Tuesday 14 February 2017

Mill Hill Music Complex is 38 years old today!

38 years ago today, a very important event happened in my life.  In all honesty, I didn't realise how important. I was 16 years old and at Orange Hill School. I'd decided to form a band and having bought a guitar, written a few songs and had a few practices with my mates in my bedroom, I'd driven my parents completely mad. They ran a crash repair business in Mill Hill called Mac Metals. A couple of years earlier they'd acquired the freehold to the site of their business, to protect their investment in the business. Part of the plot of land was a derelict caretakers cottage. My Dad had a brainwave and asked me if we fancied using it as a rehearsal space. As this meant that we had a base for shenanigans of all sorts, I jumped at the chance. The only problem was that we didnt have any equipment. So I came up with a cunning plan. There were two other bands at the school, who between them had a bass amplifier, a PA and a drum kit. My Dad had asked for a couple of quid a week in cash. So I said that we could form a coop and if they each chipped in a quid a week and left the gear there, they could have one rehearsal a week. So we got a free rehearsal and they got a place to play. We decided that we'd rehearse twice a week.

This arrangement lasted about six months. As with most bands, they split up. This arrangement bought us some breathing space and we were able to procure equipment of our own. The word also went around that we had our rehearsal space. Other bands approached me to rent the space. Our first two customers were The Polecats, who were in the charts with a cover of Bowie's "John I'm Only Dancoing" and Alan Warner, lead guitarist of sixties superstars The Foundations. I hadn't planned the studio as a business venture, but as I was at school it provided a handy source of spare cash. There are many stories of all manner of things which happened in the first few years. Some friends of mine had the idea of renting the spare bedrooms. Although the cottage was barely habitable, it was cheap and my Dad liked the idea of having an on site presence. They used the upstairs bedrooms and the kitchen and the front room became the studio. We agreed that we'd stop the music at 11pm.

Eddie Floyd
This was an extraordinarily creative period. We spent most of our free time writing music and putting bands together. The only bands who rented were good friends. However it became clear that the setup wasn't ideal. As my friends tired of constant noise, we realised that we needed a better studio space. Another local musician had heard of what we were doing and approached my Dad to rent a workshop he had spare. This became STN (Sod The Neighbours) studio. It operated between 1980 and 1985 from Bunns Lane. In 1985, they moved to Colindale, seeking "better premises". It meant we had a ready made studio to move into. I borrowed £3,000 to buy a PA and a drum kit. Amazingly the bank lost all of the details of the loan. Eventually I fessed up 18 months later, by which time we were making a healthy profit. At the time the studio was a partnership, jointly owned by the members of my band. I found that having a business venture was with a band was not ideal for a creative setup. Although we did great work building up the studio, I found that it wasn't condusive to a creative musical identity for the band. I think it is an important lesson to learn to focus. My partners had a very different vision for the studio to the one I had. It generated a nice amount of beer money, I felt that it could be a successful business. I discussed my ideas and one of my partners disagreed. We had always had a rule that we only did things by consensus, so we hit a bit of an impass. By this time we had two studios. We'd built a recording studio, on the site of a garage that had burnt down. It was a great space. We'd all worked on it every weekend for a year. I'd realised that there was a huge demand for such space and that there was an opportunity. In 1991, I got a redundancy payoff from an IT job I was doing. I used the opportunity to buy out my partners. A new partner joined, Ernie Ferebee. I had outlined my vision and Ernie bought into it. He had been living as the tenant in the Caretakers cottage since about 1988 and working as a bouncer in nightclubs. He had got married and was looking to start a family.

The plan was simple. As units on the site became available, we'd take over the leases, do them up and grow the business. I estiamted that we'd need seven studios to make it worthwhile and viable. The plan was also to open a music shop, selling equipment. We reached this target in 1998. We also started operating a professional recording studio. It also became clear that we needed extra staff. Rehearsal studios work unsocial hours and Ernie had a family. We were lucky, a lot of very decent people were passing through the studio, many of whom wanted to work for us. By 2000, we had ten studios. What could possibly go wrong?

The Damned
Kate Nash
Sadly life will alway kick you when you think it is all going so well. In August 2000, Ernie was diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer. By Feb 2001, he had tragiclly died, leaving  three children and a widow. Perhaps the biggest tragedy of all was that Ernie had worked tirelessly and just when the work and investment was starting to pay off. Although I had no doubt that the studio was a very viable proposition, when you lose a key man, you have to take stock. My staff (we were now employing five people) were worried that I'd give up and walk away. They knew the huge contribution Ernie had made. What perhaps they didn't realise was that I'd not put the work and the years in to jack it in so easily. My mission became to realise the vision that Ernie and I had developed.

In the sixteen years since, we've gone from ten to twenty studios. We have built a new complex that is fit for the 21st century and we have a fantastic client list, including Amy Winehouse, Kate Nash, Eddie Floyd, The Damned, Modestep, London Grammar, Martin Fry, The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra and Morrissey to name just a few. We have approx 1,000 musicians a week pass through. It's been a fantastic journey. Here's to the next 38 years at Mill Hill Music Complex.

Ernie Ferebee RIP

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