Isabel Garvey is driving the UK’s most iconic recording studio into the future – one that will create opportunities none of us has dreamed of yet.
Travel to Abbey Road Studios in North West London on a cold weekday afternoon and you’ll be hit with relics from the past before you even get out of the Underground station. There’s a shop selling Beatles souvenirs inside St John’s Wood station, catering to the perma-gaggle of tourists who have come to take pictures of London’s most famous pedestrian crossing. The wall outside the studio is covered in Sharpied graffiti, and inside you’ll see a replica instrumental score of the opening of 'Yesterday,' in George Harrison’s pencil scrawl.
It was this institution – still a working music studio, now specialising in film scores, from 'Star Wars' to 'Harry Potter' movies – that Isabel Garvey was tasked with turning into a hub of innovation four years ago, when she was made managing director. “I had these ideas on my PowerPoint deck,” she says, “the tech incubator, the retail store, the education arm. But people thought I was ‘the crazy Irish chick’ for a long time. Winning hearts and minds was probably the hardest part of the job."
With a background in digital marketing at EMI and Warner Music International, Isabel had already helped navigate a path through multiple disruptive waves hitting the music industry: downloads, YouTube, subscription platforms. “When I went into the industry, digital was 2% of the business, and my job was to strategise what it looks like when it’s 50%.” She remembers when everyone thought ringtones were the way to make money and has learned how to embrace constant flux.
Four years on from accepting the daunting job and those PowerPoint action items Garvey arrived with have all become a reality. There’s a shop selling wall-to-wall Beatles merch for the tourists who came to snap selfies outside. There’s the Abbey Road Institute, a year-long education programme for music producers and sound engineers that has locations in London, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia, with another one or two to be announced this year.
Finally, there’s Abbey Road Red, an incubator for start-ups in music technology, which currently have a collective valuation of $100 million. These fledgling companies are working on everything from a marketplace for vintage equipment to speakers that display the lyrics to the songs they play. Abbey Road’s tech wing has also released its own award-winning app, Topline, which helps musicians capture ideas on the move.
Four of the 14 start-ups to have been accepted on the programme involve using artificial intelligence in various ways. They’ve created technology to remix songs, to turn singing, humming and beatboxing into instrumental music, and to convert a short composition into a long, automatically generated piece of music that adapts to the environment around it.
Valuations, automation, killer apps: it all sounds a long way from Paul McCartney waking up with 'Yesterday' in his head. But music and shiny new machines go hand in hand. Go into the mixing room at one of Abbey Road’s studios today, and you can see analogue desks, with coloured buttons and metal switches. Once cutting-edge tech, they’re museum pieces now, tucked away in a corner. “When synthesisers came, people thought it was the end of the world,” Isabel points out, “but it just created a new genre of music. Perhaps AI is the synth of 2019.”
Another area that she tips as poised for growth is “immersive sound,” which feels to the listener as if it is truly coming from all around them, and can be used to enhance virtual and augmented reality environments. “Personally, having seen augmented reality, I think it will jump past virtual reality,” Isabel says. “But in all of that (technology), your field of vision is less than 360 degrees, and to fool your mind into a completely immersive experience, the audio needs to be 360. That’s easier said than done, but the technology is moving at an amazing pace."
There are even developers, she says, working on speakers that can detect who’s in the room, and modify the sound experience for each person depending on their preferences. “If you like your telly at a certain volume, it can send that to you and different signals to the person next to you. You’re watching the same movie, but it’s adapting. It’s early days but it’s coming.”
While excited about this progress, she knows better, after more than a decade in the music industry, than to get too attached to one vision of the future. Instead, she says, “it’s about accepting that the whole environment is fluid, and being nimble and open to change. We are braced for another big step change, but with that is going to come a lot of jobs that none of us can even dream of yet.” She’s keen to ensure that a more equitable proportion of those jobs go to those currently underrepresented in the field of music tech, and is mapping out a scheme to encourage more women to get into engineering and production.
Although few statistics exist on the current gender breakdown in the industry, a woman has never won a ‘Producer of the Year’ Grammy and a recent study suggested that only 2% of music producers are female. “As a woman running the studio,” Isabel says, “it would be amiss not to address this.” It’s one of the ways in which Isabel is determined to make a positive impact on the future of an institution that has roots stretching back to 1931. She says that her biggest hope is that Abbey Road is still “the leading studio in the world in another 88 years” – and perhaps, when that time comes, tourists will be drawn to the site not by a 1960s guitar band but by another self-taught bunch of kids using technology that doesn’t exist yet.
“I never thought I would be sitting at a record label where there are data scientists,” Isabel says, looking around her office, decorated with framed LPs. “If you told me that 15 years ago, I would have laughed. There is so much opportunity coming.”
ISABEL GARVEY’S ADVICE FOR GETTING HEARD
Be true to yourself.
You are most effective when you’re your true self. I started my life as an investment banker; we were a class of 60 and there were four women in the class. You’re in this very male-dominated environment, you’re new to the workplace, you hadn’t got that confidence yet, so you try to be who you think they want you to be. Seven years later, when I started in the music industry, I remember thinking, “This is me. I’m presenting Isabel in this meeting, I don’t have that knot in my stomach of, ‘Who am I meant to be?’ Don’t get me wrong, music is still incredibly male-dominated, but there’s something about it that allowed me to be myself, and it’s easier to engage when you’re just yourself.
When pitching, be succinct.
In terms of pitch decks, it’s always about being succinct and having a really clear purpose. At Abbey Road Red, we’re dealing with very early-stage start-ups. You don’t need to tell me what your IPO valuation is going to be, just what’s happening in 24 months. And have focus. A lot of people try to cover an awful lot of things, but actually extreme focus is really what we’re looking for.
Let your personality shine.
When you’re investing in start-ups, or signing people up to incubators it’s actually the founder that you’re investing in, rather than the idea.
Use your network for ideas.
I surround myself with excellent people, so I tend to learn from the people around me. I have a few preferred sources for my tech news and for my music news. I use all the social media platforms. I like the bite-sizeness of Instagram. It’s good for music, not so hot for tech; tech tends to be quite Twitter led, what’s trending at the moment. Then I tend to go old-school. The beauty of my job is that I interact with such a huge diversity of people. One moment I have the latest entrepreneur with his crazy idea in my office and the next I’m talking to somebody about how we could open a school in China, and it’s actually just by meeting these wonderful, clever people, that you pick up these crib notes on life.
At Accenture, it is our core belief that each of us should be able to bring our true selves to work. It’s something we live by every day. It is this freedom that allows us to do our best work and contribute forward-thinking ideas; it makes us more creative and enables innovation to flourish. With stories like this one, we celebrate individuals who are re-shaping culture, embracing the new, changing the narrative for their community, unlocking overlooked potential, and challenging outdated expectations. Find out more about Accenture’s commitment to creating a supportive environment where everyone can thrive.