Happy New Year. The hangover that Nashville is feeling today may not be completely the result of too much alcohol and partying a few nights ago. The city's studio market is still reeling from over a year's worth of tumult that has rearranged its landscape. In conversations with more than a few studio managers and owners in recent months, I was struck by the sense that many still don't know what hit them. I try not to keep my perch too lofty, but it's been high enough over the past five years to have had at least a crow's-eye view of the situation. So, here, in a nutshell, is my perspective.
Nashville overbuilt. No two ways about it. The explosive rise of country music in the early 1990s attracted a lot of attention and a lot of interest in Nashville as a music center. It also created an atmosphere of euphoria, one which distorted the realities of the situation. Nashville historically had a certain way of doing business, and that was not going to turn on a dime just because Los Angeles and New York were suddenly taking notice. Relationships that had been built over the years were stronger than the attraction of the new and glamorous studios that cropped up on the scene in the mid-'90s. Garth Brooks continued to make his records with Allen Reynolds at Jack's Tracks for a long time after Oxfords and 9000Js came to town. And the lag time that was inevitable between the decision to build and opening day compounded the situation. By the time ribbons were ready to be cut, so were artist rosters and entire labels as country began a steady market-share decline in 1995. (Specifically, from 18.7% in 1993 to 10.8% in 1999, according to the RIAA. If you take the quasi-pop stars, such as Shania Twain and Faith Hill, out of the sales equation, the real numbers are almost certainly single-digit.)
Country music changed. Once it set out on a road toward pop success, the exigencies of pop music followed. Drum machines, once considered anathema in country music, became common, and in the process decreased the need for conventional recording studios. Hard disk recording, such as Pro Tools, once the dark secret of Nashville and used furtively to fix less-than-stellar pitch problems on singers who were signed to labels based more on their looks than their chops, eventually came out of the closet and has been transforming the recording culture of the town ever since.
The music business changed. While studios were expanding, their main clients - the major record labels - were consolidating, a process that led inevitably to lower recording budgets and fewer artists as rosters were pared to pay for acquisitions. At the same time, those same labels began to divert more and more financial resources to fighting the download monster. Don't underestimate the amount of money that this battle has diverted from record production. And as the old model of the music business disintegrates, it hits Nashville harder than most other music centers, simply because Nashville has been working more strictly under that model for such a long time.
Rates are an illusion. More than perhaps anywhere else, Nashville clung to the notion of rates as the prime barometer of business. However, half of the new major rooms that came online during the period were owned by individuals or entities who could support those rooms independently of the revenue they generated. This further distorted the picture the studio business presented to itself. Rates are irrelevant when there are no common reference points on which to peg them.
Project studios hit Nashville late and hard. By the time the project studio phenomenon took root in Nashville, in the mid-'90s and nearly a decade after its effects were already being felt in New York and L.A., the technology that fueled personal studios had become more advanced, more powerful and much more affordable. Songwriters, one leg - along with producers and musicians - of the triad that is country music's production foundation, first began to embrace the concept as their publishers sought ways to contain demo budgets. The rest of the industry followed. Hard as it seems to conceive of now, as late as 1995, the idea of recording, even demos, at home was considered uncommon in Nashville. Today, it's routine for significant parts of master recordings to be done in people's homes.
Producers bolted. The idea of record producers owning or having interests in recording studios was nothing new to Nashville. But they began doing so in ever-increasing numbers in the mid- to late 1990s, and the economic effect was considerable. The removal from the pool of just five major producers - a conservative number, at best - who had once booked $1,200-a-day commercial rooms in Nashville 200 days a year adds up to $1.2 million in revenue that was lost annually. The actual figure is likely to be exponentially higher. That is in addition to the particularly pernicious practice, very specific to Nashville, of producers who are both studio owners and heads of major record labels. Guess who approves studio budgets on their productions?
Projections for the coming year: Even I thought that the round of studio consolidations was over with the close of 2000. It's not. I expect to see two or three significant facilities in Nashville changing hands in 2001. The trend of producer-owned studios will also continue. And those two trends are definitely intertwined. But while this is not good news for some facilities with large capital investments, it is good news for the city's multifaceted media infrastructure overall: Nashville's still one of the leading audio mastering centers of the world and can remain so as long as the mastering facilities can adapt. Also, Nashville has carved out a place for itself in multichannel audio. Even if DVD-Audio fails to capture a significant market share - and I don't expect it to - multichannel sound has numerous applications, and most of them can be capably done in Nashville at a lower cost than in Los Angeles, London or New York. I also don't want to overlook the fact that the city's deeply rooted and implicit devotion to the idea of recording music as a craft and an art form has contributed considerably to keeping Nashville afloat, and will continue to do so.
Nashville's often painful changes have been chronicled in this space for five years. How Nashville will continue to adapt into the next century will be an interesting narrative to read and to write. I look forward to doing both.