Cover Shot: When's the last time you recall the recording studio receiving credit on the front of an album? The Band's Music From Big Pink record comes to mind. (And it was one of the first of the high-end home studios, too.) But do you remember when the engineers got their due on the front of the record sleeve, as well? Unless it was Todd Rundgren engineering himself, I don't think I've ever seen it. So it was a pleasant surprise when country artist Brad Paisley's sophomore outing showed up in the mail. Modeled on a poster for a film sequel, Paisley's Part II has a two-line credit list along the bottom of the cover, noting that this is a “Frank Rogers Film” — Paisley's producer and co-writer — “with appearances by Buck Owens, George Jones, Bill Anderson…” “Screenplay” credit goes to the various songwriters who contributed to the record. Finally, the credits end with “Filmed at The Castle by Richard Barrow & Brian David Willis.”
“Half the time, it's a battle to get anything listed anywhere on the record,” said Mike Janis, The Castle Recording's studio manager. The facility's semi-Gothic exterior has made the studio a background for a few album pictures, most of which have found their way inside a CD booklet, or at best on the back cover. Phish's Rift used the studio door on the cover shot. But after a thorough search of the collective memories of a number of music business veterans, the consensus is that this may be the first time in history that both the studio and the recording engineers are credited on the front cover of an album. Now, maybe we can start to work on rates…
I thought for a minute that the old Music Mill Studios had been put back into service after its closure two years ago. The truth is, it has returned to the music business, though in a changed form. The Mill is now the headquarters of VFR Records, one of Nashville's most successful independent country labels, whose artist Mark McGuire's first outing has charted well. Music Mill Studio's owner, former Mercury Records president Harold Shedd, is a partner in VFR Records, along with Paul Lucks and Ed Arnold. “I'm sorry to let you down, but Music Mill is no longer a functioning studio,” Lucks told me. “The main recording room is now our conference room. And it's a very nice, big conference room. And it sounds very good.” VFR does have a small demo studio on the premises, but Lucks says he's never seen it.
Nashville may be moving toward the anchor client model. More and more studios are actively seeking, or have been serendipitous in finding, clients who rent out a studio for extended periods of time for multiple projects. At Dark Horse Recording, studio manager Ed Simonton says the studio has been hosting Full Sail owner John Phelps for several months, as Phelps records the seven initial recording artists on his own CD3 label. Also, producer Brown Bannister is showing signs of settling into one of Dark Horse's minimally equipped production rooms, bringing his own Sony R100 console and Otari RADAR and Steinberg Nuendo systems with him. “Like a lot of clients these days, what Brown wants is just the space,” says Simonton. “Fortunately, that's something we've got plenty of.”
The anchor client approach to business isn't anything new, but it is a tricky one to balance. Building a reliance on a single client for a studio makes the immediate future more economically predictable. But if that client should pick up and go elsewhere — and many do as their own equipment arsenals grow larger and more sophisticated — the long-term economics could be devastating. It takes a long time to change the perception in the market that a particular studio is available for hire again.
“Sure, it can be dangerous in the long run to rely too heavily on a single client,” says the owner of a leading Nashville studio who preferred to remain anonymous. The fact that his is a single-room facility makes his risk factor all the higher, he agrees, though the bulk of his revenues have come in the last nine months from a single continuous lock-out client. “The thing is, in this kind of a business climate, what other options are there? You have to keep a close watch on how an anchor client is doing. If there's a chance they may move someplace else, you would have to start the process of letting the community know that your room is going to be available again shortly. Hopefully, you're dealing with the kind of client who will give you some notice before moving.” This studio owner also notes that there are some categories of an anchor client that might be better than others. “A producer with a long-running, consistent track record is always the best kind of anchor client,” he says. “A hot producer is good, too, but you have to watch how their career moves. Engineers can make good long-term clients, but even successful producers are known to change engineers just like that.”
Milan Bogdan, general manager at East Iris Studios, which has one main studio and a second digital suite, says it's not as easy a choice as it would have been in Nashville five years ago. “My first instinct is always to avoid using an anchor client strategy,” he says. “But these days, I can see the point of it for some studios. The problem I have with one main studio is that the bookings are there, but keeping them there is hard. Especially as you get more pop and rock artists from out of town in the studio — their schedules change and they want to slide their booking by two weeks. And most of the time I can't do that. When that happens enough times, an anchor client who you can leave the keys with begins to sound really good. But in the end, I'd still rather have the headaches that come with trying to keep a diverse client base running through the studio than the more entrenched problems that come with relying on a single long-term client.”
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