Features, Print January 6, 2021

DIY Kick: Colorado’s Recording Industry Takes It Home

by Gabe Allen

In January 2020, Fort Collins progressive rock band Chess at Breakfast played to its biggest crowd ever at the Aggie theater. It was a watershed moment. Three years of scrapping for shows around Northern Colorado and cranking out a steady stream of recordings felt like it might be paying off. Then, this spring, the band’s story converged with that of every other independent artist in the country. Venues shuttered, festivals were cancelled and the music industry shifted, largely, into the digital space. 

Still, when BandWagon asked drummer Mike Davis if the loss of momentum had been disappointing, he shrugged it off.

“I mean, we love playing shows, but from a practical standpoint I think we just accepted the circumstances and made the best of it,” Davis said.

Like so many others, Davis, Chess at Breakfast’s singer/guitarist Caleb McFadden and bassist Justin Daggett have taken advantage of the extra time at home to write, record and hone new music.

Drummer Mike Davis at the helm in his quasi-nomadic Koncept Jewel Studios. Photo and cover photo) by Emma Holt, Interstellar Illuminations.

“It’s been nice not having to worry about playing shows – we’ve really just been able to work on recording and making our songs the best they could possibly be,” Davis said.

Hobbyists, independent artists and even Taylor Swift have turned toward recording new music during the COVID-19 era. At the end of March, the frequency of google searches for phrases like “home recording studio,” “logic pro” and “pro tools” rose sharply. In September, the Los Angeles Times reported that the artist-focused music platform Bandcamp’s sales were up 122%.

“Independent artists made more music and did more online collaboration during lockdown, with music software and hardware sales booming and key search terms doubling,” Mark Mulligan wrote in the Midia Research analytic report Creator Tools – The Music Industry’s New Top of Funnel.

Davis was uniquely prepared for this shift. In addition to drumming for Chess at Breakfast, he founded Koncept Jewel Studios, an itinerant collection of recording equipment and instruments that operates wherever Davis happens to be living at the time. 

Davis mixes and produces music at Koncept Jewel for multiple Northern Colorado Acts. Photo by Emma Holt, Interstellar Illuminations

“It’s kind of an amorphous thing. I’ve moved around since I started it and plan to continue moving around,” he said.

When he isn’t obsessing over a mix from the forthcoming Chess at Breakfast album, Davis is hard at work producing the music of other Northern Colorado artists, including the new Nightshades EP and a Christmas special for mathy jazz/pop trio People in General. During the pandemic this has meant conducting business long-distance, and even mentoring artists through the home-recording process.

Drawing partially on advice from Davis, Matan Birnbaum of People in General assembled a basic recording kit in his basement. Now, once the band tracks individual parts for a given song, Birnbaum makes a run to Davis’ house and drops a flash drive full of audio files in the mailbox for Davis to mix and master. The method works so well that the band plans to continue it even once the pandemic has subsided.

Matan Birnbaum [left] of People In General [seen here “live from home”] converted his basement into a make-shift recording space. Tracks are later sent to Koncept Jewel Studios.

“You may lose some of the really high quality mics and equipment that a studio has, but you also have ultimate control over your project and you don’t have to worry about time constraints,” Birnbaum said. “It’s so much more motivating to make better work because we’re doing every single part of it.”

The home recording boom may have been accelerated by COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns, but that doesn’t mean that the trend will end with widespread vaccination and loosened restrictions. 

“Disruption catalysed the already-rapid shift towards affordable production tools,” Mulligan wrote in his report.

Studios Adapt to Artist’s Changing Needs

Ben Behrens of Wright House Studios in Greeley, Colorado.

As artists shift towards autonomous recording and digital interaction with fans, studios have been quick to provide creative ways to meet those demands too.

Greeley based Wright House Studios owner/engineer Ben Behrens created a new offering he calls “punk rock demos,” catering to independent artists who record at home. The moniker of the program doesn’t refer to the punk genre (the offering is open to all musical styles) rather to the DIY ethos of punk. An artist sends an audio file or stems to Behrens, and he mixes and masters the song within 24-hours.

“It doesn’t matter how cheap or weird your gear is. If it works, we can make something cool with it,” the Wright Studios website reads.

Behrens isn’t just adapting to market trends with the demo program. He genuinely believes in the value of home recording methods.

“In a studio environment you’re always under the gun. There’s always someone that comes in after your timeslot,” he said. “At home you can throw a mic up and get something really raw, visceral and genuine.”

Behren may be on to something here. A look back at some of the most famous DIY albums in history reveals a catalogue of pop-defying music that enraptured audiences with its idiosyncratic and personal nature. Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, Beck’s Odelay and Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago” are a few.

The Stone Cottage Studio in Boulder is literally that, and has focused its purpose on providing a great sounding, great looking space with high quality cameras and audio equipment for filmed performances.

In addition to home recording, another, arguably even more intimate, musical medium has proliferated during the pandemic. Livestreams and recorded performances have all but replaced live concerts for the time being. Drawing from this toolkit, Boulder-based Stone Cottage Studios has embarked on a mission to keep local musicians connected to their fans.

“The goals of the artist sessions are for musicians to be seen, heard and understood,” studio founder Jamie Maynard said. “It has helped local musicians reach fans more broadly, maybe even more so than touring provided earlier.”

Although Stone Cottage is a fully-equipped recording studio, the staff has focused their collective energy towards multimedia projects since its May, 2019 inception. Stone Cottage’s “Artist Sessions” preserve in-studio performances by local artists through the use of professional audio equipment and high-definition cameras. A literal stone cottage in Maynard’s backyard provides a cozy, isolated backdrop.

“From the provider’s side we have to find creative ways to produce live events that are not only high quality but creatively engaging,” Maynard said. 

Andrew Sturtz in his Artists Session at Stone Cottage Studios.

In April, Maynard hosted a live stream from the cottage featuring previous performances by Gasoline Lollipops, James and The Rise, Dave Tamkin & Co. and live performances from Maynard and Avery Johnson. Since then, the studio has hosted more live streams and doubled down on artist sessions. This fall, they released a new segment on a nearly weekly basis.

In one such session released at the beginning of November, Denver-based rapper Wayne Watts expressed his appreciation for the platform: “Especially during these times it’s really important for me to be able to tap into it.”

Wayne Watts Artist Session live from Stone Cottage Studios became a properly released album by Watts, available at waynewattsisdope.bandcamp.com

Although Stone Cottage’s live streams were initially an adaptation to pandemic restrictions, Maynard wants to continue them indefinitely.

“There is definitely some value in having a concert presented to viewers in their homes,” Maynard said. “From the artist’s side, it might be a way of tapping into a broader fan base without pounding the highways 320 days a year.”

Although studios and musicians have adapted to restrictions differently, most agree that their industry will never be quite the same as it was. Both locally and globally, pandemic era adaptations have the potential to change music production and consumption for the foreseeable future.