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Off The Record

Music & Recording Industry News By Dan Daley
Published January 2014

The line between recording studio and museum is blurring — but the rules on branding remain.

Vinyl resurgence; surprisingly good classic-rock tribute bands on tour; Live Nation buying and burnishing the old Fillmore live-venue brand; the pining for music's past seems like it's in full swing. But, as they say on the commercials, wait — there's more.

Recording studios are increasingly part of this noisome nostalgia. In Nashville, the classic RCA Studio B has been through various incarnations, most recently as the base for artist/producer Ben Folds, while still serving as a museum, as well as a classroom for students from nearby Belmont University. Studio B, which was built in 1956 for then-RCA chief executive and producer Chet Atkins, was recently joined by the Norman Petty Recording Studio, Nashville. Petty, of course, was the producer for Buddy Holly's big hits and very early Roy Orbison records. The fact that his studio was actually in Clovis, New Mexico might tarnish the authenticity of this Music City iteration of it, but that's countered by the fact that the studio owner who is converting one of his existing rooms at 16 Ton Studios into a working shrine to Petty is doing so with the cooperation of the Norman Petty estate. In fact, the original Petty studio, circa 1953, is still remarkably intact back in Clovis, where it's operated as a museum by the estate. But by creating a satellite outpost in Nashville, the estate is making that history a bit more accessible than its home in a relatively small town a little over 200 miles from Albuquerque.

Access All Areas

That trade-off is indicative of a sentimentality tempered by convenience that characterises much of the trend. The hardcore among us will go for 180-gram virgin vinyl played on a $2000 Thorens turntable, but most seem happy with classic LPs recovered from thrift shops played on a $200 Panasonics player, equipped with USB ports that will turn a record into an MP3, scratches, skips and all. The acquisition of the rights to the venerable CBGB's name over a year ago means you could, for a fee, attend a music conference and festival of the same name a couple of months ago in New York and sit among some of the actual artifacts salvaged from the original club by its namesake's new owners — but without having to put up with the mutant-bacterial wonderland of the old club's one-room toilet.

Well Curated

But bringing a classic recording studio back from the past isn't so simply accomplished, and may be far more nuanced. First, there is the issue of authenticity and provenance. Is there a direct and legitimate connection between the new iteration and the original, and is there enough 'plumbing' to regard it as a true recreation of the original? For instance, the new Norman Petty studio will have the imprimatur of the Petty name, but the original console will remain in Clovis; the Nashville console will be locally sourced, though of similar vintage.

Next, is it intended to be a working facility, a shrine, a museum, or some combination of the three? Both Electric Ladyland Studios in New York and The Hit Factory/Criteria Studios in Miami have unbroken operating lineages. Others have made themselves into recogniseable brands, like Abbey Road in London and Ocean Way, which is now also a brand of high-end loudspeakers. Some do exist solely as museums, like the studio at the Motown Museum in Detroit, where the level of curation extends down to a pack of Chesterfields leaning on the console, rescued from a cigarette machine that had been walled up in a tiled bathroom that had been made into an echo chamber. Others, like Sun Studios in Memphis, are museums by day and working studios by night, satisfying both commercial and musical needs. The Sausalito outpost of the Record Plant, where Fleetwood Mac recorded Rumours and Stevie Wonder cut parts of Songs In The Key Of Life, has been vacant since 2008 and is in danger of being razed. But a group of local high-school students are trying to keep the wrecking ball at bay and turn it into a community centre and museum. There are even studios that have assumed otherwise recognisable brands, such as the House Of Blues Studios that Gary Belz operates, under a license from those who own the trademark for the chain of venues.

All About The Brand

What I've yet to see is the studio equivalent of the museum store — that alluring emporium just before the exit where museums hope to convince you to take a little bit of your experience home with you, for a price. The T-shirt and the coffee mug have long been tokens that studios bestow on favoured clients, but as some studio brands enter the realm of the iconic, those souvenirs can take on heightened value. I still have my Record Plant NYC T-shirt, circa 1980, a Criteria Studios shirt from before The Hit Factory merger, and others that certainly have sentimental value but almost certainly some financial value too, as a quick troll of eBay reveals (the Criteria shirts are up at around $150 each). CBGB's T-shirts are now regularly reissued, legitimately licensed and otherwise, and iconic brand names from music's golden years have, in some cases, become some rather valuable kitsch.

The point isn't that studios should open gift shops (though at the actual museum ones it makes sense), but rather that studios should be more aware of the value of their brands. If people can make the connection between a band and where they performed, they can certainly do the same for where they made their records. Abbey Road is an extreme and singular example of that, but studios from Gold Star to Muscle Shoals to Sound City have been profiled in recent documentaries that put their brands into the necessary contexts for recognition and valuation. In a kind of reverse of what's been happening with recorded music, why give it away if someone will give you money for it? The value of well-established recording studios isn't limited only to the people who use them. So maybe building a gift shop at the end of the hall isn't right for you. But making sure your brand is out there beyond its usual comfort zone definitely is.