CIW Q&A: Fort Knox Studios’ Kent Nielsen

Kent Nielsen and Dan Mahoney rehearsed together before they decided to break off from their previous careers and start Fort Knox Studios, a recording facility with over 96,000 square feet located in the Portage Park neighborhood.  Fort Knox’s facilities are more extensive—and more comfortable—than anything the Chicago music scene has previously seen.  We talked to Nielsen about the impact Fort Knox has already had on the music industry in Chicago, where he sees Fort Knox going next and what it’s like to rehearse in your own studio.

Fort Knox Studios offers recording studios, rehearsal spaces and production facilities for local
musicians, as well as touring bands and musical acts.

Fort Knox is 96,000 square feet, with recording studios and other music rehearsal and production spaces.  What should musicians and bands expect when they book a studio at Fort Knox?
We had a significant road map to redesign what a band rehearsal suite was.  We’ve come in and standardized on delivering what we refer to as a “Lincoln Park bedroom with no windows”.  It’s something that people can be extremely comfortable to work in…. They can take their shoes off, they can sit and work, they can record and they can rehearse.  But they can be in there and not be fighting their environment as they’re working.
Sounds like people can really get comfortable in those rooms! How long do people typically rehearse at your space then?
We have people who use these rooms 9 to 5 everyday.  Then we have people that use these rooms twice a week for four hours at a crack.  That really comes down to what people are trying to do…. They are comfortable enough they can absolutely use the rooms for eight, ten, twelve hours a day.
These rooms, as you say, are “just the first 45,000 square feet” of Fort Knox.  There’s another 50,000 square feet at Fort Knox, including the new 2,000-square foot standalone suite, ICON Pro Studios.  Tell us a little about ICON.
The idea behind ICON is to provide a significant footprint for bands that are really executing all the way up to national and international acts to have a place in the Midwest. They can rehearse here.  They can record here.  They can get ready for tours here.  Your crew on your off days can even do laundry.
Why do you think this kind of space—which lets musicians work next to agents next to music crews—is important in music?
It helps to defragment the community where there’s fragmentation.  It provides a locked-in opportunity for these people to develop business opportunities…working alongside their neighbors.  It helps us grow awareness amongst all of our tenants and customers about each other.  What ends up happening is opportunities just walk through the door because you’re coopting your neighbors’ sales processes.  They’re delivering opportunities because you know each other, you work with each other, you see each other every day…you park in the same parking lot.  It’s a pretty unique proposition.   
And have you seen some of these collaborations already at Fort Knox?
There’s been huge business development.  We’ve had tenants that have started with a relatively small footprint…[who] have seen so much growth happen being in this facility.
How do collaborations like these change the music industry in Chicago?
It’s not a single industry town; it’s a diversified economy.  Part of the challenge of Chicago is that because we’re not a one-sector kind of town, we’ve had a lot of fragmentation in the industry up to this point.   We’re starting to really see a fundamental shift in what the music industry is in Chicago.  It’s Dan’s and my goal to help direct that process in a positive way whenever we can.
You and your business partner are musicians yourselves.  So, do you ever book studio time for yourself?  What’s rehearsing in your own facilities like?
It’s awesome.  We talk about how at 6 o’clock or whenever we step off the proverbial clock, it’s still a tree house.  As much as it’s an operational business for us, there is a significant aspect to getting to enjoy it from the other side, which is tremendously positive.  It also gives us a lot of ideas, direction, things to think about as to how to enhance it for ourselves as well as the rest of our customers.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length. 

Erin Robertson is managing editor at Chicago Ideas.

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