British startup Pirate Studios has raised a $20m funding round, which it will use to continue expanding its network of self-service rehearsal, DJ and production studios.
That network currently numbers 350 studios across the UK, US and Germany, with musicians able to book in round the clock, and use features including AI mixing and mastering, and HD-quality live-streaming. Pirate Studios says it has more than 50,000 musicians using its studios.
The funding comes from London-based venture-capital firm Talis Capital, which has been involved since the company’s earliest days. The round also includes individual investors Eric Archambeau (who’s joining the startup’s board) and Bart Swanson, as well as Hong Kong-based fund Gaw Capital.
The funding signifies big ambitions for a company that started life with a single rehearsal studio in a converted police station in Bristol, which co-founders David Borrie and Mikey Hammerton rented out to local bands.
“One band would have it every Monday evening, one would have it on Wednesday daytimes. We had 14 bands and 14 time-slots,” remembers Borrie. When he moved to London, he developed the idea into one running a handful of fully self-service studios.
“Musicians could be trusted to go into these studios on their own without causing too much damage!” he says. Inspired by models like PureGym (which has a network of gyms around the country covered by a single subscription) and Zipcar (a car-sharing network) the idea for Pirate Studios was born.
“Our studios are by no means ever going to replace recording studios. Bands will still need to record the singles and their albums in purpose-built places for that – a rehearsal studio will never be appropriate,” stresses Borrie.
“But we’re trying to offer a bridge between a cheap rehearsal space for £10 an hour, and paying £1,000 to record a single. And if we can also help musicians produce some of the content that sits between that, for their social media for example, that’s good too.”
That’s where some of the technology is coming in, like the option to record both audio and video of sessions, as well as streaming them live. At a time when artists are under pressure to produce a blizzard of ‘content’ (particularly video) as they build a fanbase, it’s a sensible tool for a studio to be offering.
“I played in bands from the age of 14 or 15 right up to about 27, and I think a lot of the magic, the personality of the band, comes out when the songs are being created. It’s behind the scenes, in the rehearsal and recording studio, where those personalities come out,” says Borrie.
“That’s what’s interesting to me at the moment. We’ve seen DJs adopt this live-streaming behaviour, possibly thanks to the precedent set by things like Boiler Room. But will bands also choose to go into a room and use this technology to switch on and then to livestream out, and give fans that behind-the-scenes view?”
“In order to be a successful artist now, it’s about the people behind the music and their story, as well as about the music itself. As we start to transform all of our studios into not just music studios but content-creation studios, artists will gain the ability to share not just their music, but the personalities behind it.”
Catering to this anticipated trend is a big part of how the $20m funding round will be used, as well as to cover the costs of further expansion in the UK, US and Germany – as well as “possibly” a couple more countries in 2019.
“Technology is moving at a remarkable rate at the moment, and in order for us to not just keep up, but to innovate and remain at the front of this field, we need to put some pretty serious investment into these technologies,” says Borrie.
Pirate Studios is also trying to do more for its community of artists. It already has its ‘Pirate Live’ initiative, which each week picks three artists who’ve been rehearsing in its studios, and broadcasts their performances on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram.
The company also curates stages at festivals, and earlier this year ran a ‘Pirate Prodigy‘ contest to find three emerging artists from the UK – only to be so impressed by the calibre of entrants, it ended up choosing four winners.
“We made it clear from the start that we weren’t going to take anything from the artists, like some of their rights. We wanted to show that we’re here to support artists,” says Borrie.
That view extends to the company’s decision not to try to launch its own label, management company, booking agency or publisher, even though its network of studios could be the perfect A&R funnel of new artists for that kind of operation.
“I think our role will always be to connect artists with the people who do these things. We’re far better as an introducer and supporter, as opposed to trying to do this stuff ourselves,” says Borrie.
“Besides, if we did set up our own label, we could pigeonhole ourselves in terms of the genres we support, and the kinds of artists. We’re here to make music more accessible, and we always want to be on the artist’s side.”
Borrie is optimistic but also realistic about the opportunities for the kind of artists who use Pirate Studios’ facilities, in a year when music-streaming has continued to grow both its global audience and revenues, but when the noise through which new artists have to cut through on these platforms has gotten ever louder.
“There is definitely a shift happening in power. Traditionally what we heard and listened to was controlled by the majors. Spotify and streaming has done an amazing job in opening up the choice of music that people can listen to,” he says.
“There’s a really strong independent scene of DIY artists out there, and a lot of what we hear coming through to us from artists applying to our livestreams and festival stages, the quality is equal to what you’d hear on the big radio stations and streaming playlists.”
“It’s just a question of how these artists get discovered: they’ve got to graft and graft. You can’t just have one piece right: you can’t just have the music without building a brand yourselves. All your socials have to be aligned, every gig you play, you have to think about how you present yourself. Artists are building a business out of themselves, with all these opportunities afforded by technology. But it’s still very difficult to actually push on through and make it.”
This, alongside opening new studios and improving the technology within them, is something Pirate Studios plans to put more energy into over the coming months and years: what tools musicians need to build their fanbases, but also to make money.
Borrie cites the ongoing debate – particularly strong in the UK – about the closure of independent music venues, including those that have traditionally been the first stepping stone for artists into a touring career.
“For me, the challenge is to find what are the new income streams that artists can find, in order to help support them being artists for longer and longer,” he says. Livestreaming is interesting on this front: witness the ‘tips economy’ that has evolved for vloggers and gamers on platforms like Twitch.
Borrie has high hopes that this will prove a useful income stream for more musicians in the future, which is why his company sees value in building livestreaming tech into its studios.
A $20m funding round inevitably raises questions of what a startup’s future exit might be. For example, here’s a theory: Spotify has built a few studios around the world for artists (and songwriters) to use – recording sessions for its Spotify Singles initiative being one prominent use.
It also has an interest in music-recording (via its acquisition of online-studio service Soundtrap) and is kicking off trials to enable artists to upload music directly to its platform, rather than via a distributor or label. Oh, and its interest in video content from artists – if not quite livestreams yet – is growing.
Wouldn’t a network like Pirate Studios make an interesting acquisition? “I’ll be honest with you: Pirate Studios was built by musicians – we were all musicians of some form: drummers, pianists, guitarists, violinists, DJs – and we all have huge ambitions for what we feel this company can achieve,” says Borrie.
“Any thoughts of a bigger company coming in to buy us now? That would mean that actually, lots of things that we’re planning for the future wouldn’t happen. My ambitions for Pirate Studios are not to sell it. Certainly not until the much-bigger things we’re planning, including how to put money back into artists’ pockets, are achieved.”
In the meantime, Pirate Studios is putting its funding to work building more studios, with a model that often involves renting (not buying – “we’re not at the WeWork scale just yet unfortunately!”) industrial warehouses, then building the individual studios within them.
“We’re half construction company, half rehearsal company,” laughs Borrie. “We design and build all the studios ourselves. It’s only through the fact that we do it in-house that we can make it so affordable for the artists.”
There are challenges here: finding the buildings with landlords willing to grant a 10-15 year lease that’s protected from development is no mean task.
It can sometimes mean looking beyond the obvious areas in a city that house its music scene. Pirate Studios’ south-west London facility, for example, is in Earlsfield SW18. It’s not Camden or Shoreditch, but the presence of the studios is creating a new community there.
“We’ve got 24 studios there now, and we’re probably bringing 200 to 250 millennials a day into that site. I was there this week and we popped to the local pub afterwards, and they’ve seen a significant shift in their passing trade,” says Borrie.
“You don’t have to open these studios in the heart of Dalston to capture all the artists that are there. They will travel, even to these slightly out-of-the-way studios.”
Bumping up sales in local hostelries might not be what gets venture capitalists excited about Pirate Studios’ model, but as the company uses its funding round to open more facilities, boost their tech capabilities and explore new revenue streams for their visitors, it’s encouraging to hear that it could be having an impact on the musical fabric of the cities it operates in too.