Sweetwater – An Amazing Evolution of a Recording Studio

Sweetwater Sound was formed in 1979 by Chuck Surack in a VW bus, with a now-classic four track recorder.  He shifted into a retail seller of music instruments, eventually becoming the largest online music retailer in the country.

More recently, with a definite nod to Sweetwater’s roots, the company has created a world class studio adjacent to its main operations. Designed by the famous studio architect Russ Berger, the operation attracts musicians to the unlikely location of Fort Wayne, IN.

I recently had a chance to chat with producer Mark Hornsby, the VP Studio Operations, about the studio’s history and impressive growth.

Mark Hornsby

Mark grew up in the music business, and always worked in studios. He started at Sweetwater as a customer. When the company moved into its new facility in 2009, Mark was hired to do demos for business gatherings. Sweetwater’s original studio was tailored to regional bands, but owner Chuck wanted to go pro. By then Mark was working in various locations, and his conversations with Chuck evolved from consulting roles to a full time gig.

“In 1998 there were less than 100 employees,” noted Mark. “Today we employ 1800 people and will probably hire 1000 this year, with a massively larger footprint of nearly 200 acres. We have a convention center opening. People refer to us as ‘the Google of Music Business’.”

The company annually hosts GearFest, a gathering of 16,000 people in middle of June open to public, “like a trade show with clinics, performances and lectures,” explains Mark. “The dedicated convention center will be able to handle the 20% growth we have year over year.”

As to the studio operation, the synergy with the retail operation is unique. About 80% of the studio equipment can be purchased at their adjoining retail operation. If an artist wants to test out some new equipment while in the studio, it’s a short 500 foot hike to get the guitar, microphone, amp.

Mark described that the studio offers vintage equipment, like analog tape machines, “but no one sells analog tape machines. Some artists like tape, so we have the machines.”

The majority of the folks using the studio are professionals. “We get many well known names, doing solo projects. Playing in a room together is the design philosophy. Hence, we don’t get a ton of pop artists. There is lots of natural light, so you don’t feel like you are in a cave.”

Those aspects and the amenities of the campus make it a huge draw.

“The studio has a staff of 17, and operates with a separate P+L [profit and loss statement], but we are tied in and physically connected to the retail operation. We are constantly having conversations about the next cool project: vendors, artists, marketing. That all interconnects with what we do,” Mark notes. “So filling up the room with just anybody is not the definition of success, as it may be for other studios. Simply clocking rental hours is not the best use of our resources.”

He reeled off an impressive list of clients, among myriad A-List artists. Many of these professionals participate in master classes in recording, editing, mixing and mastering. Fifteen people are glad to pay $1000/person “to grow their music making passion, they are not just fanboys. We help them achieve their goals and dreams,” continues Mark. “The artist gets to interact with these folks, keep the tracks they record and get paid.”

Jonatha Brooke

Carl Veryehen

Don Felder

Robben Ford

Rick Nielsen (photo by Chad Jenkins)

Mark spoke to his company’s biggest challenge as awareness, “We have thousands and thousands of customers, and many don’t know we have the studio facilities. Millennials purchase goods and services differently, and grew up in a very different environment. For instance, millennials prefer texting, and it means we may need to communicate differently to this demographic. As a brand, we have a lot to communicate and we treat our customers very carefully both in the retail operation and in the studio. We want to deliver 100% on the customer service front, so we project manage everything from A to Z to ensure satisfaction. Rather than just taking the order, we go deep and want to know the goals of the customer.”

In 2012 when Mark took over they were outsourcing staff, now the top flight and diverse staff is in-house. Engineers, producers and musicians are all based in Ft. Wayne, so there is no need for studio customers to fly people in. “That brings down the cost for customers. We provide a packaged pricing against a defined budget. Motown and Muscle Shoals are comparisons that come up.” Referencing these blue chip recording studios is apt.

“The old school model of having pros on staff is unique. Looking back at what was successful, putting a modern twist on it…that’s what we have done.”

In closing, Mark described how Sweetwater gives back. The company gives to over 400 organizations a year. Because Sweetwater has been mainly a mail order operation, it was difficult for them to donate outside their state because of the sales tax implications.

For a company that started in a VW bus, that is a great legacy.

(all photos by Erick Anderson, except where indicated)

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.