An inside look at how Hit The Lights, one of Jacksonville’s newest full-service production studios, flipped the switch during 2020.
If you were a regular at shows before the pandemic, you’ve probably experienced the sensory feast that is a show by Hit the Lights Productions. The production company worked mainly out of Mavericks for the first couple of years, and through the waves of the Landing closing, and 2020, turned into a one-stop-shop for artists from building records to rehearsing them to performing them live.
Rob York is the mastermind behind the operation, which started as a lighting company (thus the name Hit the Lights.) His career in lighting design started at a teen club when he was 15 years old, and he’s known in the scene for his technical precision, strobe lights and pyrotechnics.
“It was supposed to be strictly a lighting company. A buddy of mine instilled some trust into me and said, ‘I’ve got all this sound equipment! Hey, what do you think about buying a stage?’”
“OK,” York said with a shrug. “So Hit the Lights became Hit the Lights Productions. We became everything, and now we’re a studio, now we’re rehearsal stages.”
York worked at Mavericks for 14 years, running the lighting and DJ booth. Here, he was introduced to Matt Petersen, who worked in carpentry and stage assistance. John Shellman, who was introduced by a mutual friend, came onboard to work the sound board.
Shellman had a background in R&B, soul, funk and gospel music but had never worked with the country and rock music that Mavericks was known for. “The approach was a lot different to what I was used to hearing. So I had to train my ear to listen to those genres and hone in on the skills,” said Shellman. “I told myself every day, I gotta get better, I gotta get better. And I did it every day.”
York had been the production manager at the Jacksonville Landing for just a day shy of a year when it was shut down. This gave him, Shellman and Petersen the opportunity to move forward full-force with Hit the Lights Productions. Within months, they moved into a larger space with five times the overhead and got to work.
By the end of 2019, they were working big shows nonstop and gearing up for a busy 2020. As they packed up for a tour with Dire Straits in mid-March, they got a call saying that the tour was cancelled. The state shut down the following week.
“Not only did we lose our big, giant gigs, all of our outdoor festivals and venues, we lost all of our small bar gigs, our local stuff—we lost everything,” said York. “It was a come-to-Jesus moment with John and I. We’re like, what are we gonna do about this, how are we gonna fix this, how are we gonna stay afloat with no shows?”
And the studio was born. They worked their way into the summer, converting their warehouse space into a studio and rehearsal rooms. Petersen built the place up from scratch. “The table, the studio, the countertops, all of that in there. Rob and I designed it, and I put it from paper to physical,” he said.
Once the buildout was done, the team reached out to bands they had worked with in the past, seeing if they would be interested in working in the new production studio. “We told them, ‘you know us from the live scene, and if you put your trust in us going this route, we’re here for you,’” said York. “The response was unreal.”
Before long, the warehouse space had become a studio, fully-equipped with rehearsal rooms, set up to each band’s preference. They were hosting artists for livestreams three times a week, opening a virtual platform for those who weren’t able to perform at bars and venues because of the pandemic. They built a lounge for guests to take breaks from the chaos of recording and rehearsing. Bands of every genre came through to mix and master their records with Shellman, who opened the opportunity for them to learn the systems and programs.
“This wasn’t planned by any means,” he said, “This was a, ‘hey, 2020 just took all of our shows so what are we gonna do, guys?’ But now I’m glad we did because it’s opened so many different avenues and so many different artists that we would have never met in the live scene now know about us. They love coming here. They love hanging out with us.”
The studio space is full of laughter in a light, close-knit environment. Shellman said, “We want everyone to come in here and feel like home. Especially the local scene. Be here for them, be able to provide whatever we can, whether it’s recording, live tracking, marketing, anything for their shows, we try to be there for them.”
“When we go out on the show we already know what your expectations are, what you want, what you need,” Petersen said of the full-service nature of Hit the Lights Productions.
The company has been especially busy recently as shows and events opened back up in the state. The team has now built relationships with artists that they hadn’t known from the live scene, and they’re looking forward to working on shows with them.
“It’s become a labor of love, and it’s unreal to see what’s progressed over the last year,” said York.
Studio time at Hit the Lights Productions is $60 an hour and mastering is $150. Rehearsal rooms run from $20-$50 an hour.