Steve Lawson

Steve Lawson • August 2009

Steve Lawson

Steve Lawson is serial entrepreneur and founder of Friendly Voice, Inc., a consultancy specializing in Social Media and Traditional Media Marketing.  He is also a professional business speaker and Social Media Blogger .  Lawson specializes in helping organizations integrate and utilize traditional and the myriad of Social Media channels to engage and communicate more effectively with external and internal customers.

Lawson began his broadcasting career while in high school at KRAB FM, a not-for-profit eclectic radio station in Seattle.  At age 20, while attending the University of Washington, he helped launch KCMU, a 10 Watt FM Radio station licensed to the University, and was hired as an on air personality at Seattle’s KING Radio.  There, Lawson was quickly promoted to Production Manager and was instrumental in creating new revenue sources for the company. 

At the age of 25, he founded Lawson Productions, a commercial audio recording facility which, during his 20 year stewardship, grew into one of the largest recording companies in the world under the brand Bad Animals/Seattle.  Lawson was a pioneer in using digital satellites and ISDN technology to direct and record talent located in Los Angeles and New York live and in real time from his Seattle studios, allowing instant access to these “nationally known” voice actors to the Seattle Advertising community.  Lawson also served as President and Chairman of the Society of Professional Audio Recording Services from 1994 - 1996.

Lawson sold the company in 1999, and was recruited by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to plan, build, staff and manage media production facilities in Los Angeles, Seattle, London and Germany. 

In the spring of 2001 Lawson left Vulcan to devote his full attention to Friendly Voice Inc.  He is a member the Grammy Organization and served on the Pacific Northwest Chapter Board, and is also an active member and past treasurer of Marketing Communication Executives International, and the Seattle Ad Club.

The recording scene in Seattle was very well established when I ventured away from the security of KING Broadcasting in 1979 to open Steve Lawson Productions. At that time, most music recording in Seattle was done at Rick Keefer’s Sea West (I believe in the Ballard Area, now in Hawaii), Kearney Barton’s “Audio Recording” on 5th Avenue, Kaye Smith’s ‘world-class” studios on 4th Avenue, Holden Hamilton and Roberts in the North End, and Jim Wolfe’s “Music Farm” which became the Music Source in later years, and Joe & Manny Hadlock’s Bear Creek Studios in Woodinville.

Recording studios concentrating on the commercial audio market were also thriving in the late 1970’s. Those included Jerry Thompson’s Thompson & Thompson Productions, Lew Lathrop’s Lew’s Recording Place, and Peter Lewis, working out of Wally Nelskog’s WNA Audio/Video, and Telemation which purchased WNA.

For the most part, recording studios were small mom and pop operations, differentiated really by the quirkiness or talents of the owner/engineers. Each recording studio had a fairly loyal following and when you added the cost of building and equipping a recording studio, the barriers to enter the business were high enough that only those who were passionate enough about audio recording (or crazy enough) opened studios.

We opened the doors to Steve Lawson Productions in 1979 as a two person operation.My wife Debbie, who at the time was 6 months pregnant, ran the front office, and I ran the rest of the operation. Debbie’s first tenure lasted about two months before she retired (the first time) to devote her full attention to having, then raising our children.

The early studio days were quite fun. The studio was sited in a dark interior space in the Sixth and Battery Building in the Denny Regrade area on the outskirts of Belltown. My landlords were the Poll Brothers, Harvey and Melvin.Stan Rosen, a childhood friend, negotiated the lease terms and presented me with a stack of papers to sign that scared the hell out of me, but the deal was struck and we built out our 1200 square feet of space into a small one room facility with a voice booth (sound dampened, but not sound proof), a control room, lobby and business office.

In those days, commercial recording studios in markets like Seattle actually operated as a service so we could sell tape at retail and make dubs (copies) of commercials, which is where we made the bulk of our money. Our sights were set on the “big” clients.

At the time those “big” clients were Ricks-Ehrig (the agency with the most active retail clients, Ernst,Pay ‘n Save, Malmo Nurseries and Lamonts Department Store), Alcom (the in-house agency at The Bon Marche Stores), Kraft Smith with the Frederick and Nelson department store, Olympic Stain, Stimpson Associates with Restaurants Unlimited (Clinkerdaager, Horatios) the Allied Malls (Northgate, Southcenter and Tacoma Mall), Ballard-Cannon Advertising (McDonalds, The Seattle Home Show, University Book Store, Old National Bank, Olympic Boat Centers), Ayer Baker with Olympia Beer, May Partners with Ben Bridge Jewelers, Soderberg and Associates with Nordstrom and Stuart Anderson’s Black Angus Restaurants, McCann Erickson with Seattle First National Bank, Chiat Day with Alaska Airlines, KING TV, and Pacific Northwest Bell, and Cole & Weber with the Washington Apple Commission and just about everything else not mentioned above.

It’s amazing to look back at those days with a sense of awe at how many agencies and amazing clients we had here in Seattle.

Great people at big agencies left to start their own agencies taking preferred clients with them.Mike Mogelgaard left McCann Erickson and won the Seafirst business; John Brown left Cole & Weber and won the Nike account, Ivar’s restaurants, Speedy Lube and more.

Our focus was on retail accounts because they were the most active and generated the largest dub orders. When the Bon Marche recorded a radio commercial (which was at least a bi-weekly occurrence) we would run over 100 dubs to cover all the stations in their radio buy across the region. Ditto for Pay ‘n Save, Lamonts, Ernst etc.

We hit a few rough spots in the very early days. Because dubs were such an important part of our business, we bought a very expensive semi-automated duplicating system capable of turning out over 100 dubs an hour with one operator. The machines were big, bulky and occupied the only room with windows, situated at the back of our facility, facing the alley. The system manufacturer was based in Redwood City, California and included in the purchase price was set-up, calibration and testing.

The dubbers came when expected as did their technician a few days before we opened our doors. He started work on our system at about 8am, and by 2am the next day we were toasting each other with warm beers to celebrate the perfection of the system and its install. As the tech flew back to California in the morning, I ran the first set of dubs for a client.

I carefully threaded the master tape and loaded the slave decks with tape and empty reels, pushed “go” and watched as the machine brilliantly made three copies of the master in record time. I skillfully sliced the tape, freeing the dub of the tape spool feeding it and confidently threaded the dub onto a reel to reel tape deck to make sure all was well.

Wish I could report here that it was. While the commercial audio was on the tape, it was muffled by a “thump”, “thump”, “thump” – a perfect drum beat that just didn’t belong. The sound was unacceptable, and so strange - as the dubbers performed so beautifully the night before.

The technician returned home to San Francisco and at my insistence headed right back to the airport and the short hop to Seattle to fix the problem. When he arrived around 5pm he did some simple tests, verified the problem and set out to rectify the situation. He tore out the guts of each machine, put it all back together, and ran test after test. And again, around 2am, we brought out the beer to celebrate his success at fixing this all important system.

At 9am it was déjà vu all over again. As he boarded his plane for SF, I ran a test dub which still projected a “thump, thump, thumped” over pristine audio copies as it had the day before.

I squawked and the manufacturer quickly shipped us a new master unit, then new slaves. But the thump remained. It seemed like we were going to be able to apply for a patent for adding unwanted thumping to all commercials – not a service that clients were requesting.

Then the light went off. The technician and I were taking a break in the alley behind the dub room. Cigarettes may have been the draw to the alley.

As we stood there talking, the technician stole a glance across the horizon and noticed some blinking red lights. “Is that a TV transmission tower?” he asked.“Why yes, it belongs to Channel 9, the PBS station”, I answered. “What time do they go off the air?” he continued. “I think around 1am” I replied. I had no idea that our simple discussion would be the knowledge he needed to rectify our situation.

To maximize through-put and allow us to efficiently make dubs our dubbers ran at a very high speed. To test his hypothesis the technician took one of our “thumpy” dubs and played it back at a speed much higher than normal. While the commercial on the dub sounded too fast even for a chipmunk, our dreaded thump became actually became discernable audio – audio from a program that had been telecast on Channel 9. Our dubbers were picking up Channel 9’s audio signal and were implanting into each and every dub. The engineering term for this type of problem is RF interference.

One solution to our problem was to ask Channel 9 to turn off their transmitter so we could make dubs. That seemed to us like a tough sell. The other solution was to find another spot for the dubbers which proved to be great for the landlord, as we had to rent an adjacent windowless space to isolate our dubbers from that pesky TV transmitter.

Our monthly nut increased, but so did our client satisfaction and sanity!

As the market continued to grow, we continued to grow. We made our first engineer hire; a well known veteran of several Hollywood commercial studios named Dan Webster. Dan and I tag-teamed on sessions. I came in early and he stayed late. Dan was extremely creative, but didn’t love the pace at which we worked here in Seattle. Our client’s budgets were much smaller than he was used to, and their creative demands were much higher. His tenure at the studio ran out just about the time the one year lease ran out on his Queen Anne home.

But our business began to grow. So much so, that when the occult book store next door to us closed, we jumped at the opportunity to add another studio, have a welcoming presence on 6th Avenue complete with daylight and provide new opportunities for clients – including those that wanted to record music with real instruments!

The hot studio designer at the time was Jeff Cooper. He had just designed some of the coolest new studios in Los Angeles for Lucas Film, Capitol Record and Warner Brothers. We commissioned Jeff to design our new “flagship” Studio A. It featured a “floating” isolation booth, huge and heavy sliding doors from the studio into the control room, and variable acoustics in the live room allowing us to totally deaden the space, or liven it up by opening and closing small wood louvers installed over velvet covered acoustical panels. We spent so much money building out the studio that we could hardly afford to equip it. Instead of purchasing new equipment, we rented a classic console (used by Steely Dan among others) from Joe and Manny at Bear Creek. And though the studio could do much more, it was operated as an 8-track room, which used up all the money we had.

But the buzz from the new room and our expanded capacity helped draw in new clients.

Our staff grew as well. Catherine Goff, who had agreed to work as our receptionist/bookkeeper for a few months until she found a job which better used her phi-beta kappa college degree helped us grow our systems and staff over the next decade. We assembled a great team. Engineers Bob Israel, Vince Werner, and Jim Wilson rounded out the staff joined by interns Sony Felho & Brett Eliason. Bob Israel encouraged us to upgrade Studio A so we did – adding a brand new huge (for us) MCI console and 24-track recorder. Equipment wise, we had hit the big time.

Terry Date, then a recent graduate of Eastern Washington State University in Cheney heard about our new purchases and called me with an idea. At the time Terry was doing live sound for many of Seattle’s big bands and pretty much knew everyone in the bubbling Seattle music scene. Terry said that while he knew we could keep Studio A busy with production during the day, he could keep it busy at night recording local rock bands. Because the idea was untested, and a bit scary, we decided to share the risk and Terry came onboard with a modest draw and an incentive plan optimized for explosive growth. And boy, did Terry ever deliver, launching the “legitimate” music side of Lawson Productions and his stellar career as a music producer.

Other studios also flourished in Seattle at the time. The Music Source continued to add rooms, and Terry MacDonald, a veteran voice talent, morning DJ, and engineer extraordinaire opened his first studio next to the post office in Pioneer Square. MacDonald recording became our fiercest competition. His location, right in Pioneer Square offered the perfect antidote to our “free client parking”, as many of the big Seattle agencies had moved to Pioneer Square and it was a lot easier for them to walk to MacDonald Recording then to walk to their cars and drive uptown. Terry’s other edge was the introduction of “digital” recording to the Seattle region.


The ‘Consolidated Entrepreneur’  Written September 2010

We’ve all witnessed consolidation. In the late ’90s, small- to mid-size printing companies, advertising agencies, PR firms, dry cleaners, radio and TV stations, newspapers and more were being gobbled up by larger entities enticed by the promise of efficiency and scale that would devour the competition and inflate stock prices to unprecedented levels. This, of course, was preceded by consolidation in the banking, airline, investment and retail sectors.

We all know the outcome. This story didn’t have a very happy ending. Though, to be fair, we haven’t actually reached the end of the story. But all is not doom and gloom. Consolidation spawned yet another new business form—the consolidated entrepreneur.

Never heard that term before? Neither had I, until it popped into my head as I began brainstorming ideas for this article. At first I was going to write about how technology continues to transform my business, and millions of other small companies. Then I thought of the industries that have been crippled or killed by rapidly changing technologies, like the music business, the newspaper industry, broadcasting, land-lines sold by telephone companies, etc. But those topics have been covered more than adequately by all existing and “new” media; some of which is now “old” media.

This story is about a different type of consolidation. Clear Channel may have been the first to adopt the “less is more” marketing slogan to curb flagging ratings (though when I was at KING radio more than 30 years ago we limited our inventory to 10 units an hour and no more than two commercials in a break), but less is more has actually become a new mantra for small business.

Seth Godin, noted author and CEO of online sharing site Squidoo, explains the phenomenon in his book, Small is the New Big. There is a line in his introduction that really hooked me. He writes, “Sometimes it’s hard for me to figure out exactly what I do for a living. Looking through some of my PowerPoint slides, I saw an image that clarified my thinking. It helped me understand what it is I do all day.”

In Godin’s case, it was the picture of a gas station that sold fireworks that made him realize that what he does is sell fireworks. He sells sizzle. He writes and delivers keynotes about what people already know in order to motivate them to move forward—with their businesses, their careers and their lives.

Godin admonishes readers to “do something that matters” and offers that “the ability to change fast is the single best asset in a world that’s changing fast.”
The consolidated entrepreneur not only believes in those principles but lives them. He or she takes all of the skills and experiences gained in their work life and personal life and combines them to create something remarkable.

I recently interviewed two artists who opened their own gallery to promote not only their art but the art of others they believe in. We’ve seen countless ex-this-or-that company employees open new businesses and thrive in an unforgiving financial climate. And countless others who have become self-employed “entrepreneurs” by necessity, not  by choice.

Becoming a consolidated entrepreneur isn’t easy. While corporations divvy up the workload by creating specific jobs and duties filled by people who excel in that very narrow work silo, consolidated entrepreneurs excel in multiple disciplines.

I, like Godin, woke up one day wondering what I do for a living. Laying in bed with my eyes closed, I tried to re-craft my elevator pitch. As a devotee of the book Focus, The Future of Your Company Depends On It, by Al Ries, it finally dawned on me that my lack of focus was my biggest asset!

Curious by nature, I’ve continued to learn new skills that complement my existing skills. So, while some may have me pigeon-holed as a recording engineer or voice talent, or a business owner, or a “music guy,” in reality, I’ve been and continue to be all of the above.

I’m also a writer, blogger, art director, producer, video editor, executive producer, Web designer, husband, father and grandfather. I’m proficient with numerous software products, have a strong background in accounting and finance and get along quite well in meetings with real live people of all types.

For me, being a consolidated entrepreneur means using all of my skills to benefit my clients. As a Social Media consultant, I wear many hats, and wearing those many hats well is what makes my services remarkable to clients and their bottom lines.

Long gone are those wonderful days celebrated by the TV show Mad Men. As Godin writes, “Small is the new big because big has gone from being a huge advantage to a liability.”
As budgets are being slashed and clients are demanding more for less, no one is better suited to serve those needs than the consolidated entrepreneur.