Celebrating the people behind British small businesses

Music that helps the world go round – John Merriman of Crown Lane Studios

Crown Lane Studio is a studio unlike any other; it’s community-based, provides a whole range of music and arts events, is especially supportive of new musical talent, and focuses on mental health. Owner John Merriman’s work with adults with mental health issues won him Merton Civic Awards in the 2013 arts and entertainment category, as well as the overall Mayor’s award of the night for Outstanding Achievement. We were lucky enough to have a chat to John about his good work – here’s what he had to say about running his business:

What’s the story behind Crown Lane Studio?

After teaching at a large secondary school just outside London for five years, my wife and I were involved in an accident which changed the course of our lives. We were driving through a country lane in Hampshire when a river burst its banks and our car was taken down the river. We both survived, but the whole ordeal made us review our lives. I realised my dream was to start a recording studio supporting new music. I handed in my notice at the school I worked at and started the business with next to no previous knowledge of running a business (but thankfully some knowledge of recording!) Now, six years on, Crown Lane is a thriving music hub with rehearsal bands, film sessions, arts events and, of course, recording and mixing.

What do you think is the most important thing that your business does?

We treat each customer as if it were ‘us in their shoes’. There are many examples of how we do this, such as opening the studio several hours before each recording session, so that the band can arrive and feel at home before we  start recording. This costs us very little, but to the studio user it’s a huge benefit. All money from gear hire is reinvested in repairing, maintaining and purchasing new gear – meaning all of our gear works, all of the time. These steps mean that it’s a supportive and non-intimidating place for new recording artists to build their confidence, something which is often lacking in the music industry.

What problems have you encountered in starting up the business?

Having no previous business knowledge was my biggest problem, so for me getting the technicalities right seemed impossible. I was constantly submitting the wrong forms too late, in the wrong format, to the wrong address, with the wrong authorisation code and without the correct payment… then receiving expensive fines! This was, as I’m sure many will agree, a frustrating and lonely experience.

Marketing was of course a minefield, although my decision in year-one to create a marketing budget and use it as creatively as I could has paid off. One year we created a magazine and sent it to every venue in South London; another year we got four thousand branded pencils made from recycled CDs; last year we launched and have sustained a podcast of new music in South London; this year we gave away a free service for every week of summer, and advertised for the first time in the local paper.

What’s the next step for your business?

I am currently looking into how we can best support people with mental health issues – the experience of playing and recording music in a supportive atmosphere can be really beneficial. This is slowly taking shape, but is a long way off from how I imagine it will look. I’m not sure if it’s unique to our industry, but the music business seems to chew people up and spit them out, leaving their mental health often in a worse condition than before they were ‘signed’. There are also people who simply struggle day-to-day just to get by, and interacting with others at the studio seems to be an amazing antidote.

Who’s the most famous person to have recorded in your studios?

I know this is going to sound strange, even cheesy, but despite there being several world-class musicians, orchestras and international producers who we continue to work with here at Crown Lane, our aim is to create a blank canvas for each person who enters, without the intimidation of names or celebrities. I hope this is the right attitude to have… but you’d have to check my humility if indeed Paul McCartney did walk in!

What’s one thing people don’t know about running a recording studio?

I love this sort of question… okay, ONE thing? Er… perhaps that to get the best results musically and to get repeat business and recommended contacts it’s more about the love of people than the love of music. Here’s another thing you might not know, since you’ve listened to me thus far: musicians at the studio leave the toilet seat up 95% of the time, BUT have particularly good aim. (Yes, it is still my job to clean the toilets…)

What’s your favourite kind of music?

The slightly mis-named genre ‘world music’ would have to be my music of choice – by this, I mean folk music from around the world. This is because it’s totally raw, has little or no autotune, and tons of background noise giving genuine context to the people behind the music… basically, the opposite to lovingly making perfect mixes day in and day out at Crown Lane!

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