Each year around AES time, Billboard compiles a list of the top recording studios in the world. The methodology is based on where the year's Number One singles were recorded and how long they stayed in the top slot on the magazine's various charts. In an industry where “the best” is almost totally subjective — and something you assert at your own peril, anyway — it's as legit a method as you might conceive of, although it's produced a few squirrely results in the past, such as in 1997, when a small hole in the wall in Barcelona, Spain, was named the Number One studio on Earth, based solely on the fact that the novelty hit “Macarena” was recorded there.
This year's list continues a trend in most genres that appeared in the past few years, where there is no distinction made between private facilities and commercial ones.
In country, though, that phenomenon is thankfully absent. The top three studios in the genre — Ocean Way/Nashville, Emerald Sound Studios and Sound Kitchen — are all commercial facilities (or were for most of the year, in the case of Ocean Way, which was acquired by Belmont University's music production program last October). And all are in Nashville. That hegemony falters a bit in the list of top three country mixing studios. Sound Kitchen and Emerald come in at Number One and 3, respectively; the Number 2 slot goes to Image, in Los Angeles, where Chris Lord-Alge mixed Tim McGraw's records. The same applied to the mastering category in country, in which Nashville's Mastermix was rated Number One and Georgetown Masters Number 3, with L.A.'s Mastering Lab garnering the Number 2 spot.
While some may bridle at the notion that any studio outside of Music City gets a nod for a top slot in country music, it's worth noting that Nashville and country have remained an intertwined pair longer than any other city and genre connection. Rock has been music's most peripatetic category, and has resided in more cities than an itinerant serial killer. Chances are you live in a city that was at one time or another considered the place to be in the music business, from L.A. and New York to Memphis, Chicago, Minneapolis, Boston, Raleigh, N.C., and Seattle.
Back to the Billboard list, it's also interesting that none of the studios in the country category were producer-owned facilities. Nashville's studio community has been hurting for the last two years, partially because its fortunes are so tightly linked to the economics of country music, which has taken a beating since its high-water mark in 1995, and partially because a number of heavyweight producers in Nashville have built their own studios. But in country, the bulk of the work remains rooted in the conventional, commercial studios. And so does the demo work — whether it's a song or an artist demo, the understanding remains that you need a place where you can put a bunch of musicians into a room and knock out as many songs as possible before you run out of money. The more modern methodology of one person writing, playing and performing all the parts sequentially in a home studio simply isn't as efficient in Nashville's culture as it is in that of other genres.
What's more promising is that the way Nashville makes music doesn't change when non-country artists record there. They actually come for the acoustic spaces, for the expertise resident here for handling groups of musicians playing together and for the gear, which has evolved into probably the best amalgam of analog and digital anywhere in the world. Pro Tools may have sneaked in quietly in the mid-1990s, regarded more as a secret weapon in making pop-competitive records than heralded as an exciting new technology. But, today, it co-exists nicely with API consoles and LA-2As and acoustic guitars.
How long Nashville can keep its way of doing things remains an unanswered question. The crumbling of the genre's sales over the past five years has made life tough for the studios in Nashville, and more than a few have either shuttered or operate under less-than-ideal financial circumstances. But the fact that they continue to operate at all is cause for optimism. A studio culture such as this one would not have lasted this long anywhere else.
Sometimes low expectations are the best defense against a changing world. As the entire music industry evolves from a highly centralized Gang of Five into an ethereal collection of millions of songs on the Internet made by millions of people using Pro Tools at home, the idea of Nashville as music's friendly front porch becomes as economically viable as it is emotionally appealing.
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