It started with a simple idea: build an affordable recording studio that belonged to no one, so it could belong to everyone.
The formula worked, and for years The Record Co. ran a brisk but bare-bones business on an industrial stretch of Massachusetts Avenue, offering musicians and engineers a pair of recording studios for well below the market rate.
“We kind of Swiss-cheesed it all together,” said the nonprofit’s founder and executive director, Matt McArthur. “The idea was to build a studio that everybody can use.”
Now, 10 years and one $6 million campaign later, The Record Co. is poised to expand dramatically on that early promise. McArthur estimates that the studio’s freshly renovated digs, 2½ times larger with 10 times the bookable rooms, will eventually host some 21,000 music makers each year, a sixfold increase.
But like so many things these days, the key word here is “eventually.” Last year’s lockdowns stretched the construction window, forcing The Record Co., which shares the building at 960 Mass Ave. with Standard Electric, to shutter for a year and a half. When the studio finally reopened, in the pandemic depths of January, McArthur ran limited hours: no congregating, just a few rooms open, staff tested regularly.
“It was bizarre, but we had to open,” said McArthur. “We had no end in sight.”
More than half a year later, The Record Co. only recently extended its hours. (McArthur doesn’t expect the studio to reach full throttle until January.) Even so, its warren of studios was alive with all genres of music on a Friday afternoon last month, including hip-hop artist Edward “Casso” Spaulding shooting a live performance of his EP “Reclusive Memoirs.”
Framed by a set of vertical fluorescent lights he’d picked up at Home Depot, Casso said it was the first time he’d worked at The Record Co. since the renovation.
“Impressed is honestly an understatement,” he said. “I had no idea they were going to expand this much. Honestly, I’m blessed to have something that’s affordable and have people that really care about the community.”
The notion of community is deeply embedded in The Record Co., or TRC, which surveyed more than 500 music makers while planning the new space. The message was clear: Affordable recording studios were critical, but in a town where rehearsal space is hard to come by, what people really needed was somewhere to practice and create.
That surprised McArthur, who’d assumed performance space would top the list.
“They said, ‘Why would I need somewhere to perform if I don’t have anywhere to actually make the thing?’” said McArthur. “That was a bit of a face palm for us, but we’re really glad we asked because that led us to pivot.”
The result: The Record Co. now offers 15 rehearsal studios, with prices starting at $10 an hour, and four recording studios, which start at $65 for a four-hour session. (By comparison, one local recording studio lists a “block rate” of $300 for a four-hour session, a fee that includes an engineer.)
The Record Co. also offers a wide selection of high-quality loaner instruments and equipment as part of the rental cost, everything from guitars and drums, to microphones and amplifiers, even a grand piano.
“It’s not that complicated,” McArthur said. “We treat the people who walk through the front door with respect, and they treat us with respect.”
Unlike many commercial studios, TRC does not offer in-house recording engineers, which McArthur said enables freelance producers, engineers, and musicians to call the shots and work with their own people.
“It shouldn’t just be whoever happens to be there,” said McArthur. “You’re going to have to bare your soul on the other side of the glass to this person: Y’all need to have a thing.”
Chris Rogers, a producer and musician, called the space at TRC his “ground zero,” which he said he’s been using to audition potential bandmates, mix audio, rehearse, and “meet people I don’t want to bring to my house.”
“Boston has gotten this rap where there’s no infrastructure for a scene to thrive,” Rogers said. “They’re building that here.”
But in a town like Boston, where smaller nonprofits often struggle to achieve sustainability — to say nothing of growth — the question of how The Record Co. has managed to expand is perhaps as important as what it’s trying to build.
Prior to the project, TRC’s annual operating budget was roughly half a million dollars. Its two studios, located on separate floors with a tenant in between, were often booked solid.
McArthur and his board knew they needed a bigger space. The question, of course, was how to pay for it. In the end, TRC launched a $6 million capital campaign, garnering support from individual donors, area foundations, and the state.
“The sexy part of this ask was, we’re going to do 10 times the impact with the same annual [fund-raising goal],” McArthur said. “All we need to do is raise the $6 million to build the thing. Once it’s built, and we’re not carrying that debt, we’ll be set.”
So far, the plan seems to be working. McArthur said the capital campaign is nearly complete, TRC has already doubled its budget, and it’s on track to earn roughly 75 percent of its anticipated $1.5 million operating budget, leaving around $350,000 to fund-raising.
“And that 300 was what we were raising all along,” he said. “It’s going to happen.
But numbers aside, McArthur said the studio is still guided by its founding idea: a recording studio for everyone, regardless of experience, income, or motivation.
“We’re here to provide the walls and the gear and a hot pot of coffee,” he said. “We’re here to get the world out of your way.”