NASHVILLE SKYLINE

Apr 1, 2001 12:00 PM, Dan Daley

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Producer/engineer/mixer David Leonard has decided to move from Nashville, where he has lived and worked for the past five years, to the New England area. Leonard, whose credit list includes Indigo Girls, John Mellencamp and Hootie & The Blowfish, cited personal reasons for leaving Nashville.

Leonard has nothing but good things to say about Nashville as a place to live and work, adding, “The studios here are as good as it gets.” But his desire to move on underscores the peripatetic nature of the music business in general and its effects on the studio business in Nashville. “I came to Nashville in part to get away from the riots and the earthquakes in L.A.,” he told me on a break from producing Atlantic pop artists Jump Little Children at East Iris Studios. “Now it's time to look for other things.” Leonard says he hopes to continue to come to Nashville to make records in the future, but concedes that he will inevitably do less work there.

Milan Bogdan, East Iris' general manager, who had been working on building up the studio's base beyond Nashville's mainly country clientele, was disappointed. “People tend to work where they live, and when they don't live here, they likely won't work there as often,” he says. “I think that the departure of people like David is a tragedy for Nashville in general. It undermines the studio community's attempts to broaden our base beyond country.”

Nashville's upper-end recording studios went through multiple gyrations over the past two years. The same effect is making itself felt at other ends of the spectrum. Antarctica Media, which opened in early 1999 as a mid-budget, Pro Tools-based audio mastering facility, and which then grew into recording and mixing and Internet-based services, has shuttered most of its music operations. The company will now focus on Web page construction and graphics, with some audio mastering services available, mainly for Web-based projects.

Company owner John Trevethan attributed the pullback from music to pure economics, and the numbers he cites offer a glimpse into the mechanics of the mid-level facility in the context of Nashville's studio culture. The studio asked $1,000 per day, including an engineer and access to what at the time was Nashville's largest Pro Tools system. The Pro Tools system lease cost $300 per month, and engineer charges generally ran around $250 per day, leaving revenue of $450 per day for the studio, before fixed overhead costs such as rent, utilities and payroll were taken into account.

“That was simply not enough, considering that it's become too difficult to find clients who are willing to pay that much for a studio,” Trevethan says, adding that Nashville clients are used to ordering services a la carte. “They just didn't seem to get it that the engineer was included in the day rate,” he says. “That's not the way it's done here. Just because you change the technology doesn't mean you change the culture you use it in.” Furthermore, Trevethan cites the diminished client pool for this level of studio, particularly the decline of the publishing demo market. “Aside from more writers recording their own demos, you have fewer recording artists on fewer labels, and that means they don't need as many songs, so you don't need as many demos,” he says. “Studios just fall in the middle of that food chain.” Trevethan also bet on Pro Tools taking off in Nashville, which it did last year; however, he found that many potential clients simply bought their own versions of the system for use at home and in private studios.

After seeing revenues decline 20% over the last year, Trevethan decided to pull the plug on music recording. The studio occupied the former Studio A room in what was once Sixteenth Avenue Sound, ironically one of the first casualties, in 1998, of the consolidation trend that has since engulfed Nashville.

TNN, The Nashville Network, left in name last September when CBS/Westinghouse, which bought Gaylord Entertainment's broadcasting operations in 1997, changed the cable network's name to The National Network. The name change by the new owners — since consolidated under Viacom — underscores country music's sinking fortunes. (Preliminary SoundScan data for 2000 indicated the format has dropped to about an 8.5% market share, down more than 50% from the highwater mark of 18-plus percent in 1994.) More materially, it signaled the shift of the broadcast operations for both TNN and music video channel CMT to New York, where Viacom is headquartered. In late January, Viacom initiated the largest round of job cuts yet at the networks, eliminating or moving 125 jobs — 35% of the work force.

The good news is that TNN's audio production and post-production infrastructure, which Viacom also acquired in the purchase, will remain intact, with no job cuts for the time being. Julie Burnett, TNN's manager of operations, told me that the entire 20-plus staff of audio personnel for its recording, mixing and post studios, as well as its one remote truck, will remain in place. Broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry, a weekend staple on TNN and nationally syndicated on radio, will also remain based from here.

Speaking of disappearing acts, Virgin Nashville, the label created in mid-1998 as a Capitol Records subsidiary and headed by ousted Capitol president and producer Scott Hendricks, closed its doors in January, weeks after Asylum Records' Nashville office did the same. Both labels had been teetering for some time, swept under by country music's market share slide and the increased difficulty in getting country radio stations to embrace new artists. Hendricks had been one of the current generation of Nashville's producer-stars in the mid-1990s, with multi-Platinum productions for Brooks and Dunn and other artists. Hendricks had attempted to pursue the Nashville music industry's version of a hat trick by running a label, producing records and owning a recording studio, Arrowhead. Hendricks built a studio in his home nearly two years ago, after he took the helm at Virgin Nashville. Capitol Records itself is a division of EMI, which has been on the selling block for over two years. EMI and RCA Records parent company, BMG Entertainment, have been in talks about an acquisition or merger since late last year. The elimination of unprofitable assets, a rubric that Virgin Nashville qualified for, often precedes such deals.


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