Production Success Is Music To His Ears


Times have changed since Jim Wolfe opened a recording studio at Pine Street near Belmont Avenue nearly a quarter century ago.

"In 1969, this was a little hippie commune," recalls Wolfe, remembering how he used to live at the studio, which included a sauna. He and his friends would relax outside on the stoop, across from a building notorious for drug sales.

Now the area is gentrified. The crack house is gone, replaced by a BMW dealer, and Wolfe lives in a 3,000-square-foot Lake Sammamish house with its own recording studio.

The studio, called The Music Source, grosses more than $1 million a year, has 15 employees and operates 18 hours a day or more. Now it's a corporation, with Wolfe as the sole owner, but he and his employees are considering ways to turn the business into an employee-owned operation.

Such a change would reward long-time employees and give Wolfe more flexibility in his lifestyle.

"When it's a sunny day, I'm going to Crystal Mountain. I'll call in for messages," he says.

That's an appealing image. But it's out of sync with the world of rock-and-roll music, which is littered with the wreckage of bands that never made it. Wolfe even played with a couple - Time Machine and Tom Thumb and the Casuals.

But Wolfe made a different choice.

He's 47, has a mustache, thick, wavy hair and tends to wear jeans, sneakers and a sweatshirt.

He grew up in Magnolia, graduated from Queen Anne High School in 1964 and got an engineering degree from the University of Washington in 1968.

After college, some of his friends needed sound for a ski movie they were making so Wolfe built a makeshift recording system.

Afterward, musician friends asked if they could record there. He managed to scrape up $800 for a Boeing surplus eight-track recorder. Pretty soon he got 24-track equipment. Now his $200,000 Euphonix music control board will handle 112 audio channels.

The Music Source makes money several ways.

For clients like the TV show "Northern Exposure," The Music Source gets paid about $300 an hour to provide the right sounds. Actors often must re-record lines through a technique known as "automatic dialog replacement," or "looping." The Music Source has been doing it for the show since 1989.

For advertising agencies, The Music Source might provide entire music productions.

Being a successful entrepreneur isn't easy.

"I'm 47 and I've never been married," he says. "The commitment was to the business and not a woman. There were a lot of times when there was no money. There were a lot of 16-hour days, seven days a week."

To maintain his energy, he avoided many of his colleagues' affinity for drugs, instead becoming a pioneer jogger back in 1967. He still runs five miles a day, plays tennis and rollerblades. He gave up the smoking he'd indulged in during his rock-and-roll days and started on a macrobiotic diet.

That interest, in fact, led to one of Wolfe's few failures. He opened Rachel's, a University District macrobiotic restaurant, but had to close it.

"I didn't know enough about the restaurant business," says Wolfe. "My inclination had always been, `Hey, I can do it.' I did learn that I can fail."

But that's been the exception. After wearing glasses most of his life, Wolfe started doing eye exercises. His interest led him to start a successful business, the Seattle Vision Improvement Center.

Of his current venture, Wolfe says he expects The Music Source to continue expanding, partly through adapting to changes in the music business.

"Country music today is like rock-and-roll was when I was growing up," says Wolfe. "You don't want to listen to easy listening, and you don't want to listen to pop, because you don't get it."

Over the years, Wolfe co-founded AEI Music, which has become a top competitor for Muzak in providing background music. He composed and produced theme music for NBC's 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games coverage and has recently produced broadcast packages for KGO radio in San Francisco and KMPS in Seattle.

He feels he could walk away from the business anytime he chooses because it's so well positioned.

"I don't have to do that now," he says of running the business all the time. And that's probably the greatest success of all.