Empty Sea Studios hiding out in the neighborhood

by | Mar 22, 2011

By Tyler Steele, PhinneyWood intern

From the outside, the old Craftsman house at 6300 Phinney Ave. N. looks like any other on the block. But on the inside, multi-instrumentalist and owner Michael Connolly runs Empty Sea Studios — concert venue, recording studio, teaching space and platform for his LearningMusician website.

“May of 2009 was the first show,” Connolly said at his studio while setting up chairs before a January weekend acoustic performance by ThorNton Creek, “and I haven’t had to close the doors yet. A lot of people still don’t know this place exists…but word of mouth has kept me alive.”

In order to better promote his business, Connolly has just hired someone to work primarily on marketing, something that will help him focus on what he loves doing — playing, writing, recording and teaching music.

Connolly started playing the mandolin at age 6, picking up more instruments, writing songs and helping other artists develop their talents ever since. Today, he teaches, records, promotes and markets music full-time.

Empty Sea Studios owner Michael Connolly looks over the soundboard before a recent concert by ThorNton Creek.

Although music was always his passion, Connolly wasn’t always involved in it as an occupation. After college he started a career in computer engineering, and in 2004 he came to Seattle when he landed a job at Amazon.

Connolly eventually grew tired of “working long hours” to make a rich company richer, so he turned the only direction that made sense — straight for the music.

He renovated the upstairs of the house to be a “multi-purpose space for recording and teaching,” and kept downstairs for personal living quarters.

By the time he had finished, he had also created a “single-purpose listening room for concerts,” soon becoming the most visible aspect of the business. The stage allows groups such as ThorNton Creek and artists like Korby Lenker to perform only feet away from the audience, which creates an “intimate acoustic experience” Empty Sea has become known for.

Musician Thornton Bowman, of ThorNton Creek, practicing on stage at Empty Sea Studios before a January concert.

For Connolly, “anything acoustic” means folk, early jazz, blues and Americana –“anything that sounds like it came from real instruments,” he explained.

“Fortunately, there are enough people interested in the music that I have plenty of work here in the Northwest,” he added, moving into the recording studio to make a few adjustments before the show.

Yet, only 20 percent of Connolly’s revenue actually comes from weekly concerts. The rest is generated through teaching, recording and from his LearningMusician website.

“The concerts are how I meet the people that might be recording clients,” he explained, adding that musicians who come to hear the concerts often become recording clients or students.

“The acoustic audience has a high percentage of musicians,” he said while helping his engineering intern, Jordan Cunningham, 20, finish setting up as a few audience members started to trickle in for the show. “They are a very narrow niche, but a very deep investment if you can tap into it and provide a product and venue that meets their needs.”

Cunningham said he helps Connolly during shows and on recording sessions, including setting up microphones and the sound booth, patching up gear and even “giving input to musicians,” Cunningham explained.

Connolly said it’s great to have someone around to help, and the payoff for Cunningham is that he has access to the facilities and can transition from an academic setting into the real word of freelance audio engineering.

Empty Sea Studios owner Michael Connolly with engineering intern Jordan Cunningham.

The other part of Connolly’s business, his website, www.LearningMusician.com, probably takes the least amount of effort to maintain but generates the most income.

“It’s like a dating website for music teachers and those looking for instruction,” he explained. “Teachers pay $10 per month as a subscription fee and potential students have free access to the site.”

Connolly admits he probably works more hours now that he owns a small business, but said the lifestyle change was more than worth it.

“I spend most of my time running around like a chicken with my head cut off — answering email and stacking chairs. You think you’re going to do the thing you’re good at, and that ends up being 20 percent of what you actually do during the day,” he said. “Although I achieve my living by busting my ass week after week, I do it by playing my music and doing what I love.”

Tyler Steele is PhinneyWood’s intern. He is a journalism student at the University of Washington.

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