Photo: D Wagner, Shutterstock
Asking some Nashville music pros about the state of the recording industry this spring is akin to asking New England Patriots fans what they thought of the last Super Bowl.
“We have never seen a number like this,” says Joe Galante, who heads Nashville's wing of Sony BMG. He's referring to physical product sales during a late-March week in which country music's top 75 albums sold 330,000 total units. “In the 1990s, we'd be between 500,000 and 650,000,” Galante says. “This is the lowest one-week total since SoundScan began [in 1991]. And this total is counting The Eagles and the Alison Krauss/Robert Plant duets album, and most people wouldn't consider those to be ‘country.’ The reality is, once you step outside the top 15 albums, this isn't a healthy business.”
Well, other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? The truth is there are plenty of other problems and challenges. Big labels, big studios and big nearly anything you can think of are in either trouble or transition, depending on whom you ask. Longtime executive and producer Tony Brown calls Music Row's current vibe “a climate of fear,” and Galante notes, “I do not think this is cyclical; I think this is systemic.”
And yet, with a troublingly uncertain future and a certainly troubling present, thousands of people are making music. Nashville remains music's Third Coast, attracting players, producers, engineers, songwriters and the like from all over.
“This past year, I've worked on projects with artists ranging from Toby Keith, Loretta Lynn, Miranda Lambert, Lisa Loeb, Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow and others,” says Randy Scruggs, the revered multi-instrumentalist son of Hall-of-Famer Earl Scruggs. “If anything, I think the future will present more opportunities in general than fewer due to the continued search of outlets and creative methods of exposing an artist's music.”
In music-making Nashville, the problem is that the model that worked so spectacularly in the early 1990s — when country radio prospered and Garth Brooks' Midas touch gilded Music Row — is now failing. Radio playlists are designed to keep listeners from changing channels, not to send music fans to the stores. Come to think of it, the stores aren't helping things either, as the big box retailers that have been country's sales backbone are shrinking their CD sections and demanding lower prices. And some of the large, dedicated recording rooms that boomed in the 1990s are now imperiled. Technology allows home and project studio recordings to swim in the mainstream, especially now that many listeners are hearing music through a sonic substandard that has become standard: MP3.
“We've had a lot of big studios close,” says Brown, who produced George Strait's latest blockbuster, Troubadour. “Emerald closed down, and Ocean Way, which was built by Allen Sides, was bought by Belmont College for their music program and I found that I didn't enjoy working there anymore. It was more of a classroom than a studio, per se.”
Still, Brown clings to the Nashville tradition of recording in the best possible room with the best possible engineer, and of keeping the sound as good as possible for as long as possible. It's going to get squeezed into an MP3 eventually, but there'll be a lot of squeezing to do.
“I'm working on a project now for Lee Ann Womack, and the engineer, who is a dear friend of mine, said, ‘What should I charge you on this? Do you have a low budget?’ And I said, ‘No, she's a Platinum act. Charge me your top dollar, the same thing you would charge George Strait. I want to pay you what you deserve so you don't leave town!’ I really like supporting the studios and the musicians here. Let's keep this thing running because I really love going into a great studio with all the latest gear, and having room for a 9-piece rhythm section. I don't want to cut in my bedroom, I'm sorry.”
In truth — and, again, because of those glorious, glorious 1990s — Brown's bedroom is a lot larger than many of Nashville's successful small studios. With Pro Tools as a standard, projects that don't require a lot of musicians playing together in real time happen in places like Grammy-winning engineer Brent Truitt's East Nashville studio.
“My business has been steady for a while now,” says Truitt, a mandolin player who has toured with Dolly Parton, the Dixie Chicks and others. “I see a trend of more and more indie projects, and that seems to be growing each year. You can now record and mix a large project without having to own a $200,000 console. A multi-card Pro Tools HD system with a nice selection of plug-ins is not cheap by any means, but the cost is very low in comparison to owning a large console and tons of outboard gear. I think you must have great mics and preamps and converters, but the console is no longer a must-have, in my humble opinion.”
Some of the projects Truitt engineers fall under the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) union's definition of Limited Pressing recordings, which are independent albums of which fewer than 10,000 copies are produced. AFM Local 257 (the Nashville chapter) now designates on-the-card sessions as Master, Low-Budget Master or Limited Pressing because the recording environment has changed significantly since the days when most professional sessions were underwritten by majors and recorded by musicians who often made double- and triple-scale.
“Despite the overall slowdown in the global music industry, the total of union recording work that came through AFM Local 257 has been slightly up in the past two years, coming in at just over $15 million in 2007, which all things considered is a remarkable achievement,” says Dave Pomeroy, a session musician, songwriter, artist, record label owner, union officer and president of the Recording Musicians Association's Nashville chapter. “Limited Pressing sessions are up significantly, while Master and Low-Budget Master recordings are slightly down. In other words, there is more work for less money keeping our totals up. But at this point, union recording in Nashville is more than holding its own in an era when ‘on-the-card’ recording is less prevalent across the country. There are more players doing file-based overdubs in home studios, often for clients from out of town who never even make the trek to Nashville.”
As Frank Conway of Audio One (a company that designs, wires, installs and outfits studios) notes, shrinking recording budgets are at the core of many problems. But the need to work in different ways has opened up plenty of opportunities for players, engineers and companies that are adaptable.
“As a leading vender of the equipment [the large studios] use, we are really pulling for them to adapt to the new business models and flourish,” he says. “Producers, artists and labels must make their dollar go further in the studio. It has been great for our business because we are in a unique position to make that happen. People will continue to want to track in a professional studio environment. Our objective as a company is to help them be able to do other things — overdub, vocals and sometimes mix — in the privacy and comfort of their own home.”
Janet Leese is the studio manager at Starstruck Studios, a massive, multipurpose facility that has been home to master recordings by Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, Faith Hill and numerous other country A-listers. Starstruck also has video production capabilities, and the Starstruck Entertainment umbrella (it's owned by country star McEntire) extends to other aspects of the business, as well.
“A studio alone is going to be hard to maintain at this point or in the future, but we're able to make profits in other areas,” Leese notes. “A lot of these large studios are slow, or closing, but we have been really busy. And in Nashville, we have to have live, large recording spaces because we still have eight musicians in a room playing together at one time. Overdubs and even mixing can be done at home, with prime-time quality, but there's no way to go to a small home studio and do what we do here. The drum sounds in home studios just aren't there. If you're trying to make a real record, you at least need to do the tracks in a studio.”
Leese's hope is that the disappearance of some major studios (Emerald and Javelina among them) will ultimately make the ones that remain more viable and necessary. The largest Nashville studio — the 19,000-foot Sound Kitchen — has been through some harrowing financial times but now looks to be headed back into solvency. Ocean Way was bought by Belmont University, but it remains open to off-campus clients. And Blackbird's cutting-edge studios and immense, drool-inducing gear rental selection have made it a nationwide success story.
“One argument in favor of those real recording rooms is that you go there knowing you'll have the possibility of creating a different sound,” says King Williams, a longtime studio engineer who is the Grand Ole Opry's broadcast engineer. “In Javelina, you could put a 75-piece orchestra in there or a six-piece band, and it was designed to sound good under different circumstances. Now you walk into a guy's home studio, and if you get great results, you're surprised. It's, ‘This guy's kitchen is great for vocals? Fantastic.’ Whereas at Ocean Way, you know it's going to be great for whatever you want.
“What we're talking about is the last 10 percent,” Williams continues. “Especially in country, you're forced into a specific platform that has a specific homogenous sound, and unless you really break the rules, your stuff is going to sound like Pro Tools. With production budgets being low and time being short, you throw a plug-in up, you hit a preset that's there, it sounds just like everything else you've heard and now you're competing. Go! Render it down! Ta-da! So everybody can get to 90 percent. It's rarified air when you get something beyond that, and unless it was a really happy accident, getting beyond 90 percent means it's done by professionals in a professional space.”
Williams' job at the Opry finds him in a role that's reminiscent of great studio engineers of the past, such as RCA's Bill Porter, who was forced by the technology of the 1960s to mix Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison records in real time, on the fly.
“We have a great time because the Opry is kind of in-between a recording space and a live venue,” he says. “We have a blast making it sound as good as we can in the moment. It's performance mixing, and it's close to the old days.”
Twenty minutes south of Music Row is the heart of the contemporary Christian music industry. John Styll, who runs the Gospel Music Association, says many of the issues affecting country — corporate consolidation, online piracy, etc. — are also challenging the Christian business.
“The most irritating thing is that Christian music's consumers seem to share the same lack of concern for intellectual property rights as anyone else,” Styll comments. “As near as we can tell, they are downloading illegally and making copies of CDs for their friends at approximately the same rate as consumers of other genres.”
Mixer, producer and engineer John “Yosh” Yaszcz has worked on Grammy-winning productions in the contemporary Christian industry and from gospel heavies Kirk Franklin, Hezekiah Walker and others. He has happily transitioned from large studios to smaller, home-based environments.
“I have a buddy and producing partner who has this maxed-out, great studio in his home,” Yaszcz says. “I am able to work there regularly, and it doesn't compromise what I do and essentially deliver to the record company. It also gives the record company a break on studio costs. For me, as a working engineer on projects with shrinking budgets, having his studio down the street from my house is a true blessing. I am able to pick my kids up from school and go back to work.”
Yaszcz says his three decades in recording have made him into something of an audio consultant. “The artist and/or producer know the direction they want to go in, but they make some major mistakes in getting there, and I have to come in and figure out a way to clean up the mess and get them to their final destination without being caught in the act of making a bad record,” he says with a laugh. “Staying in touch with changing technology but remembering what is useful from the past makes for the best recordings. I don't think that aspect will ever change: It's been that way ever since I started.”
While Nashville is usually linked with the country and Christian industries, Fred Paragano of Paragon Studios has found plenty of profitable work outside of those realms. When building Paragon five years ago, Paragano sought to accommodate changing technologies and changing business models. Figuring that music projects alone would not support the business, Paragano branched into post-production sound services for film, broadcast television, DVD and the Internet. Paragon, the first Tennessee facility to install a capable digital film console, also offers archival services and picture editing, and Paragano leases space in his Franklin, Tenn., building to tenants.
“Just like the labels that aren't willing to change their old business models to a new one, there are studios with that same mentality,” Paragano says. “This attitude will eventually put them out of business. Only the studios that find new revenue sources outside of the ‘music basket’ will continue to survive.
“It has been a bit of a struggle to find Nashville-based talent that is actually interested in doing anything other than music,” he continues. “I have been surprised that most editors and mixers here don't want to be involved in film or TV. They do not want to divert their attention to anything other than music. Unfortunately, it is very hard to make a living with blinders on.”
In its five years, Paragon has worked with clients including Eric Clapton, Peter Gabriel, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin and Kenny Chesney, and with television outlets including Saturday Night Live, Dancing With the Stars and the BBC.
“Approximately 75 percent of our work now is focused on post-production services,” Paragano says. “Music alone cannot financially support us. I have now become very selective about the music projects I take personally as an engineer. I usually go into a music project knowing the rate will be less, but I selectively take it because it satisfies my creativity.”
While the methods of harvesting inspiration are anything but stable in today's Nashville, creativity itself is a constant. Nashville-based acts Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw and Rascal Flatts offer technologically innovative live shows that consistently land them in year-end ranks of top-drawing tours. Those outings typically use personnel and equipment straight out of Nashville. Engineers and producers are working in ever-varied styles, a point underscored each time an outside-of-country act records in Nashville. In 2008, blues master Buddy Guy has been here working with producer/guitarist Tom Hambridge. Pop star Kelly Clarkson is slated to record this summer, and she'll likely be singing over at Starstruck. Tennessee-based rock band Kings of Leon has been making music at Blackbird. And then there are hundreds of other sessions, in bluegrass and Americana and R&B and pop and just about every other genre.
“The good news is that the creativity and quality of Nashville recording has never been better,” says bass man Pomeroy. “Our stylistic diversity and the high level of songwriting [John Prine, Rodney Crowell, Tom T. Hall and others live and write in the area] continue to flourish even as the business of making records is going through growing pains or perhaps more accurately ‘shrinking pains.’ Nashville is still ‘Music City, USA,’ and dreams still do come true. Perhaps the dreams are a little more reality-based, but they are still meaningful and possible.”
Peter Cooper is Mix's Nashville editor.