Everyone can agree that the old way of making records — bloated budgets, crazy-big studios and huge staffs — is over. What has everyone still scratching their heads is what to do next, how to do it, and how to make a living in the process. One local studio is offering a much-needed antidote for the next generation of gearheads and audio geeks still looking to carve a path making records. Their solution? Get down to brass tacks and start treating the art of recording music like a business again, not an ethereal world of myth and make-believe.
That studio is Welcome to 1979, an independent operation in west Nashville known for its affection for vintage gear (hence the name), which hosts its second Annual Recording Summit this weekend. The three-day event brings top-tier engineers and producers together to shine their flashlights directly onto the dark art of cutting records in today's industry, offering panels, workshops and, of course, the chance to press the flesh with pro gear designers and Grammy-winning recordists. But with its focus on the nitty-gritty of how to stay afloat in a shiftless studio landscape, it's not a schmooze-fest. It's more like everything you ever wanted to learn from your R.I.M. degree but were afraid to ask — plus, you can skip the biology labs.
Mining a healthy vein between the artists who DIY it in a bedroom and the increasingly obsolete breed of big-time commercial recording facilities are mid-level guys like conference organizer (and Welcome to 1979 owner) Chris Mara, who now more than ever are forced to invent new identities amid the fallout. There's no one surefire model for how to do that, but Mara's conference follows the national vibe of taking a more intimate, grassroots approach to the problem. He offers a rare chance to pull back the curtain on the process for the average recording student or mid-level studio owner, with a shrewder focus on the moneymaking and day-to-day hassles — what he calls the "non-sexy aspects" of the business.
"There's this sense that if you're a professional recording engineer, then I can't even talk to you," says Mara. "Or you must have this mansion on a hill and it must all be awesome. My main goal with this summit was just to break down that image."
And that is where the summit really earns its keep — with the down-and-dirty dish on the ins and outs of setting rates, invoicing and attracting business. In other words, it addresses how to get in the door and how to get paid — two questions that many graduates of a multi-year recording school still can't answer.
Though the conference has the more hands-on air of a trade-school curriculum — there's a 90-minute session that consists of writing, performing and recording a song on the fly — it's also attracted to its panels seasoned minds such as indie recording guru Larry Crane, who's worked with the late Elliott Smith, Sleater-Kinney and M. Ward, to name a few. Crane also has been collecting tales from the trenches for over a decade in the pages of his venerable magazine Tape Op, which has become an essential field manual for recording enthusiasts. (His "End Rant" columns — always direct and forceful, and occasionally hilarious — should be required reading for all aspiring studio rats.) Crane sees a steady influx of engineers and artists taking recording matters into their own hands, rather than shelling out for a top-name facility, all so they can control the overhead.
"People have to be able to move with the times," Crane says. "Now you see people with lower budgets, and the studios need to learn to work with that or go away. I get kind of brutal about it sometimes, but it's like, 'I'm sorry, I've never worked anywhere that costs $1,200 dollars a day.' No client of mine has ever had the money to pay for that. I've sat in on sessions like that. They make me nervous when all you've gotten done is a couple of overdubs, and you've spent $1,200 dollars to rent the space."
For Mara's purposes — only 60 seats are open to the public, at $150 a pop — it's this kind of direct discourse that will breed fruitful discussions on the new order: how to sit at the mixing console every day and still keep the lights on. (A listening party to check out Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon in quad — the original four-speaker surround format it was meant to be heard in — is extra icing on an already sweet cake.)
Or as Crane puts it, "The thing is getting people together and letting them talk. People will be in the corners just gabbing away. It's not a rock-star event, and not a who's-got-the-most-gold-records-or-nominations event. It's just people talking shop and helping each other out — that's kinda cool."
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