Q&A: Chicago audio engineer Michael Kolar reflects on COVID-19’s impact on the recording industry

Michael Kolar is a Chicago-based audio engineer and founder of Soundscape Studios in Ukrainian Village. Born and raised in Chicago, Kolar has been active in the Chicago music scene since he interned at Bzipp Studio at the age of 15. Years later, he went on the road with George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic as their audio engineer and artist relations manager. In 1996, he returned to Chicago to earn a B.A. in recording arts & sciences from Columbia College Chicago, and to focus on Soundscape Studios, which he founded in 1996. He’s since recorded various artists including Zayn Malik, M.I.A, Chance The Rapper, George Clinton, Ludacris, Action Bronson, Raekwon, 2 Chainz, Naked Raygun, No ID, Wyclef Jean, Talib Kweli, Vic Mensa, Jamila Woods, and Chingy.  

Kolar’s lengthy tenure in music gives him a unique perspective on the current state of the industry. The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered independent music venues and production studios, stamped out emerging artists, and pulled the plug on live music and tours. In late December, Redacted Magazine sat down via Zoom with Kolar to discuss the current state of the industry, the federal stimulus bill, recording artists remotely and the future of Chicago music. The full conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.  

Redacted: I know you’re involved in various facets of the music industry. How has COVID-19 affected your work?  

Kolar: There’s not one aspect of the myriad things I do that COVID-19 has not impacted on some level. Collaborating in the studio with other musicians is tough right now, and touring opportunities are non-existent and not coming back any time soon. When you’re not touring, your merch sales go down, so it’s been painful for artists these days. 

R: I’m aware you’re recording artists remotely. How is that different from recording in person? 

K: Yes, we’re doing stuff remotely. That could be an article in and of itself. Before we even knew what COVID-19 was, especially in rap music, there’s been a free sharing of ideas via Dropbox or Sendspace. Just yesterday we wanted to get Valee on a record. Even if COVID-19 was not a thing, he just wants to record at home. So, we had to make a version of the song with a 16-bar gap for him, and then we’re going to send it to him, and then he’ll send it back, and then I’ll mix it. If there wasn’t COVID, actually, that would have been the process. So, some aspects of my work haven’t changed. But there’s an energy and a magic when you work with people in person. At any stage, whether recording or producing, even when I’m mixing a record, I like when the client is present, just to vibe. I’ll be mixing the record and I’ll look over my shoulder to see if their head is nodding or if their toe is tapping. To do it remotely is a little dystopian and not ideal, but not insurmountable either. 

R: Would you say that it’s less of a democratic process? Do you make more executive decisions? 

K: That’s an interesting question. I’ve been doing this for 25 years. I have clients I’ve been working with for years and they have a lot of trust and faith in me; so, I was kind of making executive decisions before COVID-19. I have very deep understandings of a lot of my clients and they come to me because they like my sonic vision. But not every mix engineer works that way. 

R: Earlier in 2020 I read that you were mixing and mastering one song for free so artists could generate some revenue. Are you still doing that? 

K: That is unsustainable long term. That was at the height of COVID-19 when Chicago was locked down. But as much as I’d like to continue it, I just can’t offer free services for months on end. I need to make sure that I can keep this business open so my young engineers have a place to work and earn a living.  

R: What are some of the changes you’ve had to make to keep the business open? 

K: Whew. A lot of expensive changes that have hurt our bottom line, unfortunately. When this first happened we went to KOVAL Distillery here in Chicago and bought $600-worth of hand sanitizer. We’ve had to get studio rules signs printed and hung up, we have to limit the number of sessions we’re doing so there’s not crazy overlap. A studio is a very expensive place so if it’s not packed around the clock it’s less profitable. We go through HEPA air filters for the air ducts, we hired an expensive cleaning crew whereas normally, we had interns tidy up around here, but we had to cancel our internship program. There are a lot of new expenses and things we’re doing differently. 

R: Did you get any monetary aid from the government?  

K: The staff did not, as I want to focus on the hardship of young, independent contractors. That stuff is exceedingly difficult to get for a studio because about 10 years ago, a major paradigm shift occurred from staff engineers to freelancers. When no one is on payroll, I can’t get a massive Payroll Protection Program loan to pay all these guys because they’re not employees. Sunset Sound in L.A. – a legendary studio where The Doors and The Beach Boys recorded – they have a different business model than us. They have big rock bands rent that place for a week and do all the recording. It’s what someone who doesn’t know about the music industry thinks a recording studio looks like – massive and old and 1950s. It’s awesome, but these big bands will spend five days recording everything, put it on a hard drive, then go to studios more like ours to overdub, mix, master, do vocals, produce or add synthesizer. Sunset has a lot of staff, but that’s a multi-million-dollar business doing Foo Fighters albums. We’re just not on that level here. 

R: What are your employees who are contractors doing now? 

K: A lot of them are back to engineering. I allow a couple of my guys to work one-on-one with a client, but the studio used to have five, six people at a session plus an intern. Now it’s just an engineer and a vocalist. At the height of Chicago’s lockdown, they also had to augment their income driving for Uber, Uber Eats or picking up Amazon shifts. 

R: Are you only recording parts individually? 

K: Yes. I don’t think we’ve had a band in since we’ve re-opened. I don’t know how to do that safely. We have a big band room, but we don’t do a lot of bands to begin with. Sunset takes up an entire massive L.A. city block. Inside, everyone can play 18 feet apart and be fine. But here, I can’t — in good conscience — let a big, multi-member act come in. So it’s singers and producers one-on-one.  

R: Do you think that’s affected the sound at all?  

K: I’m sure it has. We’re not in an era of band music right now – the four guys on the floor playing. We’re in the era of Billie Eilish and cobbling together stuff at home. Rap has been at this party for a decade. Of course there’s legacy acts, but I really can’t think of a young version of The Killers or Foo Fighters or The Strokes. If there was a Lollapalooza this summer, I can’t think of a young, current rock band that could get an after-6 p.m. spot. It’d be all legacy. I follow a bunch of studio builders in L.A. and I definitely see like a lot of home studios and garage conversions happening. This might usher in an awesome new era of garage music — more organic, heavy and less studio-produced.  

R: Turning to the current stimulus bill, how does it feel to watch politicians in D.C. making big decisions that affect Chicago musicians? 

K: I have to give you a very nihilistic answer. I don’t give a fuck, because to be honest, the government is more or less incompetent. And this is such a unique apocalyptic plague for the music industry. I can’t imagine some detached D.C. people having any worthwhile ideas, thoughts or actions to remedy or cure my industry. If a venue closes, it’s closed. They’ve already let all their employees go. You can’t just throw money at them. You can give rations to the owner to pay the property tax and keep hot water so the pipes don’t burst, but I don’t know what type of aid can fix this, to be honest. It’s the same with the recording studio.  

R: What do you think would help that’s feasible during COVID? 

K: Magic; I don’t know. 35% of our clients are artists that make a living off of music and can easily pay for studio time. But 65-70% are these up-and-coming artists that are waiters, bartenders, hospitality workers or people that work in hotels. They take the money from the restaurant gig or Hilton and then come and give it to me and I work on their music. And what is $600 going to do for that? I just don’t know. Pardon the depressive tone of my answer. 

R: Have fewer of the upandcoming artists come in to record?  

K: Yes, definitely. They just do not have disposable income anymore. There’s a level of privilege in chasing your dreams, and that privilege has been checked for the up-and-coming artists. Right now, their studio budgets are going to Mariano’s and Costco and landlords. It’s just really tough. 

R: Do you think this might lead to a consolidation of artists, where only the people that can afford studio are able to release content?  

K: I think that the great democratization of the music industry might be over for myriad reasons. 25 years ago, when I was at Columbia College, it was the last chapter of the majors. There were gatekeepers and a very clear obstacle course to jump through to get to the promised land. I felt it was going that way before I knew what COVID-19 was. About 15 years ago, the major catalyst for change was blogging. All of a sudden, Chicago was becoming this music Mecca. Chief Keef, Chance [the Rapper], Vic [Mensa], Alex [Wiley], Rubyhornet, Fake Shore Drive, Lil Durk — all that was happening here. And with blogging, we could instantly get an artist popping on the internet. They might not have made the millions that artists of the classic era like Eminem or Jay-Z made, but there was this window. 

During that time, I booked Curren$y’s first Chicago show. I just saw him playing with his kids in front of his large house in New Orleans and parked on the front lawn were Rolls Royces and classic, old school cars. He had just bought an Indianapolis 500 pace car Corvette. His kid is buried under toys. He didn’t live in Hollywood Hills or Beverly Hills, but he is like the poster child of that era. I booked Action Bronson’s first Chicago show for a $5 cover at a beauty bar. Now he’s on TV and traveling the world, eating Moroccan lamb and stuff. It’s amazing. That was the window. Then streaming crushed and stamped out proper music journalism. The majors had millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars that they could pump into these streaming startups to have a very active voice in who makes the big playlists and who doesn’t. Now the industry is going back to fewer artists functioning on a higher plane.  

We’re a small studio here. The gear that we have allows my artists to record almost as well as the L.A. people for 60% less. And when someone’s listening on earbuds, can they even tell the difference between my mix and Manny Marroquin’s? We’re certainly not in nightclubs anymore. But studios like ours are getting pushed out, especially with Live Nation’s ever-growing control of live music. That’s what they’re doing with Lincoln Yards. They’re talking about putting a proper Live Nation stadium 400 yards from Hideout. And once we lose Hideout, and that ability to nurture and to develop and break artists, everything will have to fit in the cookie-cutter boxes of Live Nation and a major to really break through. It’s happening in the majors too, with labels going public. Universal now has to answer to a board of directors that don’t care about the music. Man, the board of directors is going to be like, ‘Where’s more Bhad Bhabies? I need a return on my investment. I’m trying to develop and bolster an artist. Where’s the next Tik Tok crap-a-lap?’ A lot of things are pushing the industry back to a place it was at 25 years ago, when I was a college kid.  

R: Is Lincoln Yards for sure happening? I know CIVL was lobbying against it.  

K: Well, it’s not dead and it’s not written in stone yet. And while Live Nation literally had their ass handed to them this year, they have a lot of money. I’ve been to their office in Beverly Hills. It’s a massive facility; they can weather this storm.  

R: How do you feel about the consolidation of the music industry? For example, Universal acquiring Bob Dylan’s catalog 

K: Man, I always looked at artists’ catalogs as a musical legacy til’ about four months ago. And then all of a sudden, someone very smart on Wall Street realized that Spotify never runs out of inventory. And now an artist’s catalog isn’t a musical legacy; it’s an annuity that kicks money out month after month. If Dylan drops dead tomorrow, his music is still on Spotify and it will be for 100 years. Looking at artists as annuities – I don’t imagine that having a great impact on the future of the music business. 

R: What do you think the music scene in Chicago will look like after this? 

K: Chicago is one of the most resilient cities I’ve ever seen and the artists are tenacious. Their work ethic and their hustle are matched by any. But I worry an entire generation of artists will suffer. For example, there’s this artist KAINA. I believe she was probably in the fifth grade or sixth grade when I met her. She was a young girl that liked to sing, and over the last 2 years, she built her industry. At the end of last year, she dropped an album that got a lot of buzz. Kelly Deasy, who I’ve worked with, started her own agency. She grabbed KAINA and set her up with a tour that was anchored around a couple juicy South by Southwest gigs. There were a bunch of shows that would lose money, but South by Southwest will make money, so it breaks even. That’s what all young artists do. Any artists I manage, their first three tours, we expect to lose money. We will get it back from Spotify streams and just getting their name out there. Then I saw South by Southwest get canceled. And then two days later, Kiana has a heartfelt Instagram post saying, ‘Man, that was our anchor gig. The other seven dates are only paying $50 and I can’t rent the van and bring the band down for $50. We’ll lose money.’ Man, those things are tough. It was her moment and then this moment got snatched. Will she be able to weather the storm til’ she gets out there? I don’t know.  

In a couple years when it’s the new normal, I know that this generation of Chicago artists will have made an impact. It’s this thing in the Chicago DNA that I just don’t see in other cities. But this shit hurts my heart man. This isn’t my first rodeo. I steered this business through 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis. I’ve had the rug pulled out from me. You know? What hasn’t killed me has made me stronger. But this is the first rug pulled out from these young artists. The engineers here, no one’s bouncing checks and it’s getting better every month, so I see light at the end of the tunnel. But canceling the internship really sucked. I want these young engineers and artists to have a classic experience with tape machines and analog gear in a big live room. We have a classically built, floated studio. It costs about $100,000 to build a fully tuned, isolated, soundproof studio. And I want them to have that experience, not just a real drum set but $20,000 in microphones. And I love teaching and mentoring the next generation of engineers, but how are these kids going to learn how to do this without internships? I imagine all these artists getting started are recording at home not understanding that there is a science to this. There are no rules, but there is a science and a methodology that’s really hard to figure out in a bedroom or by yourself because mentorship is exceedingly important.  

It’s always great when I’m working with a young artist and one of my legacy acts like Bun B, Crucial Conflict, Raekwon from Wu Tang or Wyclef Jean from the Fugees. ColdHard from Crucial might say to the young artist, ‘Man, get in there, we’ll make this highlight.’ That community and those mentorships are so important, but we don’t overlap sessions anymore. And you can’t bring guests. You can’t bring your A & R, your manager, your girlfriend, your drug dealer. I miss that and I have great concerns for all the young people that are coming of age in this industry that aren’t going to get the resources I had and the mentorship opportunities that I had. The artists of the last generation – Chance or Vic [Mensa] — were mentored by ColdHard or OG producers like Vince [Lawrence]. So this new generation is coming at a bad time, but young people are resilient. Look at you — you’re making your own fucking magazine. You’re building your industry like I did when I was your age.  

It’d be nice to wait around for a Heroes Act but the last year has shown me that both sides of the [political] aisle are exceedingly inept and out of tune. You can’t expect a bunch of people in D.C. to understand the idiosyncratic nature of this industry. It’s incumbent on ourselves to figure this out, and I see you doing the same thing. You know, don’t wait for Rolling Stone to hire you, make your own fucking magazine. I didn’t wait for Universal to hire me, I made my own studio. Everyone thought it was over in 2008 when half the recording studios in the country went belly up, or when people weren’t coming to the studio after 9/11. It’s dark now, but everything gets better. You’ll be fine. I didn’t wait for Universal to hire me, I made my own studio and label. Everyone thought it was over in 2008 when half the recording studios in the country went belly up, or when people weren’t coming to the studio after 9/11. It’s dark now, but everything gets better. You’ll be fine.  

R: So how can people help?  

K: The best way to help an artist right now is if they have anything tangible, buy it. Posters, hoodies, go on Bandcamp Fridays when they waive their commission and buy a copy of an album. And on your own social media, promote artists that you care about. Tweet about them, get their streams up, you know, shed light on the artists that you want to hear more of. I don’t need to tweet about Kid Cudi’s new album. It’s super dope, but I’m not worried about Cudi. And when it’s within your mental and physical health to go back to concerts, go and support artists. That’s really it. There aren’t a lot of great ways to support unless you’ve got some super dope trust fund and can dole out stipends. Yeah, there’s not a lot you can do, but those are some simple things that can help. 

Cover Image by Matt Reeves