"The AirBnB for Rehearsal Studios?" No thanks.
by Jimmy Mulvihill September 23rd 2019
Over the last few years we've been contacted by 8 different companies that wanted to establish themselves as the "AirBnB for Rehearsal Studios". Although their approach differed slightly, their identical aim was to create a single 'portal' (website, to you and me) where bands can go online, compare prices between different rehearsal studios, have all of the details in the same place, and where this new 'portal', (according to one organisation), "takes over the whole process of finding new customers, the hassle of booking bands in, and gets your business in front of millions of potential customers." Upon receiving such emails, we would send over a few questions to them to find out how the service worked, probe a bit further, but up until now we've felt that it just wasn't for us, for various reasons. That was the end of that, they moved onto the next studio, we moved onto re-skinning snare drums, and no more thought was given to it.
2 months ago we were contacted again by one of these companies, and as always we decided to check out the website to see if there's anything that they offered now that was different to before. To our surprise, Bally Studios was already on the website, ready to accept bookings. There was a blue box with "Reserve" written in it, we clicked on it, and were taken to a page where we needed to make a request for a booking. We could put in the details of our request, but we didn't know where those details were sent to. The location of the studios was given as "Manor House", a location that we are based at least 45 minutes walk from. According to the link, we provided 2 microphones in each studio. We actually offer 3-5. The minimum hourly rate was given as £10.50, a bit over the £9.87 an hour that it can be in the daytime, but 450% the price that bands with long term bookings pay. Visitors to the website were shown one single studio being offered, only 20% of the studios that we actually have on offer.
On one hand it can be easy to brush off these inaccuracies - Tottenham Hale and Manor House are kind of in the same area, considering how big London is. A band could always ask for a 3rd microphone, and a discount of 63p per hour isn't going to entice too many bands in - but on the other hand it also highlighted the exact reasons as to why we feel such unease at such services. Our rehearsal studios are something very close to our heart, something that we take a lot of pride in as well as providing us with a way to earn the money to keep a roof over our head. For that to continue, we need to build up a relationship with bands that helps us serve them best. Here we have a 3rd party business looking to get in between us and these bands, and to make money from the process without even getting our permission. They could be talking to these customers on our behalf, with the customer thinking that they are authorized to do so. Jumping in between a business and their customers can be akin to jumping in between 'mother bear' and 'baby bear' – it’s likely to get a reaction.
We contacted them immediately to ask why they were trying to take bookings for the studios on our behalf without agreeing to it in advance with us, and to their credit they apologized and assured us that the listing would be taken down. (Note, a month later and it was still on their website). To our mind, it's not so much that we don't personally agree with such websites, but instead it's that in our opinion, as a business who has worked in this industry for 14 years, and has had well over 31,000 bookings in that time, in the long term these services only bring disadvantages without any benefits, to both bands and rehearsal studios themselves.
Here's why: 1) Such websites only become profitable through high volume, but that can be counter to what is best for the actual business.
First impressions count for a lot, and we try to do what we can to present ourselves as best we can, with whatever limitations we have. On this occasion our rehearsal studios was added to this external booking website without our say so, which the platform admitted that they did to kickstart the amount of listings that they had on their website, with them being happy to mitigate the fallout from it later. As they say in the tech industry, "run fast and break things." Any potential customer doesn't know that, so any mistakes that are in it reflect badly on us.
So the aforementioned inconsistencies in the listing's information could damage our reputation, through no fault of our own. Someone could easily think, "Bally Studios, based in Manor House? I'll jump on the Piccadilly Line then.....". Bad news for them and us, as they'll be going to the wrong area, and if they, rightfully, become frustrated at this, we'll be the one getting the blow back. If 4 out of 5 of our studios are booked and only our smallest Studio 3 is available, and an 8 piece band calls up looking to book a session, we need to tell them that they may be better off booking at another rehearsal studios if that is what is better for the band. Even though we lose that booking, it's better to show the band that we'd rather they have a better rehearsal with another business, rather than a compromised one with us. Any short term gain from an extra session from an annoyed band is offset by word getting round that bands come to us and don't have a great rehearsal. For a small business such as our own, a reputation of customer satisfaction is much more important than the odd booking here and there. Yet tech companies ONLY work by making sure that the customer makes the booking no matter what. These platforms would rather have more information up on their platform, even if it is not accurate. They don't work on quality of content, but instead on quantity. Facebook don't check to see that the content on their website is accurate, YouTube don't have a panel of judges to make sure that the videos are up to par, that's not really how tech firms works. Volume is always prioritized over quality, and in this example the content of the information was put up without our knowledge. The inaccurate information could have sent more potential customers our way, sure, but they could have sent bands to us that made bookings based on inaccurate information, which doesn't serve them or us best. A band could have been based in Manor House, made the booking thinking that we were based a short walk away, and then just before leaving they could have confirmed our location. Now they have to catch a bus to reach us. We also don't know what happens when a booking is made: what happens if someone tries to make a booking, which is then lost because the system isn't set up well enough, and in turn they think that we've rudely ignored their booking request? We tried to make a provincial booking with another studio just to see what would happen (having warned them in advance to ignore the booking), and clicking on the "Reserve" button took us back to the exact same page. The same happened when we tried to make a booking with our own studios. The booking was not made, and we didn't know why. If we hadn't have been in touch with the other studios, or if we didn't receive the booking ourselves, we wouldn't have known that it wasn't booked. The ambiguity was annoying for us, even though we had access to information that most customers wouldn't have, and that's how it would be for new potential customers. The fault came from the 3rd party website, which is representing us, and we had no control over it at all. Especially seeing as we've been doing well for the last 14 years, why would we want to take a risk in encouraging people to use this untested system, which is full of problems, instead of dealing with us directly, especially when there are considerable risks that come with it, but no upsides? 2) They put a buffer between us and our customers.
"Our service takes away the hassle of booking bands in?" That was their sales pitch. 60%-70% of the bookings that we make consist of a sweaty band member coming in at the end of their session with 4 empty coffee cups, saying, "can we have the same room, same time next week mate?" or us getting a phone call saying "heya mate, it's me again, is our usual studio available on Thursday evening, it's the one just around the corner, I can never remember which one is that, you know, the purple one with the sofa?" To be fair, there's not much hassle for most of them, and if there are any hassles at the time of booking, the last thing we would want to do is to remove them, since they will usually give a good indication of future problems that need to be sorted out sooner rather than later. A band that wants to book 7pm - 10pm who says "this is the first time that we've ever booked a practice room, so what do we need?" can be asked if they want to move their session to 7:15pm - 10:15pm so that we can get the other studios ready first, and then given them our 100% attention to them from 7:15pm - 7:30pm, so that they can get the most out of their session. We show them how the mixing desk works, how to control the reverb, how to engage the snare wires, and so on. That helps them out, and it helps us out, and it needs us to be in contact at the time that they book to know that they need that help. A band who says, "we're a 4 piece so we'd better get the biggest room so that we can all fit in," can be told that even the smaller studios can accommodate them. 99% of the time that there's "hassle," it's best to find out now so that we can sort that problem out, and unless the automated booking system understands our studios exactly, they can't do that. Remove the process where we deal with the bands directly and you remove the chance to give the band the best booking possible. An automated booking system can't chat to a new band about the best way to go to the studios from Brick Lane, (15 minute walk to Liverpool street, then 14 minutes on the Greater Anglia train,) or how good the Fender Champion is compared to the higher end Fenders Deluxe's/Fender Twin (in a recording studio there's a huge difference, in a rehearsal studios it's much less noticeable then you'd think.) The booking process is the part of the process where we can make that initial connection with a band that could mean that they have a great first rehearsal, which then makes them come back every week for months or years into the future, so why would we want to farm that process out to someone else? That first phone call gives us a great insight into the customer, and it's something that we'd never take for granted. Even if they did use the service once to book a session with us, in all honesty we'd encourage them to deal with us directly in future, not least so that we can avoid the cut that the booking service takes of the booking fee.
3) Such services solve a problem that doesn't exist.
Services such as this take their inspiration from the hotel/accommodation industry, but such comparisons don't apply here. A hotel can have 50-200 rooms or more, so if there is even a small delay of 3 minutes with each check-in, it can take them hours every day to sort out. It's worth a hotel delegating the responsibility of booking their rooms to a 3rd party, as the booking service can sort out the different languages that the potential guests will speak, the different currencies, the different needs that they have, etc. When you have so many bookings and a turnover of millions per year, spending money getting those problems sorted is well spent, not least because you can cut back on staff costs from problems being solved in advance. Thus, the extra cost of these services is usually balanced by extra staff costs that are saved. It's also rare that the whole hotel is booked out on any one day, so every extra booking that they get makes them more money. The profits are accrued through sheer volume, and booking websites help to pick up the slack. By comparison we have 5 studios, most of them usually full, and on any one day we will have met 90% of the bands that are booked in that day at least 5-10 times. We already know the studios they prefer, the amplifiers they favour, whether the drummer is right or left handed, and how many microphones they may need, whether they need cymbals, and so on. Hotel booking websites help to prevent the problems that create bottlenecks that we don't usually have, since we already know what the bands need, so we can easily plan in advance. Even if we did delegate these tasks to a third party, we won’t save staff costs anyway since we only have one member of staff in at any one time. These members of staff may as well be helping the bands personally, rather than farming the task out to someone located hundreds of miles away. The vast majority of the time we are all booked up anyway, so whilst it might be nice to get an extra booking here and there, that needs to be weighed up against the £39 a month fee that we need to pay to be on the service, which is what some of them charge. It's difficult to justify spending money on getting new bands in the door when you are already turning many of them away from being too full. In any case, which service would we sign up to? Joining up with all of 8 different services who contacted us would mean us paying about £200 a month in such fees, unmanageable for a business our size, especially when the service that they provide merely replicates what we already do. Furthermore the biggest tech companies that link customer-to-seller, such as AirBnB and Uber, all rely on having a total knowledge of what bookings are being made in the whole market, and then adjusting their surge pricing accordingly. This is the key to their success, it’s the foundation that everything else is built on. If the London Underground had a power cut, you may have 50,000 people looking to book an Uber simultaneously, many of which may be happy to pay an extra £3 to be at the front of the queue to get their ride first. For such a service you need to adjust the price to match the demand, which in turn encourages more Uber drivers to start their shift from being able to earn more money, and perfecting this is the key to their success.
Likewise, if there's a big event in a certain city on a weekend, like a music festival or a big football match, AirBnB will change the price of accommodation so that the people offering accommodation get a better price, which then encourages more people to rent out their spare rooms, so that in turn the people looking for accommodation have more chance of securing it. The key component that these companies play upon is matching the rise and fall of supply and demand with prices that help to balance it out. Whether it is AirBnB, Uber, Deliveroo, BlaBlaCar, Fiverr, their value is not only in matching people together, but in doing it in a way that balances out the needs of the customers with the resources the suppliers have, yet that doesn't happen with services that look to book rehearsal studios. There's no mechanism to raise prices since we don't have the same conditions of supply and demand, and even if you could, you wouldn't want to since you'd be taking advantage of a band, which may leave a bad impression on a customer who would otherwise be happy to return many, many more times.
We have customers who have come to us hundreds and hundreds of times over 10+ years, by contrast most people don't go back to the same hotel year after year, and they don't always use the same Uber driver, so there's no need to build up that same depth of relationship. In these cases, short term prices surges don't affect their business much, to us it would, massively. If surge pricing economics were at one end of the business scale, then the rehearsal studios business model would be at the other end of it. The success of the other platforms is mainly due to surge pricing and working out how the algorithms work, and in this case it doesn't apply. So saying that you want to be the “AirBnB of rehearsal rooms” is flawed.
4) The more successful the website becomes, the more their key selling point diminishes.
Each of these companies told us that if we could put our studios on their listing services then we could get an advantage over our competition, yet they also told us that their aim is to get all rehearsal studios in our area on the website. By definition, it's impossible for all of the studios on the website to have a "business advantage." If they all have it, then none of them have it. Their promise to advertise your business to their customers only works if some businesses are given priority over others. If everyone is advertised, everything stays relative to each other. If the platform becomes successful, then instead of paying £500 a year to promote your studios, you are forced to pay £500 a year simply to keep up with the other studios that may also be paying through a fear of missing out if they don't. Pretty soon you're having to be on the website simply to keep up with your competition, essentially running to stand still. By that point, it would be just as good for all of the studios if the service had never existed in the first place, since we're all spending money to stay at the same comparative level as each other.
5) They create a single point of failure.
All of the businesses that contacted us were start up companies, yet they extolled the virtues of us one day being able to hand over the tasks of promoting the business and taking bookings to them in full. Considering how much the fate of the business relies on getting those two processes right, you'd be hard pressed to find a rehearsal studios who would be thrilled at the prospect of handing over those key responsibilities to a company with no track record of success in that task. A quick check on the various platforms social media shows that many of them have less than 20 Facebook likes and 50 Twitter followers. At the risk of sounding harsh, there's no evidence that they know how to connect with an audience for their own business, let alone others. If their business ever grew to the point where they had lots of traffic coming through it, and where all customers rely on it to book all of their rehearsals, it would mean that any vulnerabilities in their website would affect all studios at once, which isn't ideal. If there were two businesses, and Business A decided to encourage their customers to use the booking service that this company provided, and Business B encouraged their customers to stick with telephoning them instead, if the booking system of the booking company were to develop problems then Business A would bare the brunt of them, whereas Business B would be unaffected, and the rehearsal studios that have signed up to the service have absolutely no control over these technical problems.
6) It’s a system that is open to abuse.
If any of these websites do take off, and if in the future they have control over booking rehearsals in the same way that YouTube has cornered the online video market, then one organization has loads of the market coming to it and can decide where those customers go to………, and where they don’t. If I were to have any complaints about the service, what’s to say that our listing won’t be dropped down the list of studios available in return? The thought of a single company having control over a whole industry has obvious concerns. They could even set up their own studios and divert all of the traffic to their own studio instead, what is to stop them? On a more basic level, it could force the businesses that use it into a bidding war to keep attracting business, which is either going to cut into profits or raise the price of sessions.
7) Most importantly, the last thing that we need in the music industry is any kind of automation. Look at some of the more famous posters from CBGB's in NYC in the late 1970s and you'd see bands such as The Ramones, Television, The Patti Smith Group, Blondie, and Talking Heads playing gigs together, supporting each other. Simultaneously across the pond The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Wire and The Jam were part of a music scene that relied on people being in the same room as each other, trading fanzines such as Sniffin Glue which had been printed up on beaten up printers. The floor was sticky with spilled beer, nods were traded between band members of competing bands in the toilets, split singles were issued, equipment was shared. The chances of such great bands being a part of a great scene through pure chance are remote at best: instead, the success of each band fed into the potential of the others. The competitive nature of bands would motivate each of them to raise their game to compete with each other. Playing gigs with each other would mean their fan base started to cross over, which supported them through the toughest part of their career. Much of that is now being lost today from an infrastructure where a band can get 1,000 "likes" on a post, yet much of their fan base wouldn't know the bassist of the band if they tripped over them in the street. The volume of connections is being prioritized over the quality of them, and it's killing the music scene. In the past bands would find out about rehearsal studios from chatting to each other at gigs. In fact, it was through us chatting to other bands at the gigs that we used to play from 2002-2005 that we decided to found the studios ourselves. That personal connection with other bands is what the music industry needs to be based on. So to see a system set up that helps to alleviate the need for such a connection, and that acts as a buffer between bands and rehearsal studios is actually quite depressing. Even the term "getting rid of the hassle of booking bands in...................", **deep breath**, yeah, it's deflating. Anyone who sees this connection as a hassle is, frankly, in the wrong industry.
Having a middle man between bands and rehearsal studios risks eroding the relationships built up between them both. We can chat to a band here and learn about a new music venue that's just opened across town. They give us their personal opinion about it, and next time that a band says that they are looking for a new place to play, we can tell them about it. That personal connection is vital for us, and we want to preserve it. Although such 'platforms' think that they are providing a service, there's already a way to compare these businesses, which is to check out their website, to pick up the phone, to ask to have a look around the studios, and to chat to the staff members and other band members who already go to the studios personally to see what they think. Check out the online reviews, if you want. The whole reason why so many bands move to London is that, yes, it's expensive, but it's also where the music scene is, but there's no point in being there if you're not going to build up that relationship in the flesh. The more you connect with people through technology, the shallower those connections get. If you only connect with people on the internet, you may as well be based anywhere.
So get out there, shake those hands, get those shoes onto the sticky floor of the pub, stack those band flyers in the guitar shop, be on first name terms with the promoters who can connect you with people who can help you, chat to the sound engineer who can recommend you how to get more out of your gear, ask the rehearsal studio member of staff what venues they can recommend. Cut the middle man. Automated systems are good for data systems, fine for trading stocks and they work in many cases - but for the unsigned music industry? Never.