+ By Dylan Roche 

The idea for Kensington Studios came about almost by accident. “It’s actually a funny story,” says founder and producer Ben Heemstra, who recalls how, in 2019, he was struggling to come up with a good Valentine’s Day gift for his girlfriend, who would ultimately become his wife. “I didn’t have much money but still wanted to do something special, so I figured it would be cool to make a music video of me singing a love song, like a cover.”

He recruited his friends Dan Sadler and Chris Au to help him record on a Saturday afternoon, thinking that this would be a one-off project. “But we had such a fun time producing it and doing the whole thing, and we were like, ‘Why don’t we keep on doing this? There’s so much talent in the Annapolis area musicwise,’” Heemstra explains. “And then the rest is pretty much history. We’ve been doing it ever since.”

Director of Video at Kensington Studios, Dan Sadler, and Christopher Everett of Hustle Souls. Photo by Ben Heemstra.

In the few years since then, Kensington Studios has grown to record, edit, and promote music videos featuring hundreds of musicians not only from the greater Annapolis area but also from Baltimore, the Eastern Shore, and out of state. Heemstra describes the studio’s mission as giving local artists something professional to market themselves with—a high-quality video of their performance that reflects their talent in a polished way; they don’t need to worry about whipping out phones in the middle of a gig to record themselves.

“It’s good for the musicians, and on top of everything, it’s just fun,” says Sadler, who is the studio’s director of video. He is in charge of setting up every shot, getting the lighting just right, and recording the visual part of the performance.

Au, the studio’s director of sound, is in charge of handling the microphones, recording the audio component, mixing it, and then mastering it. He adds that Kensington Studios offers an opportunity to musicians who otherwise would be dropping thousands of dollars to record a single song at another studio. “It’s a more affordable thing for them,” he says.

Director of Sound at Kensington Studios, Chris Au. Photo by Dan Sadler.

Even though Kensington Studios got its start a little more than a year before the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, the trio was able to keep moving forward without missing a beat, relying on a backlog of episodes they had, which got them through spring 2020. “At that point, it was lucky for us, you know, because people were just tied to their computers anyway,” Sadler says. “So we were able to show off all our stuff.”

Even as restrictions eased—and they were able to start masking up in the studio to record new episodes—they found that interest was greater than ever. “We were gaining artists as we were coming back from lockdown,” Heemstra explains. “We weren’t charging very much for our sessions because we knew artists at the time weren’t gigging as much and weren’t making as much money. We were trying to make it a kind of discounted gift to them to get back up and running when it came to their brand and their business and their social media presence. . . . We got to give people a sense of live music by watching those performances on a weekly basis when they were releasing. People could still see their favorite bands play because we were releasing them on our page.” And because each episode is a live-style production, rather than a traditional music video one would see on MTV, it gives viewers a genuine idea of what it’s like to see the band perform.

During its first two years, Kensington Studios consistently dropped a new episode on its YouTube channel and Facebook page every Wednesday, if not more frequently. These weekly episodes tapered off slightly—the producers took a hiatus in late fall and early winter 2022—but followers can still expect content coming out on a consistent basis.

Dan Sadler filming Jordan Sokel’s performance. Photo by Ben Heemstra.

Nowadays, the process works efficiently. A band signs up through a Google form, and the Kensington team reaches out and gets them on the schedule to come to the studio. When the band arrives, it has three hours to record up to three songs, allowing time for multiple takes if there are mistakes or if a performance just isn’t as good as the band knows it can be. In most cases, this is plenty of time. But there are still moments when Heemstra, Sadler, and Au find themselves tempering intragroup dynamics. “I think the biggest challenge when working with bands, especially if you’ve never met them before, is that when they say a band is a family, it truly is a family,” says Au.

Sometimes the recording goes quickly, and other times it requires multiple takes. Once the recording is finished, the editing process begins—selecting tracks, choosing video clips, and cutting and splicing to create a near-final cut that is sent to the band for approval about a week before the episode airs. After tweaks are made to get the episode perfect, Kensington Studios officially posts it to Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

Producing episode after episode comes with surprising rewards for Heemstra, Sadler, and Au. On several occasions, they have found themselves covering for one another’s area of expertise, so all three have had to learn recording, mixing, and video editing skills to some extent. Occasionally, they’ve also had to stand in for musicians if a band is recording its episode with one of its members missing.

Founder and Producer of Kensington Studios, Ben Heemstra, and Jonathan Taylor of Hustle Souls. Photo by Dan Sadler.

Kensington Studios’ mission also extends to charitable fundraising. The team has partnered with Annapolis Musicians Fund for Musicians to bring in thousands of dollars to help local musicians. In spring 2021, a “Live at Kensington” fundraiser brought together several acoustic acts to perform and raise money. 

What’s more, the studio is helping music fans from beyond Annapolis discover what the area has to offer. “It gives the Annapolis music scene a bigger platform to reach people who don’t live in this area,” says Heemstra. But the best part of seeing Kensington Studios succeed is knowing that it is helping musicians reach an audience. “You hear all those stories about the people who never got their music out there because they never had any type of platform or resource to be able to make that happen,” says Heemstra. “We want to give people that chance.” █

For more information, visit kensingtonstudiosessions.org or follow @kensingtonstudiosessions on YouTube, Instagram, or Facebook.