9 small improvements that all rehearsal studios can offer.
Jimmy Mulvihill Bally Studios
We’ve been running Bally Studios for 16 years now, and prior to that the studios traded for 16 more years under the previous owners as Sync City Studios. When we took over the history of the studios was impressive, yet in recent years it’s decline was clear. It was averaging 37 sessions per month across the 3 rooms, and that was mostly from 6 bands who would rehearse 4 times a month. For these sessions the key was left with the bands, and staff members would set up the PA system and then head home, with the clients expected to clean up after themselves and to lock up the studio at the end of the session. At the end of their sessions the band would shove the key under the door of the office. If the bands needed any help or cups of tea during their sessions they were out of luck. On our first day of ownership we cleaned out the litter that was strewn around the place, filling 6 large industrial bin bags. Vacuuming the studios left tracks on the grey carpet where it had cleaned, to the point where we started spelling out our name in the carpets. 6 of the 10 light bulbs in studio 2 were blown, with one of them being replaced with a 150 watt light bulb which generated so much heat that it basically doubled up as a heater. There was a mummified mouse behind one of the bass speakers. We did about 15 hours of work on that first day, and we were rewarded for it by the reactions of the bands when they came for their first rehearsal since the change of ownership. When standards drop so low, even the smallest of improvements gets noticed, and so begins “the law of diminishing returns”, where as you improve things more and more, eventually the rewards for those improvements is less and less evident. At first we had 2 beaten up drum kits, neither of which had hardware or snares with them. Pretty much all of the bands that came to the studios would bring their own backline, which got us out of a hole but it also limited the amount of bands that we could attract. By selling an old Gibson Les Paul Black Beauty guitar (which I still miss even today) we were able to buy a Premier Cabria drum kit and a bulk order of drum hardware, as well as finding 3 snare drums on eBay that could be renovated. We spent £850 and in the first week had 4 new sessions, worth £168 in total, from bands that had stopped coming to the studios as they needed a drum-kit that the studios didn’t previously provide. That’s an 19.7% return on investment in one week, with these sessions bringing in cash for a studio that would have otherwise sat empty. You’d be hard pressed to find a Crytocurrency that gives you that kind of return today. We spent the next few years improving the studio bit by bit, spending money where it was needed, and in the early days every penny spent makes a difference. Having 3 studios and 3 snare drums meant everyone had their own snare, but it left us open to there being delays when a band needed a snare skin replaced, since they’d need to wait while we did it. Buying that 4th snare drum meant that they could quickly swap the drums over and carry on their session without delay, and so the 4th snare drum meant that bands could get an extra 10 minutes from their sessions,and we didn’t have the stress of needing to fix the snare so quickly. The same doesn’t apply when we bought the 5th, 6th or even 10th snare drum. Having more snares is better, sure, but you don’t improve the studios as much with the 10th snare as you did by buying the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd. Pretty soon you hit the stage where you’re spending money to change things, and not necessarily to improve them. If you are improving them then the cost of doing so can be sufficient that the bands sessions need to be increased, and at that point you need to weigh up if that’s in the best interests of the band to do the upgrades. At some point you need be more creative in how to improve the facilities that you offer Confession time: there’s been times in the past when a new rehearsal studio has opened in London that we’ve booked a short session for ourselves, usually under the pretense of needing to test a new guitar amplifier, simply to have a gander around. We’d say to the owner of the studio that we just need an hour or so, and they’ll call us a week later to say that they had a slot between a bands 2pm – 6pm slot and another bands 7pm – 11pm slot, so we get to go in there and nose around.
I’ve been to 19 different studios in London, 7 as a band member myself, and 12 under the premise of “needing to test an amplifier” (wink wink). When COVID-19 hit I chatted to over 100+ different music rehearsal studios in 2020, helping various studios understand what grants were available to them, and there were times that I found myself revealing that fact that I’d been to their studios at the same time that I worked in another rehearsal studio complex. Examples of this would be when a studio owner would say, “we’ve got 5 studios..”, and I’d instinctively reply with “oh, you added a 5th studio? You only had 4 in 2012…...” or when they’d say, “we’re using our biggest studio as a storage room for PPE equipment,” and I’d reply, “ah, yes, there’s no steps going into that studio, so it’s easy loading access…..” Some studios would notice that they had already saved my email address from a booking that I had made in the past, and I’d never hide away from the fact that I booked sessions in other studios to get a perspective on Bally Studios. I paid for my session, after all. In these reconnaissance missions there were plenty of things that I’d seen that I’d have loved to incorporate into our studios, like a communal area with a pool table, a licensed bar or even natural light in the office. Yet adding either of these things to our setup would have meant taking on more units within our building, the cost of which would mean that we’d need to increase the amount of sessions we had by 25%-30%, which is difficult to do when you’re at 93% capacity already. Taking on more units for more rehearsal studios to cover these sessions would mean going over the VAT threshold, (which we’ve been purposefully trading under our entire history) and to do so we’d need to add 20% to the cost of all of our studio prices, and suddenly you’re pricing yourself out of the market, not to mention the extra time needed to complete all of the extra paperwork. It would also mean investing lots of money into improving a building that we did not own and that we may need to walk away from in the future. When you’re already VAT registered and you own the building you’re based in these aren’t great concerns, you can keep on adding studios until the cows come home so long as you have demand for them, but in our situation they didn’t make sense. Running a business on our level is a case of working out where improvements can be made, but within the natural limitations we have.
Still, there are plenty of simple ways that rehearsal studios can offer more to the bands that use them, and here are what we think are the better ones. 1) Creating a Band profile spreadsheet. Started at Bally in January 2018. The best investment that a studio can make is in extra planning, instead of spending extra money. Whenever a new band comes to us we add their details to an internal spreadsheet that lists as many details about the band as possible, including things like how many microphones they need, whether the drummer is left or right handed, what guitar amps they like, what studio they prefer, and even things like where they are travelling from. That way we can get the room set up for them as much as possible before they arrive, and also let them know if there may be any transport issues on the day of their session. If a band needs x4 guitar amps for their session we can grab ones that aren’t being used from other studios, and this spreadsheet helps to us plan for things like that. If swapping a couple of guitar amps over means each band gets one that they prefers, it’s 2 minutes of our time well spent. It helps bands get more out of their sessions, and it means that we don’t need to wait for the band to arrive to ask them what they need or prefer, with no need to spend 7pm – 7:20pm running around like a blue-arse fly grabbing things for 5 bands starting their session at the same time. There is no better investment that a studio can make than a simple spreadsheet that records a band’s needs and preferences, that the studio can use to make sure they have what they need as quickly as possible.
2) Communal WhatsApp messages. Started at Bally in September 2018.
Although not too many bands do this, every band that comes to us has the option of starting a WhatsApp group with all of their band members and our studio mobile phone number added to it, so that any band member can book a rehearsal slot via WhatsApp, with all of the other band members being able to see if the session has been confirmed instantly, without more messages needing to be passed on. Putting all of the communication between a band and the studio in one place just makes things easier. You wouldn’t believe the amount of times that a band books a session, and then 20 minutes later sheepishly calls back to say, “actually the guitarist says that they can’t do that day after all…….” The member who is booking the session is stuck with passing on messages between their fellow band mates and the studios, and if we need to ask something else then they need to pass that message to their band mate, and then back to us. We’ve had multiple members of the band call up to book the same session, and multiple occasions where four fifths of a band’s members know that the session has been cancelled, with the final member turning up at the studios having left the previous session early, not hearing this change had been made. No one should have to be manually forwarding electronic information in 2021, and group messages cuts down on the need to pass messages on. Whether it be band members needing different equipment for their sessions, reminding band members if they owe money for storing their gear with us, or sending receipts for sessions, group chats make this easier.
3) Sanitizing microphones. Started at Bally in March 2007. In 2020 everyone was suddenly wiping everything down with disinfectant spray, but we started doing this back in 2007 when we started to disinfect our microphones at the end of every session, with us posting about it many years later on social media. To us it was a no brainer: the lips and tongue of the lead singer is going to be right up to the microphone for 4 hours, and then the next person comes up and does the same thing?!? Not only is that gross, it’s also an easy way for a lead singer to catch a virus, and if that happens then a band may cancel their next session if the vocalist is not able to sing. It costs us about £15-£18 a year to buy the disinfectant to do it on every microphone, every day, so if you prevent one cancellation every 2 years then it pays for itself. You wouldn’t accept a glass at a bar that someone else had drunk out of, or bed sheets at a hotel that someone else has slept in, so you also shouldn’t settle for a microphone that’s covered in the saliva of the last band’s singer.
4) Drum spares in a box, and drum keys on a chain. Drum spares in a box started at Bally in April 2015, drum key on a chain started in March 2006.
As a lot of our staff members are drummers, including our studio manager who is a drum teacher, it was always very important to us that the drum kits had everything that they needed for the drummers to get good results out of them, and that included making sure we had enough cymbal felts, wing nuts and hi hat clutches. However, if you’ve worked in a rehearsal studio you’ll know how often these things go missing, and at 35p per drum felt, (even at wholesale prices), if a few bands pocket a few of them each day, the cost soon adds up.
We’ve done social media posts about ways to cut the cost of these by using lagging insulation as drum cymbal felts, or tubing from fish tank oxygen tubes as cymbal protectors, and they help to get us out of a bind, but they’re not as good as the real thing. Giving each band a box of all of the drum bits in it at the start of the session, and then asking them to bring it back at the end of the session when they leave means we get to count everything to make sure nothing has gone missing, so we save money on replacing the drum bits, meaning we can keep the prices of the sessions low. and drummers always get what they need. There’s no need to be running around x5 rooms as x5 bands leave, looking at 4 different cymbal stands on each kit, lifting up bass drums to find a lost hi-hat clutch or peering under a ride cymbal to see if the sleeve protector is still in place, this way everything’s all together, and drummers are more conscious about what they borrow, and what they return. There are many times that I’ve personally played the drums myself at the studios at the end of a shirt, and when emptying my pockets when doing the washing I’ll find plectrums and drum felts in my pockets that I never knew were there. Putting things in your pockets and forgetting you’ve done so is easily done, and knowing that the staff member will be checking the box when it’s returned means there’s less chance of other drummers making the same mistake as me.
5) Stage lights. Started at Bally in November 2012. We bought our stage lighting nearly a decade ago, and it was done with a view to help bands prepare for shows under “match conditions.” I once had white gaffer tape on my guitar amps and pedals, with all of my preferred settings written down in red pen. To my horror, when the stage lights went red during the first song of a gig it was impossible for me to see the red pen under the red lights. I managed to stumble through it, but I realised that if I had rehearsed under stage lights in the practice room then that wouldn’t have happened, and that was when the decision was made to invest in stage lighting.
A one-off investment of £400 for 5 studios was enough to fit them all with basic stage lighting, and since then the cost of the LED lighting has dropped so much that if we were to do the same today, we’d be looking at a cost of about £280 in total, for 5 studios. That’s such a low investment that there’s no reason for any studios to not offer them. In that time we’ve never had any problems with them, no faults, no blown LED’s, nothing, and they’re a nice feature at a price that means you don’t need to put the prices of the sessions up. We’ve thought about adding multiple lights to each room, maybe even add a DMX controller to offer bands the option to control the lights throughout their session, but pretty soon you’re opening a Pandora’s box where the band spends more time fiddling with the lights and less rehearsing. Offering a standard PAR64 LED light with the in-built automatic lighting program means bands get a stripped down version of what they get live, without the extra cost of money or time needed to work out how to use it, and mistakes are caught ahead of time, which is the whole point of a rehearsal session.
6) MP3 connectors on the mixing desk. Started at Bally in January 2006. Back in 2005 we used to offer cassette tape decks. In 2006 we popped down to Richer Sounds to upgrade to CD players, and at the same time we started to connect a cable with a headphone jack on one end, that was connected to x2 mono quarter inch jacks that would be fed into a single stereo channel in the mixing desk, so that bands could play their iPods through the desk. (Ask your parents, they were all the rage at one point….). Then we’d clamp down the cable with a plastic tie to that it couldn’t be taken away, and band could listen to whatever music they want while getting setting up/packing down. Now, I know that this sounds basic, and it is, but that’s why it should be done everywhere, and there’s lot of studios that still don’t do this, and with the small cost and the big benefit that they bring, they absolutely should.
7) Availability calendars. Started at Bally in May 2014.
As we’ve blogged about in the past, there are many companies that are happy to act as a middleman between rehearsal studios and their customers, and with it take up to a 12% fee for the “service” that they offer, and one of the benefits of this is that they can offer a way for bands to see what sessions are available at any time, making it easier for them to book sessions. We’ve spoken to some of these businesses that say that they offer the “latest technology” that allows them to do this, but here’a an alternative: Google Spreadsheets that are set to “view only”. It’s simple, it does the job, and it’s free as well.
8) Checking all plugs with socket testers, as standard.
Started at Bally in January 2006. I wasn’t sure whether to include this one, as this is such a basic thing to do that it should be done in all studios as standard, (or even all businesses) but incidents such as the Grenfell tragedy have shown us that nothing can be taken for granted, and that important safety checks should be double and triple checked, and this is the easiest of them all. For less than £10 you can buy a electrical socket tester that instantly shows you if any of the wires inside a plug have come loose. We use two different testers to check all of the electrical sockets in all of the studios on a regular basis. It takes 5 seconds per plug to do, and it makes sure that the bands that come to us are kept safe and sound. It not only protects the band members themselves, but also their equipment too. If you’re at a rehearsal studios and if you ask a staff member if you can borrow a plug tester to check that a plug is okay, and if they say that they don’t have one, you should start looking for a new rehearsal studios sharpish, since this is the most basic of safety steps anyone can take.
9) Taking card payments via bank transfers and banking apps rather than credit card machines.
Started at Bally in January 2015. Most businesses are happy to take payments from their customers by credit/debit card, but we don’t offer that option at Bally Studios due to the extra costs associated with the process. 9 out of 10 bands understand why this is so, but here’s the details for that other 10%.
When you start taking payments via card readers, the money is not going from the customers bank to the businesses bank directly, instead it’s going via a middleman company such as Visa or Mastercard, the later of which is a company that pays FIFA $100 million to allow it to sponsor the World Cup over a 16 year contract. They need to make that money back somewhere, and that’s where their charges come into it.
If you’re a business in the UK that has a card reader that allows people to pay by debit/credit card, these are the fees that are associated with these transactions:
Credit card merchant fees include:
Credit card transaction charges – Usually between 1% and 3%
Merchant service charges – 0.2% for debit cards and 0.3% for credit cards
Minimum monthly service fees – around £10 (if applicable)
Transaction authorisation fees – 2p per transaction
Card machine price – £50 – £80 on average
Set-up cost – £50 – £100 on average (one-off fee)
PCI compliance fee – £3.50 per month
Chargeback fees – Usually between £10 and £20
For most businesses it’s a necessary cost, and so they’ll raise their prices by 5% or so to factor these costs in, and the convenience pays for itself. By contrast if a business asks customers to pay for their sessions via bank transfer, direct from their bank to yours, then there are no fees whatsoever. None. They can do it either by logging onto their banking app, or by logging into their laptop and home, and it takes a bit more time the first time you do it, sure, but it saves us money, which is turn saves the customer money. So why can rehearsal studios do that, but other businesses not? A cafe may have 200+ customers a day, with as many as 10+ at any one time wanting to pay. Time is of the essence, they need to process those payments as quickly as possible as any delays in serving customers can cost them repeat business. By contrast we’ll have 5-12 customers (bands) per day, and 95% of them are bands that come to us regularly, so we can trust them to pay for their session when they’re either on the bus home, or when they get home. A cafe can’t ask a customer to “transfer us the money later on.” If they asked the customer to do it at the time, the cafe would then need to log into their online banking to check it in real time, which again takes time, and they’d need to trace who made what payment. By contrast we check our online banking twice a week, and it takes 5 minutes to check the payments that come in against the sessions, which we can trace by the bands putting their band name in on the “reference” section, which makes it easy to know what paid what with the reference of "Band-Name-Studio#-Date". What are cafe customers supposed to put to allow payments to be traced - “guy in suit who ordered Americano on Tuesday?” That doesn’t work. A credit card payment system overcomes all of the hurdles that we don’t need to pay for, such as an instant confirmation that the payment has been taken, the lack of need to log into an app, speed, insurance, convenience, etc. Allowing customers to pay by banking apps and bank transfers, which means setting the studio up as a contact on their bank account/banking app, logging in with a thumb print, and then clicking the “re-use past payment” button means a band can save 3%-4% per payment every time they pay, or £1.50-£2 on a £50 rehearsal, and we don’t have extra costs on top of that. We save, you save, and the only people missing out is the banking middle-men. It’s a wonder to us that more studios don’t get rid of the credit card system and just bank directly with their customers, without the need for a middle man. Have you come across any other cool ideas that made the rehearsal studios you use better, or do you have any ideas of your own? If so, please let us know and we’ll try to incorporate them into Bally if we can.
Thanks for reading!