminish by the day was stressful beyond words. When I’d write another appeal letter to the council and then receive an email 1 hour later my heart would start to race from the dread that we had been turned down again, or the excitement that we’d been successful. I’d make an excuse as to something that I needed to do before I opened it, (either hanging up the washing, or making a tea) as a way to prepare myself for whatever news was coming next. The nervous energy put into preparing myself was physically exhausting. I'd then open the email to see that it was the council telling me that the person in that office had gone home early that day, and so they could be replying to the email at a later date. There were over 100 emails back and forth between me and various council members that went into securing the grant, and every single one of these required a sharp intake of breath before opening it, or many frantic minutes re-reading the same email over and over again before sending it to make sure that I had not made any mistakes in it that could incorrectly discount us from getting the grant, or that contained any incorrect information in it. As time went on the stress built; my resting hear-rate increased from 64, a level it had been at for about 3 years, to 75 over 2 months. Whereas once I would watch a film engrossed in it, now I was thinking about what newspapers I could contact whilst "watching" it. The cause overtook my life for a good 3 months, and the more the debt climbed the more stressful it became. There was no “time off.” Plans of actions were being created, resources gathered…...and then suddenly we got an email to say that we’d been given the grant, and we had breathing room. It’s a situation that’s difficult to describe, and in the music industry alone there are 100’s of studios all across the UK that have been/are going through it, yet that is not being factored into the numbers. Whatever funding is made available will only be a fraction of what the studios income would have been able to earn before, it will have been hard fought for, and it will have also been given to allow the business to barely cling on to their existence; for these businesses to survive, not thrive. Any business that does get through this incredibly challenging time will likely find themselves in a situation where they are both physically and mentally exhausted and also facing the challenge of needing to re-open with the new strict guidelines that are in place, to re-connect with their customers, with the endless list of other tasks that needs to be completed. That’s hard enough at the best of times, let alone when you’re coming to the end of such an energy sapping experience, and whilst we’re still in the middle of a global pandemic. These studios still hanging on will likely be in a much weaker position than at any other point; they need our support more than ever.