Writing a monthly column implicitly limits the timeliness of the news, but it's time well spent on observation and commentary. By the time this column appears in April, either of the two burgeoning megastudios in town, Emerald Recording and Seventeen Grand Recording-both of which completed significant acquisitions by the year's start-could have made good on promises to grow even larger by way of more acquisitions. (And if Dale Moore is looking for a nice little 8-track setup in Bellevue, I've got something on the second floor of my house for him.)
People who read this column two years ago would have seen this consolidation coming, though at the time I didn't have a clue who the initial players were going to be. But I wasn't an Eagle Scout for nothing. If you look closely, you can find clues that give you a pretty good idea of which way the wind is going to be blowing.
One of the more oblique clues for the next round of Nash-ville's future might be found in a small newspaper clipping noting that another aspect of record label consolidation (Nashville lost Rising Tide and Imprint Records in 1998, and Seagram-owned Decca fell in January, the same month that L.A. lost A&M and Geffen) might affect the studio community here, as well. Provident Music Group, a sizable player in the Christian music industry, purchased Christian label Reunion Re-cords in 1996. A musician's union agreement, of which Reunion was a signatory, expired January 31, and Provident had indicated it was not planning on renewing it. It has no problem paying scale; what it's rebuffing are payments to the union's pension and performance trust funds
Oblique to the studio industry? You bet. But the implication is that union musicians will not be permitted to play on Christian recordings for that label. The implication, already voiced aloud by Nashville A.F. of M. Local 257 president Harold Bradley, is that the two other large Christian music distributors, EMI Christian Music Groups and Word Entertainment-both also based in Nashville-might follow suit and reject musician union contracts as a cost-cutting measure. The response from Provident president Jim Van Hook, according to the newspaper, was, "There's a fundamental question in terms of whether we're responsible-or should be-for the retirement programs for freelance musicians."
Unlike the union locals in places like New York City, where Local 802 has for years been a nonentity as far as most musicians are concerned, Nashville's Local 257 is strong. The union recognized years ago the necessity of establishing demo rates that protect musicians even as it lets publishing companies and writers work affordably within their framework, a decision that has benefited studios for years by encouraging legitimate sessions (and, hopefully, legitimate rates). The almost incestuous degree of interaction between musicians, studios, record labels and other music industry participants has been a key ingredient in the glue that has held country music's center of gravity in Nashville for half a century. Christian music is now nearly 3% of the $12 billion U.S. music market, and with spinoff sub-genres like "positive country," it's growing, offering Nashville the potential to be the base of yet another burgeoning music type. There are several studios in Nashville that already see a large percentage of their revenues coming from Christian music. And it's also a genre that offers up-and-coming producers opportunities that the caste system of country music often does not.
Randy Ford, secretary treasurer for Local 257, notes that the sum of the formulas for the two pension funds-which are based on unit sales-total less then 1% and are reduced by an exclusion of the first 25,000 units per title, as well as additional exclusions for special packaging and promotional units. "It's not a lot in the grand scheme of things," he says. However, he adds that he has heard that other Christian labels would likely refuse to renew union agreements if Provident and the union do not come to terms. Local 257, he says, is not planning to budge, though. "The musicians have reaffirmed to us that they will not be working for non-signatories after the January 31 deadline," he says.
However, some wonder if this issue could push the Christian recording industry elsewhere, or at least further away from mainstream studios in Nashville. Kelly Pribble, manager of Quad Studios, where Christian accounts for upward of 70% of revenues, observes, "If they go elsewhere, that would be a huge problem. The trouble is, so many musicians were already doing some projects off the card [non-union] for some labels while doing them on the card for others. The labels know this, and they're trying to draw the line."
Hilltop Studios in Madison, Tenn., founded in 1963, derives half its revenues from Christian music. Owner John Nicholson believes that area studios can ride out the dispute, at least initially. "They still have to record somewhere, and they can't make a record as good or as fast as they can with Nashville musicians," he says. "But eventually it could become a war between the labels and the musicians, and the studios could get caught in the middle."
Nashville didn't really have a lock on the recording of country music until the end of the 1950s; prior to that, country records were routinely being made in cities like Dallas and Cincinnati. And when some musicians spearheaded a drive to implement double-scale payments in the 1970s, secular labels balked long and hard before they eventually acquiesced.
The bottom line is that larger forces are at work, and they affect every aspect of the business.