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The writing retreat singer-songwriter Courtney Fox was on was supposed to be a break — and a chance to work on her songs for the debut album she planned to put out. After years of hard work, her music career was finally taking off. She had tours booked for Western Canada and the United Kingdom and had been picking up lots of new gigs in Winnipeg. But on March 15, 2020, Fox got a phone call that would cancel all her plans: the COVID-19 pandemic that was sweeping across the world had closed down the music industry as she knew it. She would not be recording an album in studio or performing for a crowd any time soon.
While the whole music industry was left to scramble and try to survive the shutdowns, recording studios were left to navigate confusing guidelines and restrictions. Winnipeg studios found different ways of coping with a reality they hadn’t seen coming. With the resourcefulness of owners, many recording studios began to adapt and adjust their businesses with each wave of the virus. Studios found new ways of doing their work, but the need for government help to stabilize and support the local recording industry is becoming more and more apparent.
During the pandemic, Lloyd Peterson who owns Paintbox Recording and got into the production of music with acts like Luke Doucet and Crash Test Dummies, has been adapting his business to musician’s current needs.
“We do a lot of remote recording and live streams,” said Peterson. “My equipment can be cased up and taken to churches, backyards, and concert halls so that people can still get their music out without live audiences.”
But managing these services is difficult. Especially when a group like Apollo Suns are trying to record an album. Paintbox Recording’s studio has a live room, isolation booth, and a control room but still isn’t enough for the 10-piece band.
“When you add a producer, engineer, and assistant engineer, three video people and attendees, bam. You got a lot of people in a pretty confined studio.”
Early in the pandemic, the province had clear rules about when studios could be open, but Peterson said things got trickier between variants.
Peterson coped by doing more single-person sessions.
“I will do some stuff where I’ll have one person, like say we’re doing a mix with someone from a band. They will come in, and they will be in one room. I’ll be in the other room for the whole session,” he said.
Over time Paintbox Recording figured out how to accommodate more than one person.
“It’s evolved throughout the several lockdowns, and now I’ve got a way for live tracking a control room, isolation booth, and the vocal booth.”
In addition to changes in scheduling and group sizes, Peterson has also made physical changes to keep the studio safe. But these changes are expensive and slow down production.
“Asking people not to touch everything is hard because, you know, you got musicians in there,” said Peterson. “Everybody touches everything in the session, so we had to try and keep a handle on that.”
Early in the pandemic, Peterson said there was government help, but it differed depending on how studios operated.
“The first year, there was some sector-based relief because I’m self-employed,” said Peterson. “I took advantage of that a year and a half ago.”
This government relief has now stopped, and it doesn’t look like there are any plans for more grants in the future.
One of the significant challenges has been how often rules and regulations have changed. Peterson says a lack of communication from the government further confused things.
“It’s been up, and it’s been down, and there hasn’t been just one standstill shutdown throughout the pandemic.”
At one point, Peterson worried he might have to shut down, but he has been getting help from his landlords.
“[My landlords] have been working with me to try and keep the lights on, which — not everybody is lucky.”
Despite the challenges, artists are still eager to get into the studio, and Paintbox Recording has a lot of musicians from the community waiting to record.
“There is enough of a backlog of bands that want to get their record finished and start their next album, get out on tour, and have some product.”
Even with the difficulties, Peterson is happy the studio seemed to make it through and is still recording with new artists.
“I’m one of those people that got lucky with their job,” said Peterson. “I still like the process of creating and recording music with people.”
House of Wonders
Studios of different sizes have had to adjust to the pandemic differently. Some have had to stop production of albums, work at a reduced pace, or find other methods of getting business. Smaller studios like House of Wonders, which had just opened in March of 2020, had to push back recording sessions for the foreseeable future.
“I started reaching out to people with bookings,” said Adam Fuhr, owner of House of Wonders. “Hey, just be flexible about this.”
Adam Fuhr is the sole operator of the studio. The idea for the studio came after various productions he did for his band, Yes We Mystic.
“I’m trying to offer a low-cost option so an artist can come record in a room that’s not the fanciest thing in the world,” said Fuhr.
Early in the pandemic Fuhr moved his equipment home and found different ways of occupying himself unt il he had a window to open his one-room studio in summer and fall 2021 before the Omicron variant closed things down again.
“August was a hectic time,” said Fuhr. “I was in here almost every day, catching up with the bands booked for the summer.”
Because of regulations, musicians had to wear masks in the studio, which Fuhr worried would affect the atmosphere. But in the end most musicians were fine with the rules and the product.
Fuhr said promotion for the label’s releases was also affected by restrictions.
“I’m into things happening in person,” said Fuhr. “I’m not a big live stream guy.”
Fuhr finally got the chance to hold a concert for his label at The Good Will Social Club on November 20, 2021. The show headlined three groups who had recorded or finished their albums with House of Wonder during the pandemic — Amos the Kid, Virgo Rising, and Julien’s Daughter. The show sold out the day tickets were released.
Private Ear Recording
Near the heart of downtown, Private Ear Recording stands as one of the bigger recording studios in Winnipeg. The studio has a long history in the city, re-opening in 2007 with new owners John Paul Peters and Vanessa Peters.
When the government put COVID-19 restrictions in place, the studio that once served hundreds of musicians had to slow down.
“We’re fortunate we have a huge studio, so we rarely functioned at 50 per cent capacity to begin with,” said Vanessa Peters, co-owner and studio manager of Private Ear Recording.
But during the full lockdowns Peters said they couldn’t have clients in and turned to remote sessions, which was good for the business but wasn’t simple for artists.
“I do find that some musicians are not tech-savvy,” said Peters.
To adapt, the staff at the studio created solutions for folks at home.
“We are working on a remote recording rig designed to record one or two audio tracks at a time,” said Peters. “We’re also trying to put together video user manuals that show people how it works.”
Private Ear Recording is trying to teach people how to get the highest quality recordings in their homes. Equipment and videos aren’t the only things they are providing.
“They also can phone in and talk to an engineer to talk them through any troubleshooting issues.”
They put together a take-home recording kit through grants given by Manitoba Film and Music.
“The whole idea behind the grant was to help studios and musicians,” said Peters. “If they have an idea of how they can pivot their careers to adapt to COVID, they can help fund those projects.”
This shift is helping unique projects come to life.
“We had one client say she wanted to record her dog singing,” said Peters. “But we knew that if she came to the studio, her dog probably wouldn’t sing.”
Finding positives has been difficult for the recording industry, which was already undergoing changes before being hit with the pandemic. Cutting costs has been necessary to survive.
“The studio model in itself isn’t how it used to be back in the day,” said Peters. “We don’t have a monopoly on the ability to record audio.”
While some other industries were opening back up, most of the music industry was left scrambling to figure out what to do without clear r guidelines to follow.
“The film industry had fewer restrictions than the music industry,” said Peters. “We can have actors come in and do voice-overs, but we can’t have musicians.”
Private Ear Recording features two control rooms, three isolation booths, a live room, and an artist lounge.
“It was less about the actual ability to accommodate [musicians], but the arbitrary rules between film and music.”
One of the reasons the industry could survive was through this loophole. As a result, more studios opted for voice-over and commercial work while music recording wasn’t allowed.
But between June and October, before the Omicron variant became widespread in Canada, Private Ear Recording saw a resurgence in clients.
“We were overflowing with work, and I was desperately trying to find people to do it,” said Peters. “We were trying to get all the stuff that had to be postponed done.”
Even though Omicron caused problems, the studio had experience from the previous lockdowns and knew how to respond and set expectations for their clients.
“We’re still booked three months in advance, and we’ve got a policy for anything COVID. So we’re happy to reschedule you.”
While they are glad to be open, accommodating clients safely is a big undertaking for studios and costs a lot.
“We got a focus on airflow and ventilation with our HVAC,” said Peters. “We’re changing our filter regularly, wiping surfaces, got hand sanitizer everywhere, and buying N95 masks.”
Private Ear Recording’s live room is about 1000 sq. ft. — machines to purify a space this size can cost over a thousand dollars.
As Omicron cases are plateauing in Manitoba, Peters is looking to the future and the impacts COVID-19 has had on artists.
“I think COVID raised awareness for musicians of just how important recording is to their career,” said Peters. “We’re doing whatever we can to help their success.”
While the COVID-19 restrictions that came in during her writing retreat put many of Fox’s recording and touring plans on hold, she found an upside.
“My voice was hoarse a lot, and I was tired all the time,” said Fox. “I thought to myself, God, I just wish I could have some time to write, and boom, COVID happened.”
The first wave of COVID-19 forced many studios to close.
“I used to record in Arcade Studios in Niverville, but they’re not open anymore,” said Fox. “They closed over COVID, which sucks.”
Arcade Studios was the first place Fox went to record professionally after recording her own music at home.
“The experience compared to home recording is apples and oranges,” said Fox. “There’s a big difference, so I remember it being nerve-racking, but also feeling so much more professional and productive in the studio than at home.”
Some studios thought that policies to keep artists safe through the pandemic might ruin the mood or productivity of musicians. But they found artists are more than willing to follow the rules.
“We’re all just doing what we can to continue doing what we love, and little things like that aren’t going to be deal-breakers for anybody,” said Fox.
As other industries like film and television start returning to their new normal, recording studios still have a long way to go. Even before the pandemic, the film industry had the luxury of funding, grants, and tax deductibles for their productions that recording studios did not have access to.
While support for musicians exists in the Canada Music Fund, there is little direct help for recording studios. Studios still need to go through funding for small businesses if they are looking for support.
But even if studios do get funding through programs like the Canadian Emergency Business Account, it isn’t a permanent solution for the recording sector.
Recording the backlog of songs that artists wrote during quarantine may well keep Winnipeg’s recording studios in business.