By Jerri Stroud, BBB Editor
Doug Firley was a keyboard artist and producer for Gravity Kills, a 1990s industrial rock band that had contracts with two major record labels when the band went on hiatus in 2003. After that, he asked himself, “What next?”
Firley had worked as a recording engineer and producer while in the band, so he started a music production company, Shock City Music Works. Trouble was, he didn’t find any suitable recording studios in St. Louis. He started traveling to Nashville, Tenn., to mix the recordings, but he got tired of traveling, especially after barely making it home through a snowstorm.
“I decided we just needed to build” a studio from scratch. The timing couldn’t have been worse. It was 2006 and the economy was reeling.
“No one had any money,” he said. “The music industry was collapsing.”
But Firley and his partners found an old ice plant on Gravois south of downtown, the Polar Wave Ice & Fuel building. The 40,000-square-foot building had 20-foot ceilings, and it was suitable for a rehab combining residential and commercial space. The plan was to turn about 20,000 square feet into into commercial spaces, including a 5,000-square-foot music studio with two control rooms and ample recording space.
With design help from The Lawrence Group and a year of research and financial planning, they applied for and received historic tax credits covering about 40 percent of the cost, including the studio interior. Construction started with commercial space, but once that was complete, their bank encouraged them to develop the residential work to bring in income and wrap up financing. The project includes 14 contemporary loft-style apartments with an underground parking garage.
Firley opened the studio with little to go on but his reputation. “We had to be perfect at every turn,” he said. He was committed to offering services recording artists and others could trust, in contrast to an industry that often fails to deliver or falls short on quality.
At first, it was just Firley running the building and studio, hiring an independent engineer for recording sessions. Now the studio employs a full-time studio manager and three recording engineers.
Firley requires his engineers to be accomplished composers and musicians in addition to their audio degrees. That means they can offer additional production advice to artists, and, if needed, sit in if a band needs additional instrumental backup.
“As employees, they are more dedicated to the company,” Firley said.
“We can edit, clean stuff up, and do it quickly, too,” Firley said. “We fix the problems you don’t hear in ways you don’t understand.”
In the early days, the studio experienced a slow season from mid-April to Aug. 1. But last year, the studio began offering commercial services podcast and audiobook recording, remote recording and and post-production services. Recently, the studio recorded Sen. Claire McCaskill reding her book, Plenty Ladylike, for a Simon and Schuster audiobook.
The business has stabilized and grown. “We’ve had record-breaking months since last December,” Firley said. “This year, that quiet season was down to two weeks in July.”
Client feedback is key to Shock City staying on top of their customer service. After clients complete their session and make a payment on the studio tablet, they are then asked to complete a survey on the same tablet using an app called QuickTapSurvey. The customized animated survey takes just 15 seconds to complete but contains all of the information the staff needs about the customer’s experience
“We really cherish that feedback,” Firley said. The surveys can alert him to potential problems so he can fix them quickly, and positive responses can reinforce the things they’re doing well.
“We really want to build a trust level with the artists in the recording community,” Firley said.
Firley said that he wanted to be a BBB Accredited Business as soon as he was eligible, and he’s proud of his A+ rating. Winning the TORCH Award also helps convey the trust he wants to develop among musicians and commercial customers.
Shock City Studios, 2200 Gravois Ave., St. Louis, Mo. 63104
Operations manager: Doug Firley
BBB prepares profiles of BBB Accredited Businesses and BBB Accredited Charities as part of its TORCH Awards process. Shock City Studios is a winner of the BBB St. Louis 2016 TORCH Awards.