Sunday 23 October 2016

Meet the Irishwoman shaping the future of The Beatles' iconic recording home

Former investment analyst Isabel Garvey plans to make the world-renowned Abbey Road Studios a music tech and innovation powerhouse

John Reynolds

Published 18/10/2015 | 02:30

Abbey Road Studios managing director Isabel Garvey
Abbey Road Studios managing director Isabel Garvey

'This is the legendary studio where The Beatles recorded. You can see cigarette burns left by John Lennon on this Steinway honky-tonk piano. Men have been known to cry here when they get this close to the history," says Isabel Garvey, with a laugh.

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Having worked her way up through the ranks of record companies EMI and Warner, the Ranelagh native and would-be tech start-up founder is overseeing a multi-million pound revamp of London's Abbey Road Studios as it repositions itself to become a leader in music technology and innovation as well as the go-to recording studio.

Part of the new strategy has seen the business link up with Cork Institute of Technology's Nimbus Centre, partnering with sound engineer and researcher Dr Derry Fitzgerald there, who hopes to secure Enterprise Ireland funding for a clever software innovation he calls "Photoshop for audio". It aims to make it easier to separate out different sounds on a piece of music and sample, remix and remaster the tracks.

He has previously worked on remastering songs for The Beach Boys and The Beatles Rock Band computer game.

"A lot of existing audio software lets you edit out frequencies, but it's very time-consuming. We're aiming for something more user-friendly, with far more functions. Abbey Road's engineers have a wealth of experience. They hear things differently and in more detail than normal people do. If we secure some funding it would allow me to have a team of three programmers working with me on this. Our long-term aim would be to spin out a company and start marketing and selling our solution," he explains.

Walking back to Garvey's glass-fronted office in what is essentially a Georgian house with a number of extensions, we pass dozens of photos of The Beatles and other singers and bands who have recorded here - from Pink Floyd to Ed Sheeran - as well as posters for numerous Star Wars and James Bond films that were scored here. A composer is currently here working on the score for the new Bond film, she reveals.

Outside, a group of tourists is taking turns to take photos on the famous zebra crossing; thanks to the revamp, a gift shop catering to them "will sell a bit of the magic of our heritage to about 300,000 people who visit every year". There will also be two new rock and pop studios and an Atmos theatre for its film scoring clients that uses the latest Dolby surround sound - "it lets you program every speaker and pinpoint exactly where the sound is heard in a cinema."

An education arm, Abbey Road Institute, will offer a diploma in sound engineering as well as some business education. It's already enrolled 25 students in London and has been franchised in France, Germany and Australia so far. A digital service offering remastering and mixing to musicians will give them a mark of quality, like a kitemark, using the studios' name.

An innovation division is looking at the future of the business and what other digital services it might offer while talking to the worlds of academia and tech start-ups. Having recently linked up with its first partner, speaker manufacturer Sonos, Garvey also wants to amplify the studios' brand with other companies where there's a mutual connection. "These could all be very successful businesses," she says.

The plans should ensure that the business - where she is in charge of 68 staff, and which is ultimately part of French media conglomerate Vivendi under its multi-billion euro division Universal Music Group - grows by multiples over the next five years. It builds on a career that has been very enjoyable, she enthuses, though diplomatically not naming her favourite band or singer.

"I remember I first joined EMI, I was in a boardroom where they were playing Coldplay's X&Y album for the first time, which was great. But all these executives stood up and started playing air guitar and other instruments, and I wasn't sure whether to join in or maybe start singing along, so that was a little awkward. But my two bosses there taught me all about the music business, from top to bottom. I was in charge of how the company would navigate the threats and opportunities as music began to go digital from 2004 onwards, working on deals with the likes of Amazon that were starting to be made.

"There, and then at Warner, I was at gigs, meeting artists, and I guess I was living a bit of the rock'n'roll dream. I could touch the creativity; I was that close to it. I saw how it can be a very tough industry as well. You see how easily people can rise and fall. I saw how the balance between commerce and creativity is really, really tricky. It's very easy to get wrong, so it requires a certain sensibility and that's something you have to learn. It keeps it permanently challenging. But I find that meeting those kinds of hugely creative talents is so inspiring, because their brains work completely differently to mine."

During four years with Warner, one of which was spent scouting out and acquiring 10 different businesses that were then integrated to form digital side of the giant's European music business, she built on a skillset she had developed as an analyst with investment bank Morgan Stanley and then three years in private equity.

She also met a lot of tech and music-related start-ups, fuelling an interest in founding one herself. Deciding to take a break from corporate life, she spent two years consulting several early stage firms, and inspiring an idea for a lifestyle-related smartphone app she planned to develop on her own.

"Seeing how people's character can determine whether they're successful or not in that world was fascinating, and I caught a bit of the entrepreneurial bug myself. But then I had to pause things to have my son. I might yet go back to my start-up idea, but when I was ready to go back to work I was approached to run Abbey Road and decided to say yes," says the mother of two.

It's a role that has its fun side too. "There have been some amazing film scores recorded here. When a full concert orchestra is here in a studio, the sound is just phenomenal. It's nerve-tingling; you just don't get that close to an orchestra at a concert. To see and hear some pop artists' raw talent is also quite something. I think the media would often have us underestimate them."

Her own taste in music is "questionable", and she doesn't play any instruments herself. "My grandfather and sister were and are incredible pianists, so there is definitely a musical streak in my family, but I don't have any talent myself. I'm a disgrace," she laughs.

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