We had the good fortune of connecting with Kathleen Wirt and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Kathleen, how has your perspective on work-life balance evolved over time?
In the early years when we were getting 4th Street Recording off the ground, I worked three or four jobs at a time. I am not an engineer; I administrate, so daytimes I could do script coverage, or proofread legal depositions in my office, then go to wait tables at Louise’s on Montana, then back to listen to mixes and close up the studio when the session ended at midnight. So I have always worked too much, and the extent of my work/life balance now that I am “the boss” is not picking up unknown calls after midnight and not going in on Sundays.
After 32 years in this business, I have to say that anyone requiring a work/life balance should probably pursue another career. There is the old adage “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life” which I truly understood when I became the sole owner of 4th Street Recording in 2001. My friends were all saying “I’m so sorry you can’t go to Burning Man this year,” and I realized that I wasn’t sorry at all, that I actually wanted to stay and run my studio.
If you are young and starting out, it does suck that you have to make work your first priority, especially when you’re the new kid doing all the stuff no one else wants to do —and it is just about impossible to sustain relationships with people who have jobs that they can leave at work, they just don’t understand. Successful careers in music often begin because somebody else went home and left an opportunity open. Even later in your career, it’s hard to make plans too far in the future because as soon as you buy a nonrefundable plane ticket, you will get a last minute call for an incredible opportunity, a job that you absolutely have to take.
Everyone I know in LA, my all my friends, and everyone I hang out with, I know because of work. I have friends whose jobs are so life-encompassing that you would never see them — so what you do is, you find ways to work together. This is why I really appreciate work that is project-based; you can think of nothing else until it is done, so at least you get to work those 12-hour days with your friends.
A couple of years ago, I took down the final barrier between my life and work and it has actually made my life better and my work easier. We were doing a lot of shorter pop and hip hop vocal sessions, and I noticed that I was losing jobs in the time it took for my assistant to give me the message. So now I have the studio phone forwarded to my cell, and it you call my personal cell, I will answer “4th Street Recording, this is Kathleen.”
There’s another saying about the music business, “First you pay to do it, then you do it for free, then you get paid to do it.” We make music because we love making music. We do it at work then go home and do it for free.
We get together with friends and do it for fun. Work. Life. Same thing. It’s pretty awesome.
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
I could make a grim little joke here and say that what sets us apart from others is that we are still open. Multiple crisis have hit recording studios – the 20-year long destruction of many income sources, mass firings, album budget cutbacks, not to mention the rise of the home studio, and all the legendary studios lost to gentrification.
I became sole owner a couple of years after things started to implode. I was hearing about bad things were, and indeed, sometimes I felt like I had a front row seat at the Coliseum watching lions eat the Christians (like the day Sony fired 2,000 people while we were making an album for the label) But it was just one little room I had to book, surely we’d be fine, we had just been booked every day for three and a half years straight.
That first year, I could have doubled my salary, but instead I put that money back into the company, repairing all the broken gear and buying a few things, expanding into more space for a lounge with. a kitchen, loft, and an editing bay. When Kasabian came in, they said “Oh, look! It’s Keith Richards house.” I couldn’t have been happier. , Then one day suddenly, my next three projects went away, six months of work. One band lost their record deal, one label folded, and one project decided to stay and record in NY instead because it was cheaper.
I had always had a love/hate relationship with the labels. I loved those big checks, but I hated what happened to nearly all the artists that I worked with. I read somewhere that in the future, there would be a “music middle class,” and I thought, “That would actually be really nice, I can be a part of that.” Of course most artists were going to have a home studio, but even if they bought that increasingly affordable gear, they didn’t know how to use it as well as someone who had been producing music every day for more than ten years. And there would be times when they needed something they didn’t have, like a drum room, or a real piano.
I halved my rates and started a sort of “menu pricing,” where the engineer, assistant, parking, and drum rental were listed separately. We had always done mostly rock and roll, so I started a series of hip hop free-style nights where I charged nothing, and we brought in a whole other set of customers. I did a three-week album on spec (which did get signed, but that’s another tragic story.) When we were served an eviction notice over unpaid back rent, I sold $1,000 vouchers for future three-day blocs and raised the entire amount. I let go of our parking passes, the lounge, our insurance, my insurance, finally even my car, but the only way out of debt was bankruptcy. During my first hearing I had a panic attack and ran to the ladies room and lowered my head between my legs, gasping for air. I had always had perfect credit and never thought this would happen to me.
I was sitting on business assets worth way more than the $50,000 worth that I would be able to keep. Knowing that the value of those assets was rapidly dropping, I managed to stretch the bankruptcy process out for months, during which time, for example, the value of my Studer tape machine dropped from $35,000 to $5,000. I squeaked through with my list of gear intact.
Then a funny thing happened: you couldn’t scare me anymore, I was fearless. My personal choice in music had been EDM for about a decade as there was so much mediocrity in rock — in fact, one label exec had once told me the band had to save their great new song for the second record, they only needed one good song on each album, because people had to buy the whole album to get that song. But after a trip to Mexico where I listened to some songs that were so good, and spoke to me so deeply that I cried, I came home reinvigorated and renewed in my purpose and excited about getting back to work. I started building the team that works with me today, and we have been on the upswing ever since. We provide a quality of product and service that is equal to that of studios charging two to three times more, and are continually building a loyal and happy client base.
I have added several RIAA awards to my wall since then; highlights include our five-times platinum single “Sweater Weather,” on the gold record “I Love You” we did with The Neighbourhood, and two weeks ago we had our first #1 album on the Billboard charts with Weezer’s “Van Weezer.” I am out of debt and my overhead is lower than it’s ever been. We even survived the pandemic year without receiving any grants. It doesn’t look like I will ever be able to “retire,” but why would I want to? My office is my iPhone now, and I can work from anywhere. And this fantastic young production team of mine is practically booking themselves. It makes me very happy to think that perhaps they can continue to do that even when I am gone.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
The first order of business is a tour of my studio followed by Happy Hour one block away at 1212 on the Third Street Promenade. Afterwards we may stroll down the Promenade and marvel at the talent of many of the street performers, making sure to drop a tip and perhaps my business card into their buckets. I offer a special extra low rate for these street performers, and for some, have even paid for the license the city requires for them to perform. Our final stop is Palisades Park to watch the sunset. Holding onto the concrete fence at the edge of the bluff, this is when I tell the funny/sad story about how I came down here once in the middle of my bankruptcy and just screamed my head off at the ocean and no one even looked at me. “very cathartic,” I say, “I highly recommend it.”
Assuming we pigged out at Happy Hour and are feeling jolly, it’s time to head back home to glob on some black eyeliner and change into something “fun” before heading to a club, ideally to see one or more of my clients perform. In the old days this always meant an action-packed night on the Sunset Strip, where I often had three or four shows to catch between The Viper Room, The Roxy, and The Whiskey, ending up at a patio table at The Rainbow Bar and Grill where we would inevitably see Lemmy Kilmeister sitting in his regular spot at the end of the bar, and Ron Jeremy clumsily assaulting women like — well, like he should be in jail. How times have changed. Nowadays, sometimes the show is in Echo Park or Silverlake so we split an expensive Uber because no one wants to drink and drive in LA, plus there is no parking to be found anywhere within a mile of the music venues. But if I could choose, I would want to take my friends to a Westside Revival show held — you guessed it — right here on the Westside, eliminating the need to go to all the way to freakin Silverlake if we want to see live music. Sejo Navajas is producing many of the bands in this collective at 4th Street Recording and we often have multiple clients on the bill. The best spot for this is right down the street from the studio, Harvelle’s Blues Club, but I also enjoy shows downstairs at The Townhouse and at unusual venues, like Timewarp Records in Mar Vista.
Saturday we head up the coast and turn up Topanga Canyon Blvd to the best vintage clothing store ever, Hidden Treasures. I tell my friends, “You are going to bless me and curse me for bringing you here.” The clothes are beautifully curated, but they aren’t cheap. I once saw a velvet patchwork comforter that I instantly realized I had wanted all my life, at $250, it was way more than I could afford at the time, so I carefully hid it under a heap of textiles, then went home and obsessed on it until I went back and to my relief found it still there, back on the top of the pile and in grave danger of being bought by someone else. It is one of my favorite possessions, well worth the cost.
Driving further up PCH, we grab some seafood at Neptune’s Net, always intending to order from the “Seafood Side,” but inevitably lining up on the “Restaurant Side” with its plethora of delicious deep-fried options. We’ll take a table if one is available, watching the motor cycles pull up and the surfers in the ocean across the street. Even better, we take our food and go to Matador State Beach to eat at one of the picnic tables before burning off some calories on the long stairway to my favorite area beach, where many pirate movies were filmed featured the famous rock arches, and where we still may see folks doing a photo shoot.
That night we head to downtown Culver City, where we have dinner and drinks at The Auld Fella or Picalilli. On Sunday I take my guests to Venice Beach, a true slice of weird California that you won’t find anywhere else. This is where they load up on gifts to take home, both for themselves and others — original artworks, those little hand-painted skulls, jewelry, skimpy little summer dresses, and home-made incense. We have to end up at The Whaler or on the rooftop bar of The Erwin for sunset.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I am so grateful to my awesome crew at 4th Street Recording., especially Sejo Navajas. My top people have been with me for years and are my best friends. They are a huge part of why I love my job so much, and I probably wouldn’t even still be here without them.
I’d also like to thank everyone who ever told me 33 years ago that owning a studio was a stupid idea, and those who told me I would crawl back to Missouri with my tail between my legs. “Happy?” my mom said, “What makes you think you deserve to be happy? Why don’t you just do what everybody else does and get a stupid job that you hate?” That was the best motivation ever.