There’s a book that Tommy Joyner and Jamie Lokoff couldn’t live without back in the mid-’90s, in their early days as budding music-studio mavens after launching MilkBoy Recording in North Philadelphia. It was called The Studio Business Book, and they turned to it constantly: when they had questions about how to plan their operations, how to charge for their services, how to keep track of the money. It wasn’t that they were clueless—they’d already weathered the challenges of working as musicians themselves—but now they were figuring out, as they went along, just how tough the business was on the other side of the studio. So if their copy of The Studio Business Book’s second edition was stained and beat up, well, it came by its condition honestly.
Which made it a damned pleasant surprise when, years later, they were contacted by the publishers to be profiled themselves in the third edition—showcased as a successful studio, offering advice to the next generation, answering 20 questions on where they’d come from and where they were going. It was the warmest pat on the back they could imagine. Because Joyner and Lokoff didn’t spend two decades building a music mini-empire just because they dug working with microphones and sound levels. They did it because they love helping people—music people—do better .
“The studio business isn’t just about gear,” Joyner says. “It’s about the experience. We try to make [musicians] feel good while they’re here. We try to make them feel as comfortable and relaxed and inspired as possible, so that they can create the best possible version of themselves on tape. And if they do it well, that makes more people want to come here.”
This month marks the first anniversary of MilkBoy’s move to its new Center City recording studio on Seventh Street adjacent to the Electric Factory, a facility formerly called simply The Studio. Before they took it over, it was already arguably the greatest studio in Philadelphia. Now that it’s MilkBoy the Studio? There’s no argument.
Those who know MilkBoy primarily at street level, who identify the name with its two coffee shop/live-music venues in Ardmore and Center City, may be surprised to learn that its behind-the-scenes business as a destination recording studio for hit musicians the world ‘round is the older, larger part of the operation. After spending the ‘90s in a space above Zapf’s Music in North Philly, Joyner and Lokoff moved to a bigger studio in Ardmore, where they thrived for more than a decade, hosting recording sessions by the likes of Dave Matthews as well as countless smaller, independent acts.
In 2005, deciding an all-ages performance venue would be a logical addition to the company, they opened the homey MilkBoy Coffee in Ardmore. Slowly but surely, they came to realize that long-term success and stability for a live-music scene would be found in the city itself, and in 2011, they built MilkBoy’s slick café at 11th and Chestnut, blending coffee shop and bar beneath a second-story performance space.
And just as they were getting ready to open the new joint’s doors, Larry Gold came knocking.
To many, Gold needs no introduction; he’s a Philly music institution. A lifelong Philadelphian who grew up toting a cello around Kensington—”I had cellos kicked in, I had my face kicked in,” he laments—and whose talent was nurtured at the Curtis Institute, Gold became a mainstay in the Gamble & Huff orbit. As a member of their house band, MFSB, he parlayed his ear for strings and arrangements into a career as a producer. After more than a dozen years working in a handful of studios around the city, Gold moved into The Studio on Seventh Street in 1996.
There, he fostered quite a stable of talent. “For years, people came from outta town,” he recalls—but after hometown heroes The Roots finally decided to make The Studio their recording home, what followed was a parade of musicians Gold humbly calls “a little scene” before acknowledging: “It was almost a who’s who in R&B and rap.” The Studio is decked out with record plaques honoring the smashing success of some of the work that’s passed through: Justin Timberlake, Jill Scott, Jazmine Sullivan, Dru Hill, 702. Gold didn’t just provide the studio, either; he did instrumental arrangements for lots of those sessions.
After running the operation for 15 years, though, he “got tired of the hustle.” To be more pointed: “I got tired of losing money.” Like so many other media-related industries, the music business has changed a lot in the past decade and a half. As Gold saw retirement age on the horizon, he realized he was eager to think less about evolving business models and more about enjoying time with his daughter’s family in Brooklyn.
Having MilkBoy take over The Studio looked like a win-win: Joyner and Lokoff would get a better facility near their new venue, as well as the established clientele that came with it, and Gold would still get to arrange strings for projects here and there. So far, it’s worked like a dream. Since MilkBoy moved in, Gold has watched their work with admiration, and only taken on instrumental work himself for a few little gigs. Like, you know, for R. Kelly. And P!nk. And Lana Del Rey.
Joyner and Lokoff’s office is a massive, lofted-ceiling room with desks that face each other. They’ve made a few minor but significant aesthetic changes to Gold’s former setup. “We painted the walls, stripped the floors, re-did the lounge area,” says Lokoff, “and, literally, those three things changed the whole vibe of the place.” In some ways, he says, it feels almost as though they’re in the hospitality business: “Our ability to cater to people and the artists that come here—it’s like we put a new wing on, or a sauna, or a new pool, and it makes their experience here better. Our rate has gone up, and our client list has gotten to be more high-profile.”
Meek Mill was in the studio a couple weeks ago. Before that, it was Miley Cyrus, Florence + The Machine, Trey Songz, Lil’ Wayne. Whereas in Ardmore, MilkBoy earned a reputation for fostering independent, local talent, that wasn’t Gold’s focus at The Studio. But Lokoff and Joyner have never shied away from the necessity of an evolving business model, and it’s not as though they’d ever particularly strived to be “indie.” In fact, what’s most defined their success, especially over the last year, is their willingness to diversify and seek business outside of the obvious realm of straightforward music production.
That’s because, with the advent of Spotify, Pandora, Songza, Slacker Radio and the like, the studio business is one of the many facets of the music industry that’s been left reeling as it looks for alternative sources of income. As new technologies allow more and more musicians to self-record at home, professional studios are often seen as only a necessary finishing touch. “Now people tend to start and finish records here,” Joyner says, “and they can do a lot quietly at home with headphones, and then they’ll come back to mix.” On the other hand, he says, “There’s bands like Pissed Jeans that come in and record a record in six days, and then Alex Newport takes it back to his studio in Brooklyn to mix it.” So if a studio’s rates aren’t competitive and the space doesn’t feel welcoming, musicians will simply find someone else to do the job.
Assimilating The Studio’s business into their own, Joyner says, has been a game changer in terms of MilkBoy’s profile—and yet in some ways, they still live like artists: “We’re project to project and paycheck to paycheck.” That’s why, on the practical side of things, it’s been key for MilkBoy to embrace what many studios are slow to realize: Commercial work is crucial. That means a variety of different sorts of jobs; for instance, Joyner and Lokoff have eagerly taken on numerous music-related assignments for projects airing on the Discovery HD television channel. “We worked on a lot of films,” Joyner says, “either writing the music or post-production, and sometimes music supervising, placing music in films.”
Last month, for instance, they wrote commercial music for Under Armour and Planet Fitness. Joyner says they’re hoping to write more. Record producers or not, they don’t find anything to be embarrassed about in it—in fact, it’s kind of a perfect blend of their respective talents, as Lokoff composes and Joyner produces. “We’re in the studio making music, having fun and being creative,” Joyner says.
One thing they’ve taken on that’s caught some local media attention is their involvement in a couple independent feature films with Philly pedigrees. They served as music supervisors on Lebanon, PA , which has done pretty darn well for a small fiilm: It’s available on Blu-Ray, iTunes and Netflix and got a Showtime premiere just last week. Filmmaker Ben Hickernell, a local media mainstay, wrote and directed the charming indie, whose website boils it down to: “[A] bittersweet comic drama tenderly explores the cultural divide in America through the lives of one extended family.”
PW's Fall Guide 2014