The first half of October was most turbulent on the Nashville studio industry's already storm-tossed seas. On October 17, Belmont University announced that it had purchased Ocean Way Studios from owners Gary Belz and Allen Sides. The school further announced that it would continue to operate the studio complex as a commercial facility, as well as use it to offer students access to a world-class training facility. All of Ocean Way's employees would be retained as Belmont employees. Belmont music program head Pam Browne estimated that the studio would be commercially available 40% to 50% of the time; the rest used for instruction.
The deal was announced with little advance notice. However, former Ocean Way co-owner Gary Belz confirmed that the deal had been in progress for several months, instigated, ironically, by the mortgage broker he and Sides had enlisted to refinance the facility's reported $1.2 million debt load in light of significantly lower lending rates.
No sale price was announced at the time, but the deal will be a combination of a cash transaction and a tax-deductible donation to the Christian Baptist-based school, which is tax-exempt. The final sale price will be deducted from a fair-market valuation of the facility, expected to be somewhere roughly between $6 million and $7 million. The difference between the two numbers will be considered a tax-deductible donation, which could offset any sales and capital gains taxes assessed on the transaction itself. (While the real estate transaction was closed earlier in the week, Belz also confirmed that there is a six-month window in which the school and the former owners will decide which equipment will be sold to the school and which is retained by Belz and Sides, both of whom own other studio operations in Nashville and Los Angeles.)
Belmont is home to one of the industry's leading academic audio production and engineering programs, and over the years has heavily seeded Nashville's music and studio community with graduates, including Vince Gill and Trisha Yearwood. The school has also been the beneficiary of return largess by its luminous alumni corps, as well as from a $10 million grant three years ago from Mike Curb, president of Curb Records, which led to the creation of the Mike Curb School of Music Business on campus.
But there is concern among some in the Nashville studio community that a tax-exempt entity, such as Belmont, operating a commercial enterprise is problematic. Andrew Kautz, a Belmont music business alumni and president of Emerald, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier in the year, says that while it was a good financial move for both Belmont and Ocean Way, he believes it has the potential to tilt an already uneven playing field. “They say they'll operate it as a commercial facility only in order to offset its operating cost,” he says. “But you can't do that for the same reason you can't advertise on college radio — commercial radio stations would demand that college stations pay fees and taxes and everything else. There's another irony here: How would you like to have your employees paying you to work at your studio?”
Kautz was also skeptical about the motives of some Belmont alumni, noting that Vince Gill, a graduate of the program, was at the press conference at which the sale was announced. “The artists who are donating money to the program are the same ones who are demanding that studios give them the best service at the lowest rates,” he complained. In a published interview, Javalina Recording owner Warren Peterson suggested that some Nashville studios may no longer be receptive to taking in Belmont graduates as interns. “They shouldn't compete with us if they want to get students placed,” he told a reporter.
Others, however, seem less concerned. Engineer/mixer and co-owner of Back Stage Studios Chuck Ainlay stated that, “I don't mind Belmont getting involved in the studio business as long as they run it legitimately and don't undercut the rate structure. That would be my biggest worry. But I'd rather take a wait-and-see attitude than be alarmist about it.”
Dino Elefante, co-owner of Sound Kitchen Studios, echoed that sentiment, adding, “We don't see it as anything but positive. We see an opportunity for students to see a traditional recording environment like that as a good thing.”
Gary Belz, who remains owner of East Iris Studios in Nashville and House of Blues Studios in Memphis and L.A., believes that Belmont will be responsible to the community in the manner in which it operates the facility. “I mean, it's pretty funny when you think about it,” he observed. “Most commercial studios are already nonprofit operations. There's a lot of irony in there.” He also said that it was his and Sides' understanding that the school would maintain the standards the studio has set for service and maintenance.
Belz further suggested that Belmont may have seen a strategic benefit for the school in acquiring a world-class studio facility. “It helps position Belmont internationally, the way that [SAE owner] Tom Misner's 301 studios around the world do for his schools,” he said.
Meanwhile, Emerald Recording has ended a joint venture with The Parlor, a small Music Row studio, and moved the SSL 4000 Series console it had put in there two years ago into what had been the former 16th Avenue Studios down the block. 16th Avenue Studios was, ironically, the first of the Row's major studio facilities to throw in the towel, in 1998, as Nashville's music industry was at the doorstep of what has become a lengthy economic recession. Emerald's Andrew Kautz said that the joint venture ended amicably, and that the space at 16th Avenue Sound was still ready to roll a console in and begin work. “It's the same acoustics as before,” he said. “Even the wiring was there waiting to be used again.”
Finally, the same week, Milan Bogdan, considered by many to be the dean of the studio management corps in Nashville, with stints at Masterfonics, Ocean Way and most recently East Iris, has departed that studio and the studio business altogether, he said, to devote his attention to a burgeoning music publishing business he co-owns, and which he says has already been very successful.
Bogdan says he'll miss the business in some respects, but added that he also expects the studio industry here to continue to deteriorate. “The present rate structure here won't allow for a profit,” he said. “With things like the Belmont transaction, I don't see that changing anytime soon.”
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