Kevin Harding: Studio 54
All content by Joff Alexander-Frye
I don’t often end up talking about it in Grow, but I am obsessed with music. There is barely a moment in the day when I am not either listening to, humming, tapping along to or thinking about music. I am also a published songwriter and composer so I have sounds, tones, rhythms, lyrics and melodies running through my head constantly. That may account for the absence of other meaningful content in my brain…
Anyway, when I became aware of the excellent work of The Academy of Music & Sound (and their new city-centre studio venture, Studio 54) I couldn’t wait to meet the team behind it and see it for myself. It was my pleasure, therefore, to spend an hour or two with Kevin Harding, the founder and owner of both businesses and one of the nicest, most relaxed men I have had the delight of interviewing to date.
One of the things that stood out the most to me about Kevin was his genuine, kind-hearted approach to empowering and educating local musicians and creatives. Even the basic building blocks of studio-culture (such as how much artists have to pay per hour to rent the space) are not assumed by Kevin. He would prefer to be flexible on rates, in order to allow sometimes cash-strapped artists the opportunity to have a positive and productive recording experience in his studio, than stick hard-and-fast to a rate structure. This kind of approach, whilst less cutthroat and arguably less commercially fruitful in the short-term, builds reputation, relationship and a network of closer contacts; surely more fruitful in the long-term. And, despite the Academy of Music & Sound running for almost twenty-five years, Studio 54 is a very recent venture, only launching in March of this year. So, building for the future is something keenly on Kevin’s radar. Although both businesses are owned by Kevin, they run as entirely separate entities and serve very different purposes.
We started our time together with a tour of the impressive top-floor studio space which, at the time, was being used by the boys from Pattern Pusher (an amazing local band who you may remember played at our Grow Green launch several months ago). This studio space includes a vocal booth, a control room with a top-of-the-range mixing desk and also a brand-new Mac Suite, which has multiple workstations and is set up in ‘classroom style’ for students to come and learn composition skills and basic recording techniques. It also has the doors of AC/Dc’s former studio in it too! There is also a separate small studio space which, believe it or not, houses the original desk used to record Muse’s first ever songs. Needless to say that the facilities and the staff who man them are first-rate at Studio 54.
One of the other hugely impressive things about Kevin was the extent to which he has collaborated with education providers (some with national scope and influence) to write modules and courses dedicated to particular instruments, pieces of software, or parts of the music business. Kevin shares exactly the same belief as me, that cities like Exeter are ‘sitting ducks’ when it comes to creative and musical potential. That isn’t to say that they are completely dormant of course but, rather, that the capacity and scope for creative expression, live music, increased investment in the creative arts and the necessary framework to support all of that, are absolutely possible where we live. Why lose all of our best creative talent to London? Or Bristol? Or Birmingham? Or Manchester? It is a self-fulfilling prophecy that other geographical locations hold the monopoly on certain industries. The only way that this cycle will ever be broken, is by brave visionaries like Kevin executing their vision with focus, passion and, in his case, a healthy dose of good old-fashioned rock and roll gusto.
Kevin’s mindset also made an impression on me. For example, he mentioned how the beginning of his own professional music journey started when he had a bad accident as a sixteen year old and used the damages that he was awarded to buy his first proper guitar and live P.A setup. Instead of being side-lined by his accident, he turned it around into a productive and positive step forward in life. That’s the kind of guy that runs good businesses if you ask me.
Kevin is also very well connected, with friends and colleagues throughout the music industry (including a few names you would certainly recognise, but he was keen not to name drop too much). Actually, at Studio 54, they have a range of engineers on hand, including Richard Digby-Smith who was the primary recording engineer for Island Records; recording legends such as Bob Marley, Pink Floyd and Eric Clapton (amongst many others). Studio 54 really does offer a high-quality service, for both musicians and commercial recording projects. For example, a global car company recently used Studio 54 to record voice artists for their in-car voice command system. Recordings made in a little city-centre recording studio in Exeter played all over the world in people’s cars. Who’d have thought it?
There are some seriously exciting times ahead for Studio 54, most of which can’t be talked about publicly until later this year, unfortunately. Kevin gave me a rough idea of what some of the exciting developments will entail and, let me tell you, it will be the type of project that will put both Studio 54, the Academy of Music & Sound and Exeter itself, on the map. Watch this space!
To find out more about Studio 54, visit their website.