With the pandemic slamming the music industry and obliterating revenue streams for touring artists, road crews, recording studios and record labels, people in the business have been struggling to make money.
“Like a million others in town and around the country, our revenue is decimated,” says Joshua Olsen, who owns and operates Third & James Records and Third & James Studios. The local music-production company with a state-of-the-art recording studio and independent label focuses on country, Americana, red dirt and rockgrass clients. “Our artists are chomping at the bit to play shows, but they’re also asking if it’s safe for them to play. It’s been tough.”
Even with the cancellation and postponement of live shows and a decline in album sales and digital streams, Olsen says he’s not yet at the point of dropping any acts from Third & James — home to Colorado talent such as Oli McCracken, Kayla Ruby, Dream Feed and Tyler Walker.
“But it’s lean, scary times," he admits. "We have to find some income, any place where we can draw in money. So my response to that is, ‘Let’s get creative, find alternative trickles of income, and continue to do what we love — make music.’”
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The 44-year-old country musician, songwriter and producer, who spent years working in Seattle and Nashville before moving to Denver in 2014, says he hasn’t taken a salary since the COVID-19 outbreak: “I want to make sure my employees, including my engineers and second engineers, get paid first. So I do my best to live small and save big."
Located in Denver, the semi-private studio, which Olsen had built from the ground up, boasts 3,400 square feet and comes equipped with a large tracking room and adjoining isolation vocal booths, soaring ceilings, a vintage board and a chill ambience that inspires creativity.
“There’s nothing sexier than a good band playing a good fucking song, in a good room, through a good board, with a good pair of ears, through a good pair of speakers,” affirms the record executive. In addition to the studio, there’s a cozy lounge that includes gaming consoles, a pinball machine and a cornhole game, premium movie channels, a cigar humidor and a stocked bar — all complimentary amenities for the bands. “We have an excellent microphone closet and outboard gear selection along with a 56-channel console.”
But when you put together a studio this size, the rent doesn’t come cheap, says Olsen. “When we set out to build it, we didn’t intend for it to be for commercial purposes. Rather, the concept was to do something similar to what the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and Sun Studio did, which was they both had a recording studio where they were finding, developing, producing and releasing artists — I love that narrative. But we spent too much money, frankly, so we decided to make the studio available to the public in April of 2019.”
A saving grace for Third & James has been its landlord and owner of Lifehouse Construction, Marty Harrison, an avid lover of Colorado independent music, who built the studio for Olsen and his investors. “He owns this whole building and has truly been a savior and hero in this picture. On the months we make enough, we’re able to take care of business with him.”
With the pandemic wreaking havoc on businesses, Third & James Studios took a financial hit in spring, when it had to close down. But things are improving, says Olsen, who keeps the studio and lounge immaculate and has COVID-19 regulations in place, which are listed on the studio website.
“We’re working in as much music as we can. We have a band in here today for a twelve-hour session, and when they’re done, we have another band coming. We’re constantly recording. But it’s not necessarily paying stuff, because half the time our Third & James label artists are in the studio, and those aren’t immediate payments.”
As the state has started reopening, the demand to record has been up, but many artists let Olsen know they can’t afford the $75-per-hour commercial rate.
“They’re hurting like us, trying to survive on limited funds. And with a guy like our chief engineer, Matt Legge, who’s had clients like Taylor Swift, Peter Frampton and Ringo Starr, it’s not a cheap process,” he notes. Legge has worked on four Billboard number-one singles and is a Grammy winner. “But our motto around here is, ‘We don’t want money to be the reason you don’t make a record.’ So we have staff meetings and brainstorm: ‘What can we do to help bands that want to record but are on a tight budget?’ And the reality is that we just have to take less money and we have to be faster.”
One way to cut corners for bands while still making some profit for the studio is by offering per-project budgets versus charging an hourly rate. “We work with what they can afford and come up with a custom-tailored plan," says Olsen, and so far, the incentive has worked. “When an artist is sitting in the studio and has to constantly be looking at the clock...well, that’s what kills that creativity. So the more we can do per-project budgets, we can let them create.”
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Another economic driver for Third & James Studios has been the launch of a new membership program designed for artists who want to release music on a regular basis, at a discounted price, as well as enjoy additional perks thrown in, depending on which package they choose. “We have artists that come in every week, so we looked at their billing cycle and saw they’re spending a ton of money here because of our regular rates," Olsen explains. "By providing this monthly membership, they can get a certain amount of tracking hours and use the rehearsal space. And the cool part is that we’ve made the studio available to them outside of the recording hours. Much like a gym, the members can use their key and come in anytime they want.”
The program offers a starter “Silver” package, which includes reduced studio rates, full amenities, single- or album-release consultation with label staff, private events, discounted workshops, off-street private parking and more. With different tiers available, the crème de la crème option is “El Jefe,” which grants maximum studio time and benefits. “Really, this is a man cave for artists who are passionate about music," Olsen says. "It’s kind of like walking into a Sam’s Club or Costco, showing your membership card and saying, ‘I own this place. I’m a member of this place.'"
On the label side, Third & James Records keeps to a tight budget. The staff of nine who help run the production, as well as the A&R and publicity departments, are a combination of paid and volunteer positions. “We’re still in full-blown COVID-19 and just can’t afford a massive staff and salaries right now, so we do some trade internally,” says Olsen. “The beauty is that most everyone who works for the label is a musician and innately passionate about music, so we’ll trade studio time or offer a percentage of the label’s cut for working on certain projects, which works out great for both sides.”
Listen to the latest singles by Third & James artists Oli McCracken ("Aftershocks"), Kayla Ruby ("I Wish I Was Crazy"), Dream Feed ("Touch the Flame") and Tyler Walker ("Make It to Sunset)." The studio and label are located at 1546 West Byers Place in Denver. Olsen and his staff can be reached at 303-886-6518 or via email at email@example.com. Visit the record label and Facebook page to find out more, as well as to check out other Third & James artists.