In Tune

Music and video work from Egan Media Productions shows up in a lot of familiar places

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

egan_leadLeft with a lease on a rehearsal space when his band dissipated in 1988 after college graduation, Joe Egan decided to open a recording studio with a friend. The precursor to Egan Media Productions was born. Now located in Forth Ethan Allen, the company is thriving.

Joe Egan is no half-way kind of guy. He doesn’t come off as obsessed, or even intense — it’s more a self-confidence that stems from his affinity for what he does.

Egan is president of Egan Media Productions Inc., a video production, post-production, sound-design, and music recording studio housed in one of the big brick buildings on Troy Avenue at Fort Ethan Allen in Colchester. Like Egan, it’s no half-way kind of operation.

“From a facilities and expertise standpoint, there’s nothing like this in northern Vermont,” Egan says, “and to integrate video as we do, no place I know of between Montreal and Boston can do things as efficiently.”

The facility is cutting-edge, designed by renowned New York studio designer Francis Manzella, “one of the top four or five guys in the country,” says Egan. “I figured if I’m going to fit up this space, I’m going to do it right.”

He spent a year and a half looking for the right building for sale. Construction took nearly a full year.

The facility has almost 4,000 square feet on the first floor, which features two video post-production studios; a small commercial audio studio with voice-over booth attached; a lounge, reception area, equipment closet, and ancillary spaces; and the main recording studio, consisting of a control room, the studio itself, and three isolation booths. Egan grins as he calls the control room “the cone of silence.” Each room is decoupled, he says, “so when the Air Guard’s F16s are doing wheelies overhead, you don’t hear them.”

On the second floor is an open, fairly raw space of about 2,300 square feet used for photo and video shoots.

Egan was not thinking about operating a production studio when he arrived in Vermont in 1985. A native of Green Bay, Wis., he had been an avid skier, on the ski patrol his junior and senior years of high school.

“Wisconsin is not the most mountainous of regions,” he says. “I would drive four hours to upper Michigan — leave at 5 in the morning for Powderhorn or Iron Mountain to ski for the day — then I’d get back in the car and drive four hours home. I said, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’”

After a year at Niagara University in Niagara Falls, N.Y., he set his sights on Vermont. At Niagara he had become an emergency medical technician. “Being on the ski patrol,” he says, “it was a natural fit to come to Vermont, and St. Mike’s ambulance was renowned; I thought I’d come here and work on the ambulance and ski.” He transferred in 1985 for his sophomore year.

Egan skied for a year and worked on the ambulance one semester before he began playing in bands. He had played guitar in a band in high school with his brother and friends and brought his instrument and amplifier with him.

Rehearsal space was scarce, so the band rented a room behind what was then Green Mountain Big & Tall on Shelburne Road. A pizza delivery job with Domino’s supplemented his income.

When he graduated in 1988 with his degree in English, the band dispersed and Egan was faced with the question of what to do with the rented space. He had some recording equipment, and one of the band members had spent a year studying recording. They pooled their resources and opened Jet Sound Recording.

It wasn’t long before his partner returned to graduate school and left the business. “He didn’t want me to keep using the name, so I picked a new name — Eclipse — because when the UPS truck pulled in for its daily delivery, its shadow make the room go dark like an eclipse.”

Things looked good. He and Penny Bissonette, whom he had met at St. Michael’s not long after he arrived in Vermont, were dating seriously. “I had worked at a radio station in college and started producing radio spots; it was the radio that really allowed me to pay the rent, both on the studio and my apartment.”

In 1993, everything changed when he lost the lease on the studio space. He and Penny were married and building a house on her family’s farmland in Hinesburg. He needed a job. A friend who worked at radio station WIZN suggested he apply for a job as production manager. “They needed somebody to come in and write and produce ads,” Egan says. He was hired.

“I never intended for that to be a career — I still had all this equipment. I said, ‘What if we build a garage and fully soundproof it?’” The day the carpet was laid in the new studio, Egan gave his notice to WIZN. “I left on good terms,” he says. “That was when the Burlington music scene really kicked off, about ’94.”

He briefly considered going back to graduate school, but having the studio generated enough income to live on.

Working from the studio in Hinesburg was great in terms of music, says Egan, “but awful in terms of commercial orientation.” Most of the clients were in Burlington, and travel time was difficult for voice-over clients, many of whom came over lunch hours. “Much to my wife’s chagrin, it wasn’t long after that place was up that I started scheming to build this place,” he says, “to get back into town where I could do commercial work.”

He had been doing a few jobs for Vermont Public Television, working with his best friend from college, Scott Esmond, one of VPT’s editors. “I thought it made a lot of sense to have a video component,” he says. The two of them were on a train to New York for a big audio-visual convention when Egan told Esmond his idea and asked if he’d have any interest in being a partner.

“He wasn’t interested in taking on any of the debt,” Egan says, “but said if I built it, he’d come to work for me. He was really integral in getting the place off the ground.”

Egan had a pretty good client base in terms of music production, and producers working at VPT planned to use Esmond’s editing skills, he says. “Then it was a matter of just pounding the pavement.”

A February 2001 cover story in the international trade publication Mix magazine was a stroke of luck that held promise, but didn’t really produce much. “So we printed up brochures; got cards made; had some open houses; made phone calls to let people know we were here,” he says.

Eight years into the venture, Egan faced what he still calls the hardest thing he ever had to do. “The economy was in the tank,” he says, “and our work in documentary-style editing had completely gone away; computers and laptop editing had made it so most of our good documentary clients could do it themselves. The work we were getting involved these really short-form, two- and one-minute Web pieces that are as much flash as substance.

“Scott is great at telling a story in an hour, but not as great at telling a story in three minutes, and the bank just ran out. I couldn’t afford two editors. I had to lay him off.” Esmond began doing freelance work for some of Vermont’s top filmmakers. “He’s still probably my best friend,” Egan adds,” and we still speak. We’ve hired him for a few projects this year. Should situations change, I’d love to think he would come back.”

Work has picked up. The firm is finishing up a seven-minute movie that retells the Ben & Jerry’s story and will run at the company’s factory tour. Other Vermont clients include Dealer.com and Air Guard Creative, “one of our really good new customers,” Egan says. “We’re producing the audio for spots for all the Air Guards across the country — not only broadcast, but also TV and theatrical releases.”

For a producer friend in New York, Egan does sound effects and sound design for several television series on CNBC, such as Fast Money. Swanton native and renowned character actor M. Emmet Walsh (Blade Runner, Blood Simple), popped in occasionally last summer to read his lines for the Pound Puppies cartoon series being produced in Los Angeles.

Working with local agencies such as JDK, KSV, PDI Creative, and New Breed Marketing, Egan creates projects for clients of all stripes. “And I’d be remiss,” he says, “if I didn’t mention that we also work with musical acts.”

Full-time staffers include Jeff Lawson, the video producer, and Rob O’Dea, “our linchpin,” says Egan. “He’s our IT guy — speaks Macintosh fluently; makes sure the studios play nice together — but more than anything, he and I are the audio component of the company.”

Egan, Penny, and their daughters, Erin, 13, and Carrie 9, left their Hinesburg home for Essex Junction in 2004. “I was getting up and leaving before the little ones were awake and getting home after they were in bed,” he says.

He continues to play the guitar every day at work. His knees don’t let him ski anymore, but he’s an avid swimmer. “And I sail — had a boat for almost 15 years now.

“The reality is, I’m in the studio. I love it. There have been a number of times when the empirical data said hang it up; you’re not making money; it’s not a viable business. But I said, ‘I can’t do anything else.’ The thing that really distinguishes a successful entrepreneur from one who isn’t is the unwillingness to give up.” •

Jeff Lawson, video producer, joined the company in 2006. He makes final video decisions on editing and does color correction.

Egan and Rob O’Dea, studio manager/producer, make up the company’s audio component, but as the IT guy, O’Dea also makes sure the studios communicate with each other.