Inside a monthly rented studio at Fort Knox on a tour during Chicago Ideas Week.


Imagine a place where musicians go to find video producers or a lighting crew, where booking agents meet the next up-and-coming-act, or where music festival organizers find graphic designers. This place isn’t an online social network or an exclusive Los Angeles music industry hangout.

This is Fort Knox, a Chicago recording studio where the next great collaboration is formed just down the hallway.

At least that’s the goal once the studio’s 34,000 square foot addition is complete in December. Located on the Northwest Side just off the Montrose Blue Line stop on Knox Avenue, Fort Knox Studios is already over 100,000 square feet even before the addition of “phase 2,” which will become a first-of-its-kind incubator for music industry professionals to work together, find talent, and, of course, make money.

Hallway in between studios at Fort Knox.

Originally opened in 2009, the music studio was bought in 2011 by Chicagoan Kent Nielsen and his business partner Dan Mahoney. The facility has 92 recording suites, 80 of which artists rent by the month. That might sound like a ton of rooms for a Midwestern recording studio, but business is booming for Nielsen and Fort Knox. They have as many as 200 musicians in the facility each day, and there’s a 60 band waiting list for the next available monthly studio, Nielsen told a group of us on a tour of the facility Tuesday during Chicago Ideas Week.

The popularity of Fort Knox has grown almost entirely organically, with the company doing next to no advertising outside of the occasional Craigslist post. And while it’s relatively young, Fort Knox has already housed musicians like Jennifer Hudson, Patti LaBelle and Kings of Leon, who recently popped in to work on some material before their headlining Lollapalooza set this summer.

Nielsen said he wanted to grow his business based on what his customers needed. And after seeing hundred of musicians come in and out of Fort Knox, one thing was clear: Artists need a network of industry professionals they can rely on. Where can I get a sound crew? Who does lighting in Chicago? How do I make my band website? Where can we go to get professionals photos?

Each band needed something different, so Nielsen decided to build a place for everyone to collaborate under one roof. As 1871 is to the tech industry, Fort Knox Studios hopes to be for music.

“The idea was density,” Nielsen said as he walked us through the phase 2 construction. “We wanted a place where neighbors are aligned … We have’t found a place that’s done this before.”

Fort Knox Studios’ “Phase 2” expects to be completed by December.

Fort Knox believes that alignment of like-minded professionals under one roof has the potential to change the music industry in Chicago, and in the United States as a whole. The shared space cuts down on cost for the music professionals, who are all experiencing tight budgets as the music industry reacts to the popularity of digital. And along with fostering connections, Fort Knox will also be a learning lab for burgeoning acts, complete with mentorship and office hours.

Nielsen also plans to build an artist-in-residency program where up-and-coming bands can apply to kickstart their careers.

“Bands come in and say, ‘I want to book my first college tour, and I want to do it in the Big Ten,’” Nielsen said. “They apply to the incubator’s artist-in-residency program, and teams here get behind that act and help them achieve that goal.”

Nielsen said he’s already been in talks with other cities around the U.S. to bring the Fort Knox concept to more locations. He imagines a network of Fort Knox’s where bands can partner and visit each location as they tour around the States.

Los Angeles has long been the hub for the music industry, due in large part because that’s where all the equipment and music pros are located. But what if you could have access to everything you need to make a record, prepare for a national tour, and promote a band right here in Chicago? That’s the goal of Fort Knox, where the music talent and expertise you need is just across the room.