SPARS at Echo Mountain

The regional SPARS Studio Summit, held at Echo Mountain on Friday and Saturday, March 30 and 31, brought together students from local music tech and recording programs, and professionals working in that field.  SPARS stands for Society of Professional Audio Recording Services. As part of a sold-out day’s worth of presentations, workshops and mentoring sessions, a Recording Business Panel offered insider advice to students considering careers in engineering as well as local engineers and studio owners. Here’s a recap.

On the panel:
• Dave Hampton (DH) of MATK Corporation (me and the kids). Archival engineer for Miles Davis estate, technical director for Prince, clients include Lady Gaga, Herbie Hancock, M.I.A., Maxwell, Justin Timberlake, Babyface, Marcus Miller, RZA, Rafael Saadiq, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

• Jessica Tomasin (JT), studio manager at Echo Mountain, manager for Aaron Woody Wood, in the process of creating Asheville on Wheels.

• Scott Phillips (SP), studio manager of Blackbird Studios in Nashville, Tenn. and creator of Blackbird Pro.

• Matthew Sherwood (MS), owner of Sherwood’s Music in Asheville and engineer at Echo Mountain.

• Billy Hume (BH), producer/songwriter/mixer in the Atlanta area. Produced the Infamous Stringdusters and various rap artists.

• Moderated by SPARS board member Kirk Imamura (KI) from Avatar Studios in N.Y.

(Note: This panel is all male except for Tomasin; the audience was approximately 8-to-1 male-to-female. The music business has always been a male-dominated business, and it’s interesting that the future producers, engineers, managers and music execs are likely to continue that trend. This topic was, however, not addresses during this panel.)

On the current state of the recording industry:

BH: Atlanta is over saturated wITH studios, producers, mixers, talent. A lot of heavy hitters moved.

SP: Nashville keeps ON moving, it’s becoming more affordable. The mainstay is still country. Blackbird has eight studios and gets more rock.

JT: Echo Mountain is a destination studio. Most people come here to track; they have less and less time to spend in studio due to budget crunches. There sas been an ebb and flow throughout last 6 years.

BH He’s started doing some management and some classes because he’s accepted the fact that people are going to record in their home studios, so it’s less frustrating for him, later, when he gets the tracks to mix. He’s going to teach a series of classes in Trinidad.

JT: Echo Mountain does live recordings. Recording artists have invited small audiences to watch while they do live records. The top floor of the Patton Ave. building is offices that are rented out — among those is a video production team the will work with bands.

DH: One place to look for work is in private studios. Lots of big name-artists build studios in their homes in L.A., and will hire students just out of school to work in those studios. Be about service. Support someone else’s vision and you’ll get where you want to go. Home recorders build studios for any number of reasons – a playroom, to have the latest and greatest equipment, or to hide how little they actually know about recording.

MS: His background in engineering wasn’t as much of an asset as he originally expected it to be. “I didn’t understand why things failed.”

BH: Every song you write, label it, store it, and put it on a spreadsheet. That can help later when someone want to buy a track you recorded years ago. “Mailbox money.”

DH:  He has worked with archived tapes of artists who, at the time, were just promoting an album. But those comments are now history. “You can take old recordings and make new assets.”


Funding schemes:

SP:  A few bands came to Blackbird with Kickstarter-funded projects.

KI: Indiegogo is not all or nothing like Kickstarter.

JT: We’ve ton a ton of Kickstarter projects that have come through the studio. It’s getting a little over-saturated now because everyone has a Kickstarter. One artist sold advertising inside the album. One incentive an artist used was for people to come into the studio to see part of the recording process.

KI: We take for granted how alien the recording process is to people outside of the industry.


Marketing techniques:

MS: I start with everything free and then move on to everything cheap.

BH: “I do everything wrong. I just hustle. I don’t even have a website. It’s all personal relationships — it’s really labor intensive. I drove to Virginia once to have coffee with someone – it led to five gigs.”

DH: “Word of mouth is the first form of viral. PR people have a plan, but it’s all based around a theory. It’s a business of friends.”

SP: Blackbird Pro’s “Either You Rock or You Suck” t-shirts were a huge hit at SXSW. Now you see them all over the country — it’s a great marketing idea.

JT: It’s all about relationships. People come as clients and leave as friends. Building and maintaining relationships is really important.

SP:  Anyone who won the lottery could buy a studio, but our staff is great.

JT: This is a service industry.


How do you cultivate the next great employee and where do you see the industry going?

BH: Either learn to do a lot of stuff or else be really good at one thing and just do that thing. Be a wizard or a sniper.

MS: I advocate being a wizard. Understand the difference between being good at something and monetizing that thing. It’s useful to think about what your skills are worth. It’s impolite to talk about money and that’s sad.

BH: It’s not impolite to talk about money in rap music. It’s a genre thing. Get into the money thing in the business early on because otherwise it will bite you in the ass.

DH: Everyone who wants to be an engineer needs to spent time on the road. See what it’s like for an artist to give his or her gift each night. Then translate that experience into the studio. Music puts the oddest combinations of people together, and you end up doing something great.


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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. She is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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