Historic studios might hold emotional value for us, but they are, after all, still only buildings.
Ben Folds, the eclectic artist, composer and producer, has been ensconced in RCA Studio A in Nashville for the last dozen years. A robust relic, Studio A was built by producers Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins in 1957, as a kind of bunker that would keep country music production firmly planted in Nashville, at a time when the country divisions of major labels often had their strings pulled by headquarters in New York.
Folds has rented Studio A since 2003, at first as his own place to work and since 2008 also as a for–hire studio facility. It must have always seemed a tentative arrangement, based on what are now dozens of three–month leases with the landlord estates of Bradley and Atkins (which still own the building). A lot of great music has come out of Studio A, with artists like Don Gibson and Jerry Reed, through to Kacey Musgraves and Amanda Palmer recording there, but its future has become even more unsure in recent months. As Nashville’s residential real–estate market has heated up, the building housing it became the target of a condo developer. As pressure mounted on the Bradley and Atkins estates to sell, Folds posted an appeal to save the historic studio on his web site, on what would have been Chet Atkins’ 90th birthday.
It worked. The developer agreed to make an effort to keep the studio intact within whatever new residential structure he would erect, and to pull the plug on the entire project if that couldn’t be done. But Studio A’s saga may be ending sooner than Folds would care to acknowledge. This raises a fundamental question that music production will face more frequently in coming years: where does heritage end and history begin?
New York’s RCA Studios shuttered in 1993, long before anyone had ever heard of Napster. What felled it, along with several other major studios in the 1980s and ‘90s, were real–estate plays. As an island, Manhattan is especially sensitive to the scarcity of land, and even during the go–go decades of the late 20th century, when lucrative major–label deals were ubiquitous, music was no match for finance, medicine, academia and other big–money tenants. London experienced its own version of this syndrome, on Denmark Street, where music publishers and recording studios mushroomed along what became known as ‘London’s Tin Pan Alley,’ among them Regent Sound and the eponymous Tin Pan Alley Studios, London’s oldest.
Media Sound and The Hit Factory are now condo buildings; the old RCA Studios became offices, and even today the real–estate flu is still taking its toll: Masterdisk’s multi–room facility downsized and moved to smaller quarters this year. There’s little left on Denmark Street to suggest what went on there, save a round, blue plaque. Now, as the economy shakes off the Great Recession, and demand for housing rises, market forces are drawing a bead on Music Row, and RCA Studio A with it. In fact, migration away from the Row has already begun: Sony Music’s Nashville headquarters were just purchased by nearby Vanderbilt University, and the label has decamped to the Gulch, one of a number of previously dingy neighbourhoods that in recent years have sprouted glistening condo towers and upmarket shops. Music Row, meanwhile, despite a small but ardent groundswell of support for some kind of historical overlay to preserve it, is becoming to Nashville what Bourbon Street has become to New Orleans — a tired tourist attraction.
There are scores of studios around the world that can assert historical significance. Do all of them need to be preserved, as either museums or working facilities? Harold Bradley — the brother of Owen and himself regarded as the most recorded session guitarist ever — sent his own letter the Nashville city council. In it, he cited the famous Quonset Hut (built by he and Owen in 1954) as deserving of legacy protection. Bradley, now 88, also contended that nostalgia shouldn’t be a part of this: the entire building housing Studio A, which also was RCA Records’ Nashville HQ for decades, was always intended as a financial hedge for the owners’ families, he said, built way before Garth Brooks or Taylor Swift money hit the Row, and a place they’ve been trying to sell for a quarter of a century. “This was business,” Bradley wrote. Owen said, “One day we might not have anything, but if we buy this property and build this office building, we can at least have something to sell.’”
In fact, Bradley went on to say something that might rattle Sound City documentarian Dave Grohl: “The architecture of the Nashville sound was never of brick and mortar,” Bradley opined. “Certainly, there are old studio spaces that, in our imaginations, ring with sonic magic; but in truth, it’s not the room; it’s the music... Music City isn’t about making a perfect room, or hanging just the right baffling. Turns out, the architecture of Nashville’s evolving sound is a synergy of creative energy. That’s still here, and it has nothing to do with this building.”
For the sellers, the property’s value is the reward for 60 years’ worth of foresight and risk taking. For Folds and others, it’s an affordable acoustical oasis at a time when visceral economic realities are putting the space needed to roll out a 20Hz wave in jeopardy. But the Atkins estate, and the Bradleys, are no mere opportunists — Music Row and the Nashville music business as we know it arguably wouldn’t have existed at all without them. Meanwhile, music gets successfully made in a wider variety of environments than ever before. The scene won’t miss one more conventional space. And it begs a larger question: does music production need another museum, working or otherwise? For better or for worse, apparently, it does need more condominiums.