Mar 1, 1999 12:00 PM, Dan Daley
The consolidation that has been sweeping the recording studio industry has affected Nash-ville deeply, and a lot of space has been dedicated to such stories as the Emerald/Masterfonics and Seventeen Grand/Love Shack acquisitions. However, Nashville remains the most densely populated studio environment on the planet, and the stories aren't all occurring in the rarefied atmospheres of the upper-echelon facilities. A look in the trenches reveals Nash-ville to be a complex studio town, with many smaller facilities dealing with the same problems that the larger ones face. The scales are different, and the solutions are remarkably varied.
A good example is Cumberland Recording, which owner Billy Anderson started 15 years ago as a means to get away from touring as a musician. His single-room studio uses 16 tracks of ADAT, a 48-input Behringer Eurodesk console and rents for $25 per hour, mainly to songwriters doing demos-who remain the staple client of most of these kinds of owner/operator studios. However, Anderson acknowledges that the personal studio phenomenon has affected that client base in Nashville, driving more people to record in their homes. His response has been to advertise his demo services in national songwriter magazines, soliciting guitar/vocal demos on cassette in the mail and returning fully produced versions for $150 per song, or $2,650 for a full album. "It's a niche market," Anderson says, "but there are so many small studios [in Nash-ville], and the technology is so affordable and available, if you just go for local business, it's too competitive." It's so competitive, actually, that despite Anderson's clever niche marketing, the studio remains his secondary source of income; he's also employed as a mastering engineer at Nashville's NTD duplication/replication facility. "But there's lots of songwriters out there," he says, "and they do like to move around and try different studios to get different sounds, so while it's competitive, there's also lots of business to go after."
In suburban Mt. Juliet, The Blue Room owner Danny Jennings concurs that songwriter demo work remains the basis for smaller Nashville studios, and he concedes it's getting harder to make a living off it-driven, as it is, so much more by price than is artist demo work, for instance. The emphasis on speed in songwriting demos has moved many studios, including ADAT/Soundcraft Ghost-equipped The Blue Room, to price themselves on a per-song basis, calling and paying the musicians themselves, with owners sometimes playing on demos as well as engineering and/or producing them. "Demo work is certainly harder to find than just a few years ago," Jennings says. "I have to focus more on people doing their first project-people who are just starting out and who aren't using their own equipment yet."
And though Jennings agrees that studios such as his are facing many of the same rate issues, he feels that since many small-studio owners went into studio ownership partly as a means to pursue their own musical ventures, he has perhaps more in common with upscale personal studios. Such studios have to constantly debate and fine-tune the balance between selling studio time and using it themselves. "This is a one-man operation, and I can probably continue to work as a studio, but I think I'll have to focus more on custom projects in the future, which is another way of saying, 'I want to become a producer,'" he says candidly. "You can book a 24-track studio out here for $15 per hour, so you can't compete on a dollar-per-track ratio. You have to come up with something else that blows people away, whether it's the sound or your production abilities."
Jennings and others also feel the same "arms race" effect-the need to lure clients with the latest gear-that has driven a few Nashville studios to and over the brink, and he shares their resentment. In the process, he points out that the magazines that serve the recording industry, including this one, often emphasize, as he puts it, "the latest and the greatest," over more affordable and traditional technologies. "The magazines seem to be driving the business in terms of technology," he says. "They can make it appear that if you don't have the latest and the greatest, you can't compete. That's a message that clients can get, too."
Many of Nashville's small and mid-tier facilities have been using local media to stimulate business, and ads in small music papers have been bringing indie gospel, CC and rock productions to Fatback Recording and Music Productions, but co-owner Chris Hugan says the studio is still getting more than half of its business from unsigned songwriters doing one-off demos. In a town like Nashville, the volume is there, particularly since major publishers have been paring rosters recently. But Hugan is aware that that type of demo is increasingly going into homes instead of studios. To counter that trend, he tries to work with songwriters to the point of advising them when it might make more sense for them to simply do piano/vocal demos to save money, but to do them on the 32-channel Soundtracs console in the studio to give them a quality edge.
In addition, the studio owns its building and leases half of it to an independent record company that has its own recording facility using Yamaha 02R consoles, allowing Fatback to offer its clients access to digital mixing and analog recording. He will also handle negotiations with musicians for sessions. But Hugan notes that every studio has to look for as many unique aspects as it can and then market them aggressively. "We have a great Hammond B-3, so sometimes people are just coming in to do organ overdubs," he says. "That's a kind of niche specialty, too."
While the mergers and acquisitions are getting much of the attention, Nashville's base remains rooted in the smaller studios that make up its mass. At a time when country music in particular and the music industry in general is consolidating, it's the resiliency of the troops in the trenches that will largely help determine what the future holds.
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