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Abbey Road Studios Pivots From Beatles Fame to Tech Incubator

todayDecember 16, 2022

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LONDON — As the world’s first purpose-built recording complex, Abbey Road Studios has a long and storied history of pioneering technological innovation.   

Opened in 1931, No. 3 Abbey Road is indelibly associated with The Beatles, who recorded most of their catalog there and named their 1969 album after the tree-lined road in London where the studios are located. The first ever stereo music recording also happened there, in 1934, and artificial double tracking was invented in the studios three decades later. Pink Floyd, Aretha Franklin, Amy Winehouse and Adele have laid down tracks at Abbey Road, which has also recorded movie scores for blockbusters such as Return of the Jedi, Raiders of The Lost Ark and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Today, the studios remain a popular destination for recording artists, composers and orchestras, and thousands of tourists make the pilgrimage to the English Heritage-listed site every year to recreate the image of John, Paul, George and Ringo striding on the nearby pedestrian crossing, immortalized on the Abbey Road album cover.   

Abbey Road’s illustrious history is profiled in a new documentary, If These Walls Could Sing, directed by Paul McCartney’s daughter Mary McCartney, which premiered globally on Disney+ on Friday (Dec. 16).

But it’s no longer only musicians making noise inside the famous facility.

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Since being acquired by Universal Music Group in 2012 as part of its £1.2 billion (then equivalent to $1.9 billion) deal for EMI, a steady flow of tech entrepreneurs, researchers and developers have also been interfacing with Abbey Road, enticed less by its cutting-edge recording facilities than by its burgeoning success as a technology hub through its Abbey Road Red program.

Launched in 2015 and billed by the studio as Europe’s first music-focused technology incubator, Abbey Road Red — named after the studios’ REDD mixing consoles used by The Beatles — is now building momentum in the hyper competitive music tech space. In February, Apple acquired London-based AI Music, which was part of Abbey Road Red’s 2017 intake, for an undisclosed sum.   

Other Red alumni include music video licensing platform Lickd, which has signed deals with Universal, Warner Music Group and Merlin to provide their catalogs to online content creators — and last year secured around $7 million in funding with Warner Music and Fortnite creator Epic Games among the investors.   

In March, AI-augmented adaptive music platform LifeScore Music, which was part of Abbey Road Red’s 2019 cohort, raised £11 million ($14 million) in Series A funding, with Warner again providing financial backing. Another graduate of the program, London-based Audoo, which tracks music played across public performance locations, counts among its investors ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus and Paul McCartney’s MPL Group.   

Of the 19 businesses that have been enrolled on the incubator so far, two have folded while 17 have raised over $80 million among them. Collectively, the 17 companies are valued at more than $325 million based on their investment rounds, says Abbey Road Studios. 

At the time UMG took over the facility, Abbey Road had been losing money for years. Like many other prestige recording studios, it was finding its business under threat from bedroom producers and micro-studios able to create professional-sounding songs at a fraction of the cost. 

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That prompted its new owners to begin diversifying the studio business to attract a wider range of clients. In 2017, UMG opened two smaller, less-expensive-to-hire studios, the Gatehouse and the Front Room. Abbey Road Institute, a specialist music production school, opened the same year as Red. In addition to running a start-up incubator program, Red is carrying out research around immersive spatial audio listening.  

Isabel Garvey, managing director of Abbey Road Studios, says the Red program has transformed how the facility is perceived by executives both inside and outside the music business. It’s “not just a room for hire,” she says. 

The Beatles
The Beatles pose outside Abbey Road Studios in London.

“There’s a wonderful halo effect from Red in terms of being at the forefront of technology and being able to share that with the artists in the studios and share that with our parent company,” says Garvey.  

Like other tech incubators, Abbey Road Red provides early-stage companies with access to the studio’s experts and facilities, including mentorship advice around business development, brand partnerships, securing finance and commercial strategy. It also enables start-ups to tap into UMG’s global network and consult with senior management and label execs, as well as with other major and independent labels and publishers.

In return, Universal receives a 2% equity stake in each business it backs and a participation right to invest in the company’s future financing rounds. By comparison, Y Combinator, a successful Silicon Valley start-up accelerator that gave early backing to Airbnb, Dropbox and Twitch, invests $500,000 in every company that enrolls in its three-month program in return for 7% equity. LA-based TechStars’ music tech accelerator program, which counts Warner Music, Sony Music Entertainment and Concord among its partners, offers start-ups up to $120,000 of investment for 6% equity. 

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James Shannon, co-founder of metaverse platform XONE, which joined the Red program in July, says the incubator’s close integration with the world’s biggest music company distinguishes it from other accelerators and provides a “fast-track towards getting a product into market.” 

Neither UMG nor Abbey Road Studios gives start-ups any capital investment as part of the incubation process, although Garvey says it is an idea under consideration to grow the division. 

Abbey Road Red currently takes on between four and eight businesses each year with each intake lasting six months. Last month, DAACI, a tool that uses AI to assist composers, became the 19th start-up to join Red. Start-ups can apply to Abbey Road for consideration, although the majority are scouted through the team’s technology network and connections.

“We set out to find the best quality start-ups that bring value back to the music industry, whether that’s [a platform] that helps artists get paid or new technology that empowers them to create,” says Karim Fanous, innovation manager at Abbey Road Red.

Following Abbey Road Red’s lead, other music companies, as well as UMG, have ramped up their presence in the tech incubator space. 

In 2017, Universal launched a tech incubator program, Accelerator Engagement Network, followed a year later by the Capitol Innovation Center, which is housed in Hollywood’s historic Capitol Studios. In 2018, Warner Music Group announced a multi-million-dollar seed stage investment fund called WMG Boost, while Sony Music Brasil recently launched a digital accelerator program to drive artificial intelligence innovations. 

“We are meaningfully thinking about where the music business is going in the future,” says Garvey. “That really excites artists, the industry and the people that come through the doors every day.”

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