Next time you're in London, exit the tube at St. John's Wood station, turn right twice, then left, and then right one more time. Walk down the residential street past columned townhouses and a small grocery store. In a few minutes time, you'll find yourself at RAK Studios, a premiere studio space that's hosted many of Britain's top musicians - David Bowie, Sam Smith, the Kooks, and Paul McCartney, to name a few - nestled innocuously on a quiet street near Regent's Park. The front of RAK Studios is grand but unimposing, with clay colored window trim, two white columns, and a blue door that pops out from the burnt orange brick exterior. Inside, the cozy waiting room feels like a friend's living room, with magazines strewn on the table and a TV showing the latest football game. RAK is special that way - it feels comfortable and inviting, a place where artists can go to record and create but also relax without the noise of the outside world or the distractions of celebrity.
Leese's office, much like the rest of the studio, has a lived-in feel. It feels comfortable, well-maintained without being shiny and new, and well-used. RAK merchandise is stacked on shelves against the wall - tote bags, records, t-shirts - all part of the new steps RAK is taking to open an online store. "Because of all the tools that are available in the digital age, you can do a lot of stuff yourself, so we're putting the finishing touches on our own [online] shop. We're going to be selling vinyl, t-shirts, tote bags... We're starting to release unique materials only available via our store - song sheets, unique photos, private sessions with the artists. It gives people what they want, which is exclusivity. From a studio point of view, that makes RAK quite unique."
Leese and the RAK team are always looking to the future while maintaining their strengths of the past. This idea seems to manifest in the building itself, from its architecture to the studio equipment. The studios are kept in top condition without having many aesthetic upgrades. "What we're doing is tidying up as opposed to renovating, keeping the same environment. We add a lick of paint here and there, so it feels like you're still in a retro studio but it's not falling apart."
RAK is steeped in history, having first been opened in 1976 by Mickie Most, legendary record producer who, in true music industry form, was also a successful recording artist, record label boss, and TV producer. A vintage C12 microphone and drum kits from the 1960's used to record by legendary artists all offer inspiration for new bands that walk through RAK's doors aspiring to become the next Radiohead, who recorded their sophomore album The Bends
in Studio 1, or solo artists who dream to collect Grammys like Sam Smith, who brought RAK's staff to tears as they heard him tracking his debut album through the doors of the studio. Nathalie Hayes, Company Director of RAK and daughter to founder Mickie Most, recognizes the effect RAK's atmosphere has on artists. "There's a kind of creativity somehow in the walls - the building absorbs atmosphere, so I think people can sense that when they walk in. So many amazing records have been made here, so there's a little bit of luck in the air. It's about feeling, and if you feel good somewhere then you'll be able to create and flow better."
In terms of the studios' physical layout, they feature lots of open spaces and natural light. "I think the concept of night and day is very important when you're spending a lot of time in a creative environment," Hayes suggested. The studios have all been designed by the late Most himself, with the insight into making records that only a successful producer like Most would have.
RAK has grown and evolved alongside the music industry, keeping stride through the age of iTunes, Napster, and now streaming services even as other studios were forced to close their doors. Trisha Wegg, Studio Manager at RAK, attributes the decline of studios to the growth of the home recording market. "The biggest growth in the industry in recent years has been the home recording market, which has impacted studios. If you compared a list of London studios from 20 years ago to what it is now, you see a very different picture." Still, though home recording has lowered the barrier to entry for artists, Wegg still believes there is immense value in recording at a true studio. "Obviously, you cannot do in a home recording environment what you can do here. One of the things I've found - especially with artists who come out of home recording backgrounds- is that if they do get the money to the come here and record, they get it. They can see why an environment like this is so productive and helpful over a home recording environment - it adds so much value to the whole project. You'll find a lot of artists who say "I've always wanted to work at RAK" or another studio, and they may work on their laptops now but they have that aspiration, they aspire to get out of their bedroom and work in a space that really supports them. We do our best to deliver on their aspirations."
Though the recording aspect of the music industry is no longer as profitable as it once was, by adapting, expanding, and keeping its reputation as a top studio RAK has managed to not only survive, but thrive on these changes, a true evolution of a business. From the online store to in-studio performances to other kinds of events, RAK is always in use, though these auxiliary activities always come second to the studio's core business as a recording studio and publishing house. Coming up, RAK is hosting Girl's Music Day, an event catering to young women interested in entering the music business. Between speakers, practical demonstrations, and workshops, the event will help introduce women to the many careers that exist in music production and recording. Across all staff at RAK - both engineers and assistants - there is always a strong female presence. Wegg and Hayes maintain that this isn't a conscious choice, but rather a result of having a healthy studio culture run by a balance of both genders combined with having an excellent applicant pool of female engineers in years past.
RAK has also developed a relationship with Sofar Sounds
, an international organization that works to organize intimate concerts in small venues such as homes, cafes, and recording studios. Headquartered in London, it has already arranged two shows at RAK, one of them tied in to RAK's 40th anniversary celebrations. Both parties plan to continue collaborating to create unique live music experiences. Phoebe Petridis, Sofar London Director, said that Sofar "loved working with RAK Studios on this collaboration, because we both believe that live music is meant to be respected and enjoyed in an intimate environment. We feel really privileged that they've allowed us to bring guests into their studios to see the spaces where some of the most amazing music in the world was created."
RAK Studios has been around for over 40 years, and as the RAK team continues to innovate and improve upon a strong foundation, it wouldn't be surprising to see it continue operating for 40 more. At the core of RAK's success is the people who run it, and the care they have for the artists that pass through.
"Back in the day when there were big recording budgets we'd have people here for 6 weeks or 2 months and they would become family. We had a pub down the road we used to call Studio 5, and we'd all go down to the pub no matter who they were. I've been down to the pub with Yes, the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd... it becomes like a family," Trisha recounted. This mentality of welcoming and embracing the artists comes with a dose of professional distance. "[The engineers and producers] are the people that are in the studio with the clients, forging those relationships, and they're slaving away on 10-12 hour days. When they're in here for 3 months they just become like another member of the band. It's that defined area of being friendly but knowing that they're still a client. You're the best of friends for a week and then you might not see them until the next job. It's an intimate space; for artists these songs are their babies, so they want you to care for them as much as they do."
Though most of the RAK team has worked day in and day out for years at the studio, they haven't outgrown the magic of working at a place like RAK - a sense I got when Andy recounted one story of a surprise visitor to RAK years ago.
"I was downstairs in the lounger - sitting there, having my sandwich, and Paul McCartney came in and sat next to me. He'd recorded here, so he just came in and sat next to me. I thought - what do I say? "Hello?" Obviously I knew who he was. He asked me what I was watching, so we ended up just chatting about football and when he left, I was just sitting there, holding a sandwich with only one bite out of it after 20 minutes... I've been in the business over 25 years but I always massively appreciate these moments. That's the thing about this building. It's really a leveler. You can go to some studios that are very beautiful, but make you nervous to put down your cup of tea. Here it's very homey. You're very comfortable, even when you're meeting musicians of records you loved and respected."