The Case for Preserving Nashville’s Music Row
The recent sale of the building that is home to RCA's historic Studio A has touched off a new round of debate about preserving Nashville's Music Row district.
Studio A was founded in 1964 by Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley, two top Nashville guitarists who were among the chief architects of the Nashville Sound. The space has been home to recordings from artists including Lyle Lovett, Ronnie Milsap, Willie Nelson, the Oak Ridge Boys, Vince Gill, Faith Hill, Alan Jackson, Josh Turner, Carrie Underwood, Lee Ann Womack, Hank Williams, Jr., Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves and the Beach Boys, among many others.
It's all well and good to argue about preserving the rich musical history of a genre, but as we've seen again and again, that position is only going to last until the day somebody offers you millions of dollars for an old building.
The ensuing debate breaks down along two basic lines. On one side are music historians and preservationists who argue that Nashville's musical heritage must be maintained, and on the other are those who feel that new development spells greater economic prosperity for Music City.
First off, kudos to the estates and descendants of Atkins and Bradley for doing their best to keep the building alive. They’ve owned the property all these years and could have at any point closed it up or mowed it down. Sadly, it’s what happens in the name of progress. Studio A, which turns 50 years old next year, has a rich history.
Most of us know about Studio B. Studio A was its grander younger sibling, erected by Atkins when he became an RCA executive. The result was an orchestral room built to record strings for Elvis Presley and to entice international stars to record in one of these four Putnam-designed RCA spaces in the world. The other three RCA studios of the same dimensions – built in LA, Chicago and New York – have long since been shut down. I can’t tell you how many engineers, producers and musicians have walked into this space to share their stories of the great classic recorded music made here that put Nashville on the map.
To this day, Studio A remains a viable, relevant and vibrant space ... While we Nashvillians can feel proud about the overall economic progress and prosperity we’re enjoying, we know it’s not always so kind to historical spaces, or to the legacy and foundation upon which that prosperity was built.
Historic RCA Studio A is too much a part of why such incredible business opportunities exist in 2014 in Nashville to simply disappear. Music City was built on the foundation of ideas, and of music. What will the Nashville of tomorrow look like if we continue to tear out the heart of the Music Row that made us who we are as a city? Ultimately, who will want to build new condos in an area that has no central community of ideas or creatives?
Keith Urban also weighed in on the preservation of Music Row, saying, “The past, present and the future are ALL still here -- but the Row is currently under threat from developers. Nashville has exploded as a music town, and not just country music. Musicians from all genres, all over the world are making the pilgrimage here to immerse themselves in the kind of creative center that so many other cities have lost but that Nashville still maintains.”
He added, “Nashville’s growth is exciting, but not at the risk of losing the creative epicenter that is Music Row and that truly makes Nashville Music City. I sincerely hope that those who have made Nashville their home over the years, and those who have recently discovered our fair city, will come together as a united front and continue to be vocal about preserving and fortifying our beloved Music Row.”
But there are definitely some in Nashville's business community who don't see it that way, including Owen Bradley's brother, Harold, who is himself a legendary musician and Country Music Hall of Fame member. It was partly his decision to sell the building housing Studio A.
"What makes a place historic?" Bradley wrote in a letter of his own. "The architecture of the Nashville sound was never of brick and mortar. 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 ... 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."
Perhaps the argument preservationists have been making about keeping musical legacies intact is the wrong one. Maybe the real argument for preservation is, in fact, a purely financial one.
While the various points of view about musical and historical legacies are apt, they might also be a bit naive. It's all well and good to argue about preserving the rich musical history of a genre, but as we've seen again and again, that position is only going to last until the day somebody offers you millions of dollars for an old building. Then it suddenly changes, naturally enough.
There's also been talk of possibly declaring some of the older buildings on Music Row as historical markers so they can't be sold, which brings up another interesting debate: How can you tell someone who owns a building that they actually can't sell it? It's a thorny set of issues, and it's really only human nature that the decisions are mostly going to come down to dollars and cents.
Seen in that light, perhaps the argument preservationists have been making about keeping musical legacies intact is the wrong one. Maybe the real argument for preservation is, in fact, a purely financial one.
Because Music Row is so centralized, it affords producers and recording artists the opportunity to work with an efficiency that is unparalleled in any other major music hub.
"Everything is extremely efficient here, and it's very contained in a very small part [of town]. Go to L.A. or New York, and they have the great technology and great musicians there, too, but it's so spread out," Tracy Lawrence pointed out in an interview in 2012.
"You can go to Music Row and go to a state-of-the-art recording studio, get on the phone and hire some of the most qualified, versatile musicians in the world, some of the best engineers with the best technology on the planet. Some of the best songwriters, the best gear. You can call a cartage company and, in 15 minutes, have anything that you require, from old technology and tube effects to digital technology if you want to record on an analog reel machine, or you want to do everything in Pro Tools," he added.
"Anything that you want is a phone call away and can be in your studio in 15 minutes, with somebody qualified to run it as fast as it's capable of being run," Lawrence continues. "And I don't think you can find that pretty much anywhere else in the world."
That's been an irreplaceable part of the success of Nashville's recording industry, which not only relies on country music, but also draws many top rock, pop and even rap acts to town. If we start tearing down studios and replacing them with structures that are not related to the music business, as could potentially happen with RCA Studio A, we're messing not just with the past, but with Nashville's financial future, too. If we lose more and more of that vital centralization, we'll also lose more and more of the reason top acts travel to record in Nashville, providing an influx of capital to the local economy.
Let's not forget tourism, which is another key element of Nashville's economy. RCA Studio B has long been open to the public as a preserved tourist site -- something that musician and producer Trey Bruce hopes is still possible for Studio A.
We're messing not just with the past, but with Nashville's financial future, too.
Bruce is one of the founders of the Save Studio A campaign, a group that sprang up in response to the sale of Studio A. They have undertaken their own independent assessment of the building, which they plan to release next week. Bruce says he hopes that if the new report shows the building to be in better shape than previously believed, it will inspire some cultural or philanthropic group to step forward and become interested in renovating and preserving the space.
“We come in peace,” Bruce tells the Nashville Business Journal. “If Studio A were to go through the renovation it needs … it’s going to bring value to Music Row."
That certainly seems like a more sensible financial option than putting in an office building while simultaneously losing an iconic studio space. The reality is this: People might very well travel great distances to visit the site of some of the most iconic recording sessions of the last century, but they won't come from miles around to visit the new building that houses document archives or a Starbucks.
Bravo Development head Tim Reynolds has said that he is still open to selling the building to anyone interested in preserving it, but will move forward with demolition plans if nobody comes forward with an offer by the end of the month. That leaves the future of Studio A up in the air for the moment, but one thing is clear: No matter what happens with Studio A, as more and more young professionals seek to live near downtown Nashville, more developers are going to keep offering more money for more old Music Row landmarks. The fight over preservation is one that is far from over.
Where do you stand on this issue? Sound off in the comments section below.