End-of-the-year activity in Nashville is positive, though there are some harbingers of a shakeout even more fundamental than what the studio business

End-of-the-year activity in Nashville is positive, though there are some harbingers of a shakeout even more fundamental than what the studio business has experienced in the past two years. On the one hand, the pace of smaller studio startups has increased, and those studios have been attracting new blood to the city. On the other hand, it's entirely possible that the beginning of the end for country music as a major genre is at hand. More on that in a moment.

The new generation of Nashville studios is characterized by small, affordable rooms run by young people with equal parts enthusiasm, optimism and attitude - three necessary components to even getting out of bed in the morning in this business. Nashville's new generation rely on a combination of mid-level digital and analog technology.

Take Brett Blanden's Brett's Place, for example: Two years ago, Malcolm Springer worked as the second engineer on Matchbox Twenty. This year, he was able to get one of the largest signing bonuses that Mercury/Def Jam gave to any artist, for Full Devil Jacket, a Jackson, Tenn., band now touring with Hole and Filter. Springer developed the band at Brett's Place. Now, he is already at work on the next project, Spike 1000, who came from San Francisco to Nashville for two months to work with Springer at Brett's Place. "Nashville still has a great reputation for music," says Blanden. "But to develop artists like this, people are going to come here for $600-a-day studios including an engineer, not for $1,600-a-day rooms."

The studio business in Nashville is likely going to have to rely on the music business reinventing itself over the next several years. Country music - which up to this moment still accounts for more than half the revenues of Nashville studios - has hit a nadir in its market share: about 10% of the overall U.S. music market, according to the RIAA's latest figures. It seems the "bounce" that many in the music business here predicted is going to be much smaller than they had anticipated - if it happens at all. It's been axiomatic in Nashville that country would drop off in sales, but that it would remain higher than it had during the last sell-off, in the mid-1980s. Unfortunately, country's sales are now below pre-Garth levels (1990 A.D.), and the slide shows no signs of slowing.

Also, as of late summer, The Nashville Network is no more; TNN is now "The National Network," with country music and lifestyle programming being phased out and replaced with such fare as the WWF's "War Is Raw" wrestling extravaganzas. This is yet another indication that the city is abandoning its longtime linkage with country music in favor of a more contemporary image, one made up of off-the-shelf solutions such as professional football teams and theme restaurants, like Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Cafe.

The relocation of the Country Music Hall of Fame from its original position at the top of Music Row to downtown is also symbolic and symptomatic: It's like bronzing the baby shoes and putting them on the mantle for display. It removes an anchor for the Row at a time when Music Row's own operations are scattered and directionless. More important, can the studio business in Nashville survive in anything like its present form without country music? Country has lost nearly half its sales from its high-water mark of just over 18% of the market share in 1994, and as mentioned before, Nashville's main studios still derive more than half their revenues from that stream. And that situation is further compounded by the dramatic increase in producer-owned studios in the city in the past two years. The math is painfully simple and simply painful.

Milan Bogdan, the dean of Nashville studio management, with stints at Masterfonics, Emerald and now East Iris, agrees. He estimates overall Nashville studio revenues from country music projects are down between 50% and 60%, and Bogdan has purposely redirected East Iris' marketing strategy away from country and toward rock and pop with some success. Furthermore, he also agrees that country music could be headed for niche status, along with jazz, Christian and classical, which would further erode country as a revenue stream. "When you take Faith Hill and Shania Twain out of the equation - and they're hardly country anymore, anyway - then that's where it looks like it's going: into niche status," he observes.

On the other hand, the new smaller facilities provide multiple entry points for new music and new money. They never depended upon country in the first place. If they can act as catalysts for new artists, they could also serve another purpose in helping maintain Nashville's existing conventional studio infrastructure, acting as feeders for them.

The bottom line is that instead of a quiet period of stabilization that everyone was expecting after the Great Studio Shakeout, Nashville may be entering an even more turbulent, more revolutionary period, in which the large studios follow the lead of the smaller ones. It's going to be an interesting year, and Skyline will have a ringside seat.