Sometimes I don’t know if I’m writing about the music business or football. Leverage was once a term I used to refer to the interactions of fulcrum, lever and load, as drummed into me by my my greasy-haired physics teacher some decades ago. Now it is a term that arises more often in context with Liverpool Football Club or EMI. Today the Financial Times announce the sale of Abbey Road studios to help boost the £120million bail-out money EMI need to raise, just to service the debts they owe to Citigroup (£3.3 billion). As mentioned a couple of days ago, EMI announced a £1.8million debt just for the last QUARTER. It would seem, to my inexperienced eyes, that EMI are royally screwed. However, I am a dolt in matters of high finance, monetary leverage and still struggle with the concept of being able to buy a football club despite not having any money. My personal experience of loans is based on a domestic mortgage, during the application stages of which I think the idea was to prove to the bank that I actually had the cash to buy a house somewhere down the back of the sofa, but felt I’d offer them the chance to sell me a loan just from a benevolent urge to spread some monetary love around. EMI now, appear to be in the situation where selling music to willing punters is so far back in the depths of their long-term memory that it seems a quaint throwback to an era where a shiny shilling would buy an LP record, a fish supper, four pints of brown ale and a wooden rattle to swing on the terraces.
Abbey Road then. Another asset to be stripped. Need we be sentimental about it going for sale? There is the obvious connection to the Beatles, the famous album cover where the fab four crossed the road, Paul barefoot (prompting rumours of his death, naturally). There is the whimsy of Penny Lane, recorded there and embodying the quintessence of Englishness to a nation which has always struggled to fix on that simplest of things – an agreed image of itself. It hardly matters that the song was beaten to number one by Englebert Humperdinck, it is simply the aural expression of those leafy suburbs that John Major so deftly linked himself to back in the day when music industry types were falling over their feet in the scramble to trade their proud pounds sterling into Provencal barn-conversions with olive-presses and indentured serfs. I digress. Whilst the rich heritage of Abbey Road studios is clearly of importance, and is a cash-cow in itself (think of it as an English Pere Lachaise cemetery, with t-shirt concessions), there is another aspect to the place that is important. It’s HUGE. It can hold an orchestra. That makes it rare. It is, to strain an analogy to violin-string tension, the Harland and Wolfe of the British recording industry. To educate any who are puzzled by that metaphor, H&W is one of the world’s only twin-crane shipyards, capable of building enormous liners and cruiseships (famously, the Titanic). The shipyard has a history that is as bleak and depressing as any heavy industry-meets sectarian division-meets government bungling-meets East Asian competition tale. That said, it’s big, and by virtue of being big, is rare. Abbey Road too, is big. Recording equipment has become cheaper and more accessible to the home user over the past decade, we all know that. We all know of records that got to number one despite being recorded in a bedsit somewhere in tenements stapled to the inside of a skip. And the sonic quality is fine, more often than not. Our own studio at BlancoMusic is no bigger than half a tennis court, and the sound quality is great. Where we do have problems though, is with vocals. Vocal recording requires a very sonically neutral space. If you do decide to record a record in a bedsit, use a vocal sample from another record, or filter what vocals you do record with lots of effects, because for vocals you need a proper studio. If vocals are tricky, multiply that by a factor of three or so if you want to capture the sonic profile of reed/brass. Add more difficulty for woodwind. You want to record an orchestra? All playing together? I can’t even contemplate what that would take. Suffice to say, it’s a level of difficulty that I have no interest in taking on. If Abbey Road ceases to exist as a recording studio, or even consolidates and becomes something slightly less majestic than its current state, it will be another sad day for the music industry. You may not buy many Elgar symphonies, but you’ve probably heard the Harry Potter soundtrack, or the score for The Lord of the Rings and somewhere in your heart you know that it would be a sad event to see those recordings being made elsewhere. Sentimental retro-chic is nothing to mourn, the world does not need any more Lenny Kravitz-style fetishising of the outmoded. Abbey Road is more than a quaint bubble of sentiment, and it would be another sad case of short-termism in the face of what is, admittedly, a very real crisis in the lives of musicians, studio techs, mastering engineers, producers etc to let it go.