When a studio won’t release your tracks

Alan Hardiman was an enthusiastic audience member at the Songwriters Association of Canada’s AGM earlier this year.  As a producer and creative director, he is passionate about helping musicians and offered the following article for our blog.  We are grateful to Alan for his contribution.

In Alan’s words

Songwriters and musicians who use the services of small, home-based studios—and, for that matter, established commercial studios—would be well advised to establish the terms, conditions and policies of the studio before undertaking any recording.

I’m writing this because a beginning songwriter has come to me for advice—he is having a hard time getting a home studio owner to release his tracks, even though he has paid his bill in full—over $13,000! The songwriter wants to take the basic tracks of three songs that he recorded at this particular home studio to another, larger commercial studio for editing, mixing and mastering, but the owner of the home studio is refusing to release the material.

By way of explanation, the home studio owner wrote to me saying that he is “not going to let him take the files out of this studio in the condition they are. How he is going to come up with a better mix than any one of our engineers is beyond me to imagine. The files simply aren’t ready to be exported or given away. Many guitar and other instrumental parts remain unedited and comped so even if he wanted them they are in no condition to give away.”

(The songwriter has made it clear that editing and comping are among the tasks he wants to complete at the new studio.)

The home studio owner then goes on to say, “We are not willing to give the files out. This is not normal practice. If he really wanted the files he’d have to buy us out but at this time I am not willing to even consider this.”

I’m not sure I understand why the owner thinks that releasing tracks that have been paid for is not “normal practice.” It’s also not clear to me what he means about the songwriter having to “buy us out,” given that he paid his bill in full over six months ago!

The studio owner concludes, “If this project goes out of the studio I have no guarantee if it will be mixed to a certain standard and I’ve brought in some heavy players that [the songwriter] got at cost.”

Why the studio owner considers it his business that the songs will be “mixed to a certain standard” is beyond me. That is not his responsibility. And the part about providing players “at cost” seems to indicate that the studio owner is in the habit of marking up session players’ fees and then taking a piece for himself. Maybe that’s how the cost of three unfinished demos climbed to beyond $13,000!

This might never have become an issue if the songwriter had clearly established the ground rules at the outset. At this point, it looks like a case for small claims court.

Songwriters be warned: Make sure you know at the outset what policies, practices or procedures a studio considers to be normative before you record a single note there. Second, make it your business to pay session players directly. Don’t accept an all-in deal with the studio, where you pay everything to the studio. In fact, it should be your job—or your producer’s job—to hire the session musicians in the first place.

I know of one instance where a guitar player was unable to attend a session because his wife went into labour that morning with their first child. I was there when the studio owner actually called the rental department of a local music store (Long & McQuade in Toronto) to find an on-the-spot replacement. When the replacement guitarist arrived, it became painfully apparent that he couldn’t read the chart. In fact, he couldn’t even tune his guitar, and he was sent away with return cab fare paid by—you guessed it—the songwriter!

At that point, the songwriter should have called it quits, but he was too cowed by the studio owner to voice his displeasure.

My final recommendation is that songwriters should bring a USB drive—preferably 8 GB or 16 GB—to their sessions, so that they can take a backup of their recordings away with them—provided, of course, that their account with the studio is paid up to date. After all, possession of the recorded material is the only security a studio has against non-payment for services rendered.

Alan Hardiman