Sky Muse Studios: Rural America Meets Immersive Media

One of the recording spaces at Sky Muse Studios

On the dark and rainy day after the election I found myself in the control room of a state-of-the-art recording facility in the woods outside Stanwood, a couple miles from the house I grew up in. I grew up a half mile north of the Skagit-Snohomish county line, on seven acres of fields, forest, and ponds in what often felt like the middle of nowhere.

It’s hard to overstate just how isolating rural places like my home felt before the Internet. The world was awash in entertainment and culture that originated from New York and Los Angeles, delivered in the form of TV signals captured by an antenna and magazines that showed up in our mailbox. Most of the world didn’t seem to know or care that Seattle, much less Skagit County, even existed. I knew, growing up, that I wanted to contribute to American culture in some way, most likely by writing novels. I always believed that there was no reason why someone from a small place couldn’t grow up to influence the world.

So it’s 2016 and I’m back in the environs where I used to ride my bike and climb apple trees. The recording facility, Sky Muse Studios, is the brainchild of Ron Jones, a composer with a mind-boggling list of credits to his name. If you’ve turned on a television in the past forty years, you’ve heard Ron’s music. Ron was the musical mind behind Family Guy, Star Trek the Next Generation, The Smurfs, Scooby Doo, and myriad other themes and motifs that have gotten stuck in heads and hummed on playgrounds. After his career in Hollywood, Ron decided to return to the Pacific Northwest of his childhood (he grew up in Bellevue), and ended up on over 20 acres just outside Stanwood, a friendly community known for its Scandinavian heritage and vegetable processing plants.

I visited Sky Muse with audio mastering pro Steve Turnidge and Christopher Hegstrom, a co-founder of the organization Audio VR. Both big-time audio tech geeks. And while most of the audio tech jargon soared right over my head, I could tell from the puddles of drool forming under these guys that Sky Muse is a seriously sophisticated operation, with ample space and gear to record everything from orchestras to singer-songwriters, all arrayed on a property surrounded by trails, woods, and fields. There’s even a guest house nestled among alders where a band can chill out and/or record.

Over breakfast at Wayne’s Cafe in downtown Stanwood, Ron shared his story and vision for Sky Muse and I marveled at how a Hollywood-quality recording studio ended up so close to my grade school bus route. For almost twenty years I’ve lived in Seattle, and I identify myself as an urbanite, with the progressive values that go along with that identity. But I also understand rural Washington state as someone who worked in the tulip fields for a summer and spent my childhood among barns, tractors, and livestock.

We’ve heard that rural white voters propelled Trump to the presidency. And that the reason why these voters went so decisively for Trump was because jobs in rural America dried up, particularly jobs in manufacturing. Trump spread the lie that the reason these jobs disappeared was because of immigrants and outsourcing. The truth is, manufacturing has been transformed by automation, and industries evolve and die off all the time. Maybe it’s just harder to stoke a racist bias against robots.

I can understand how people living in rural America don’t feel included in the culture they see streaming from their devices. This doesn’t let anyone off the hook for bigotry, xenophobia, misogyny, or the laundry list of outrageous positions Trump voters validated. But the divisions between rural and urban America are so ingrained that they often don’t seem worth questioning. One such division is the idea that big cities produce culture, and rural areas only receive it. If you grew up a kid like me who was obsessed with music, film, books, and the media, then leaving rural America for a city was a foregone conclusion; when I graduated from high school I couldn’t get out of Mount Vernon fast enough. Rural America is good at pushing its creative people away into cities.

Over time this division has solidified into an assumption in rural America that you have to leave if you want to contribute to any kind of cultural economy. This assumption is deep and persistent and hasn’t necessarily kept pace with the connectivity that the Internet enables. Someone playing a guitar in a cow pasture can upload their video to YouTube just as easily as someone playing a guitar in a club in a city. The Internet has helped rural America get far more sophisticated and globally minded than urbanites give them credit for. And yet there’s a persistent assumption that the apparatuses that produce culture exist exclusively in cities.

That’s why a place like Sky Muse Studios offers such an incredible opportunity for Snohomish and Skagit Counties. It provides the technology and high production values of Hollywood in a setting where horses graze and creeks trickle through the woods toward Puget Sound. It’s a place where immersive audio technology under development in Seattle can be tested under the trees that give the Evergreen State its nickname. It would behoove Stanwood, Mount Vernon, and other nearby towns to consider how to invest in the success of Sky Muse Studios. And a big first step is embracing the idea that places like Stanwood have what it takes to become important contributors to the immersive content industry.

Those of us who live in Seattle’s greater metropolitan area need to consider the rest of Washington State when we think about immersive technology. Our state offers nearly every kind of setting a 360 filmmaker could ever want, from islands to woods to mountain tops. And those living in rural areas like Stanwood should feel that this next stage in the evolution of media belongs to them, too. I have to believe that even out there along the rural routes, among the Trump/Pence 2016 signs, there are opportunities to use the latest  technology and tap deep reservoirs of talent to create art and understanding.