The array of activities is familiar to Chicago Recording Co. general manager Chris Shepard as he walks from floor to floor, studio to studio one late morning: a young rock band loading into the large Studio 4; an assistant engineer assembling a cable-company commercial in a small post-production studio; a guy recording voice-overs in a booth; a technician in another room hunched over his computer monitor working on a video game.
Shepard got into this business because he loves recording music. He's able to stay in it because his facility does so much else — all while other studios in town pare back, diversify or expand their services in these ever-challenging times for the recording industry.
"There's a lot of moving parts," the 48-year-old engineer says of his facility, which has recorded, among many others, Smashing Pumpkins, Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, Wilco, the Ohio Players and Lady Gaga, who cut vocals there last year.
Owned by Alan Kubicka, CRC opened in 1975 on Michigan Avenue — Shepard began working there in 1987, after its main location had moved to Ohio Street a block and a half east of Michigan — and since then everything has changed, and nothing has changed.
Then: Major labels would book out big studios such as CRC for weeks at pricey rates.
Now: Major labels don't boast those kinds of budgets anymore, and fewer bands have major-label deals, so more are paying expenses out of pocket.
Then: A studio was where you'd find professional equipment for multitrack recording, mixing and editing.
Now: One of your bandmates or someone you know is likely to have a Pro Tools digital workstation or some cheaper program on a laptop.
Then: CRC charged major labels about $150 an hour for studio time when it opened, says Hank Neuberger, CRC's executive vice president, who managed the studio for years.
Now: "That's all they're willing to pay today, 40 years later," Neuberger says. "You can see why it's not a great business model on its own."
Downtown Chicago used to be a hub for large music studios, including Universal — which opened in the late 1940s and was long considered top dog in town — and Streeterville. Both of those have closed, and the studio casualties extend far beyond Chicago. Foo Fighters frontman and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl directed last year's documentary "Sound City" about the Los Angeles studio of that name, which recorded some of the rock era's biggest hits ("Fleetwood Mac," Nirvana's "Nevermind," albums by Tom Petty, Neil Young, Metallica …) yet couldn't stay afloat.
So the surprise in Chicago may be not that these storied downtown facilities have shuttered but that CRC is still around — and other studios in town are not only hanging in there but in some cases growing.
Still, no one will mistake 2014 for the glory days of the professional recording business.
Rob Gillis, president of the Engineering and Recording Society of Chicago (EARS), says that at a recent meeting of about 45 members, the question was asked, "Who here is working as much as they ever have been?"
Three-quarters raised their hands.
The follow-up: "Who here is making more money than ever?"
Two hands went up, Gillis says.
"It's almost impossible to make money as a studio owner now," says renowned engineer Steve Albini, whose lengthy resume includes work with Nirvana and PJ Harvey and who opened his Northwest Side facility Electrical Audio in 1997. "If I were to try to build this studio now, there's literally no way I could do it profitably."
The music-industry meltdown and recession translate to musical acts not only having less money available to them but also less chance to recoup their expenses via dwindling music sales — so they're less likely to record full albums. And when they do book studio time, Shepard says, the average project takes about half as long as it did 10 years ago, even as the per-hour rate hasn't risen.
At the same time, many performers feel empowered to record themselves via software that costs a fraction of employing a professional studio.