Since college, grime artist Novelist wanted to make music at Abbey Road, the fabled London recording studio where everyone from the Beatles to Adele recorded their hits. “I remember once I told a teaching assistant in my music class, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna go to Abbey Road,’ and you can just tell when somebody’s not taking what you’re saying serious,” the 21-year-old says. “It made me laugh a bit.” Within the past year, though, he was in the famed studio, putting the finishing touches on his sonically complex debut LP, Novelist Guy, which came out this past spring. It’s since been shortlisted for the U.K.’s Mercury Prize.
“For me, it was a business transaction,” he says of fulfilling his dream. “It wasn’t just, ‘Oh, yeah, Novelist has found his way into Abbey Road.’ Nah, I bought a session like any other studio. And I was willing to pay that money for that level of quality because, it being my debut album, it’s never gonna fade away.”
Over the past couple of years, the recording institution has made strides in opening its doors to a clientele beyond music’s upper crust. It’s created new, smaller studios, where artists can use the same gear that the Fab Four once did — relics such as a piano John Lennon burned his cigars out on or Paul McCartney’s favored “Lady Madonna” Steinway — just as Bruno Mars or Ed Sheeran could in the larger rooms. Abbey Road has appointed prolific producer and Chic leader Nile Rodgers to the newly created title of chief creative adviser and charged him with concocting fresh ideas for the studio and serving as its ambassador. And it’s added a new store where the half a million or so Apple scruffs who pose for photos on the iconic zebra crossing where the Beatles’ Abbey Road cover photo was taken can buy co-branded band merch directly from the studio, rather than from a bootleg outpost by the nearby tube station (as had been the only option for years). Although its business has never been in decline, the studio today is a rejuvenated version of its former self.
Part of the reason for the change is that staff at the studio realized they had been underserving a large portion of music makers and fans. For decades, Abbey Road has been the London destination for music’s elite. In 1931, EMI opened its doors as a studio in the building, a Georgian construction from 1829, and it became a prime destination for symphonies. Its engineers wore white lab coats and innovated new technologies; one of EMI’s engineers pioneered stereo sound, and the U.K.’s first digital single was recorded there. Cliff Richard, the celebrated singer for the U.K.’s beloved Shadows, brought rock & roll to the studio in the Fifties, the Beatles made it their home in the Sixties and Pink Floyd did the same in the Seventies. Film composer John Williams recorded the Raiders of the Lost Ark score there in 1981, and that established a whole new film business, which led to the recent addition of a Dolby Atmos mixing suite, a studio used both by soundtrack producers and engineers working on surround-sound versions of Sgt. Pepper and INXS’ Kick.
In 2010 — the same year there was a shakeup in ownership and Universal Music took over the studio — it was given English-heritage status, protecting it from gross modifications, and much of it is the same as it always has been. The floors in Studio One are the same ones that the Beatles filmed their “All You Need Is Love” clip on and Pink Floyd used as a garage to tinker on their cars, and Studio Two still has the same tattered baffles as it did in the Forties. The hallways are still lined with bespoke vintage gear, giving it all a sci-fi look. And there’s still a quaint dining room in the basement where artists huddle between takes. The only thing changing is the clientele.
On a recent private tour of the studio, which is not open to the public, its head of brand and marketing, Mark Robertson, explained how the Abbey Road staff realized the potential of the brand. They began by comparing the studio’s customer base to a pyramid: the tip is the professionals — A-list artists, film composers, symphonies — then there are home-studio musicians like Novelist who could use a place like Abbey Road to finish up their recordings and finally there are fans of the artists who’ve recorded there. When they looked at the big picture, they realized they might have a perception problem.
“There was this view of Abbey Road that was a bit out of reach, a bit unattainable, a little bit aloof,” Robertson tells Rolling Stone in the Front Room, a new studio about the size of a Manhattan apartment that Rodgers has made his London home away from home. “I thought as a brand, we’ve got the authority and the history. There’s always been this innovation; stereo was invented here. And we have such incredible talent here. For me, it was about being a lot more open and humanizing Abbey Road.”
To aid them, they enlisted Rodgers as an ambassador to artists and producers this past March. The Chic guitarist had been involved in the studio’s spatial audio forum and set up shop in the Front Room and the Gatehouse, another new studio in an adjoining building a short walk from Studio Two. He subsequently brought Mura Masa and Nao to the latter studio and recorded “Till the World Falls,” a disco-leaning new single that will appear on the upcoming Chic LP. He also worked with Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak at Abbey Road, exploring new ways to challenge himself.
Rodgers appreciates what he calls a “holistic mythology” of a good studio. In the Seventies, he helped put New York’s Power Station studio on the map and watched as artists like the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd subsequently begin experimenting with disco there. He wants to build a similar buzz around Abbey Road.
“All my life, I listened to music and thought, ‘Wow, they did this at Abbey Road,’ ” he says, “And of course ‘they’ meant the Beatles. So when we started talking about me coming here, I said to them, ‘What if after we started working here, people went, “Whoa, they did that at Abbey Road?” ‘ [The Abbey Road staff] said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘What if we went from the “Wow” factor to the “Whoa” factor? What if people started going, “Whoa, they did that at Abbey Road?!” ‘”
Since taking on the adviser role, Rodgers has inundated the staff with “What if” questions — “What if we did this or that?” — to achieve the “Whoa” factor. He had the idea of filming music videos for Chic in Studio Two and was told no one had ever done that previously. After he did it, Paul McCartney performed a concert in the same space. “There’s a ripple effect,” he says of the Beatle, who personally congratulated Rodgers on the adviser title. “I’m not sure if he had thought of [doing a concert there] before but it was like a magical convergence.” And Rodgers partnered with some of the engineers to learn about the special recording machinery that was created at the studio. “What it’s like being here is like being an anthropologist,” he says. “You see the walls are littered with gear. They all have this unique history.”
He’s also pushed himself musically since aligning with the studio. When Mars and .Paak were there, he recorded a song over a Lenny Kravitz sample with them; it was the first time in his life he’d done that. And he has an idea he likens to the Three Tenors, where he and two other guitarists would make a record using a “particular guitar technique,” which he won’t disclose, that he feels he could flesh out in the studio. “We’ve got to figure out when we can do it, when they have time in their schedule, but I know I want to do it here at Abbey Road,” he says. “It’ll be magical.”
“What we’ve been trying to do is to make the place feel more accessible to a different type of artist,” Robertson says. “We’ve embraced kinds of music, whether it’s been grime, rap or things you wouldn’t necessarily associate with Abbey Road. More unsigned acts are coming in because the new studios are smaller and more affordable, but it’s still the same quality and it’s still the same Abbey Road vibe. If you say, ‘I want to use the mic that Siouxsie Sioux or John Lennon used,’ it’s still accessible.”
Robertson has been collaborating with the artists at Abbey Road on the studio’s social-media presence, giving a glimpse behind the curtain. The inside look has helped attract younger artists, as well. Since September 2017, the studio has booked 20 unsigned artists into its new rooms. Like Rodgers and his production endeavors, the band the 1975 brought in the artist No Rome into the studio where they recorded the recently released collaborative single “Narcissist.” The new studios have also attracted hip-hop artists and DJs like JD. Reid and DJ Yoda.
“Abbey Road is known for these four boys from Liverpool,” Robertson says. “It’s actually quite refreshing to open the doors. With Novelist’s teacher telling him, ‘You’ll never get to go to Abbey Road, it’s this mythical place,’ he proved him wrong. That’s the perception we’re changing.”
But of course the studio remains the destination for producers like Giles Martin, who has worked on several Beatles projects at Abbey Road and the musical jet set, and Paul McCartney himself worked on his upcoming Egypt Station LP there. The new studios have also become a destination for a few artists who want semipermanent residences there, such as Noel Gallagher, a proposition it’s considering. “Obviously, we’re in demand by the top tier for their recordings and orchestras,” Robertson says, “but there’s a big bunch of people who recognize our name that we can embrace in a bigger way.”
When Novelist was mixing his album there, a friend of his, DJ South Spiral, rang him up. “I must have said to him, ‘Yeah, I’m in West London,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m at the studio,’ ” the MC recalls. “I said, ‘Where’s your studio?’ He said, ‘It’s at the back of Abbey Road.’ And I was like, ‘Bro, I’m ’round the corner.’ So I went to see him. That was cool.” He was also able to bring another one of his music teachers, one who had believed in him, to the studio to show him around. “I don’t really know what he thought of it to be honest,” he says. “I think it’s just respect, innit?”
And that’s ultimately what working at Abbey Road meant to him. Just by cleaning up his home recordings, adding a little EQ and compression with the help of one of Abbey Road’s engineers, Novelist achieved a life goal. “To end up there, doing business, was cool for me ’cause I proved something to myself more than anything by recording there,” Novelist says. “It’s just me, sticking to the plan.”