If you’re looking for peace and quiet, the best place to find it right now might be at a Nashville recording studio.
There are no pounding kick drums, no screeching guitar solos and no singers belting out the high notes. The mics are turned off, the rooms are empty, and the music is in hibernation, waiting for the COVID-19 pandemic to pass over.
Some of the city’s largest studios closed their doors even before Nashville shut down nonessential businesses with a safer-at-home order that took effect March 23. And most are likely to remain quiet until June at the earliest, though the lack of a concrete national plan has left owners and studio managers in an uncomfortable limbo.
“The worst part is not knowing,” says Blackbird Studio owner John McBride, whose facility has hosted sessions for the likes of Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney and Jon Pardi. “Obviously, it’s not in any of our control, and that’s frustrating, you know. Normally, you feel like you have a little bit of control over what’s going on in your life.”
Blackbird locked its doors on March 12 or 13 as the virus’ impact began to take over the public consciousness across the globe. Overseas clients, nervous about contracting the novel coronavirus on airplane flights or in hotel rooms, had begun canceling sessions.
At the Black River’s Sound Stage Studios — which have held sessions for Miranda Lambert, George Strait and Dan + Shay – numerous players called nervously the morning after Music Row discovered that a prominent manager had tested positive for COVID-19 after attending a 15-minute meeting at Black River’s nonstudio wing. In short order, the company canned a program that allowed tourists to view live recording dates, and Sound Stage sessions went dormant on March 17.
Ocean Way — which has counted Garth Brooks, Dierks Bentley and 5 Seconds of Summer among its clients — held one final session on March 16, keeping the place open to accommodate a two-and-a-half-hour commercial session for ad executives who flew in from out of town. Bassist Mike Brignardello and keyboardist Steve Nathan brought in sanitizer to safeguard their work areas, director of operations Pat McMakin recalls.
The closure has been brutal. Built in a converted church, Ocean Way’s Studio A is a former sanctuary, ideal for orchestras, and April and May are key months for recording the soundtracks to video games that will be released in the fall. The studio lost weeks of business, and McMakin doesn’t believe those video-game sessions can be replaced.
That said, the safety of musicians is a higher priority than revenue, and an orchestral session is ripe for the spread of germs. Maintaining safe conditions had already grown difficult before the closure.
“We had one person whose full-time job was cleaning any surface that somebody would touch on their break,” says McMakin. “You might have 50 people in the room at the same time, and they all take a break. A coffee maker, a coffeepot, every door where there’s a push panel, every restroom — we just had people kind of constantly sanitizing to do our best to keep the environment as clean as we could.”
The closures quite possibly saved a few music industry lives. The coronavirus has claimed John Prine and Joe Diffie, and artists such as Kalie Shorr, Asleep at the Wheel‘s Ray Benson and former Lost Trailers vocalist Stokes Nielson have contracted it too.
After initial reports that the coronavirus was likely to fall quickly to surfaces, researchers are suggesting it can also be transmitted through breathing or speaking. The threat is compounded in studios by the deep breaths associated with singing. That makes microphones — particularly ones with foam windscreens — a real danger to the creative community, especially for singers who prefer to get up close to the mic.
“Those things are nasty,” says Sound Stage Studios general manager Nick Autry, adding that in current conditions, metal windscreens are preferable: “We have several of those, and they’re easy. You can just take a Clorox cloth or a Lysol wipe and you can wipe them down when you’re done, and they don’t hold the moisture or whatever comes out of people’s mouth.”
The shutdown came at an already uneasy time for studios. With the spread of cheaper technology, most producers, artists and musicians have the ability to record at home, particularly for vocal work or overdub sessions that only require one or two players. In recent months, two studios that had long held a spot on Music Row closed: the Warner Bros. studio (where Lady Antebellum cut “Need You Now”) and The Tracking Room (U2, Willie Nelson). The other large Nashville recording sites, such as RCA Studio A and Starstruck, are likely to pick up extra bookings because of it, but losing those two created additional concern about the future of the studio business, which is key to Nashville’s growth as a music capital.
“I’m not nervous about large studios going away,” says Autry of the shuttering of the Warner Bros. studio and The Tracking Room. “I think we’re finally finding the balance of home studio versus commercial studio. But it’s hard for me to even talk about it, to be honest with you. It makes me emotional because I’ve made friends with these people for a dozen years and then they don’t have a job anymore. And I’m not going to have The Tracking Room to run down and get a cable, or help him if he needs something. For years, I’ve been trading here with these people.”
The economic toll of the coronavirus-induced shutdown is large. McBride was filling out applications for the federal government’s small-business bailout program when he talked to Billboard, hoping to keep all the employees for Blackbird and its adjunct educational program, Blackbird Academy, on a payroll that exceeds $1.5 million annually.
Sound Stage has only two full-time employees, and though Autry is attempting to find extra work for some of the freelance engineers he uses, plenty of artists have put a hold on overdubs or mixing sessions since their own incomes are up in the air.
By the time studios unlock their doors, the recording business could be bustling, since postponed sessions from April, May and possibly June will have to be sandwiched into the regular run of bookings. Ocean Way, owned by Belmont University, expects some additional bills when it reopens; the increased traffic will come with heightened expectations of cleanliness.
“We’re dealing in this unknown as far as when to reopen, and then when we do reopen, when is it safe to have 50 people in the room?” asks McMakin rhetorically. “So I’m looking at air-duct cleaning, I’m looking at UV sanitizing [devices], I’m looking at any option I can find to sort of sterilize the room on a regular basis to give people a sense of comfort when they do return. Because I think when we start returning, all of us are going to be a little freaked out.”
For now, the studios are unusually peaceful, but it’s a quiet engulfed by the uncertainty of the COVID-19 era. How does the expensive studio business, already under siege from cheap technology, navigate the temporary sound of silence?
“Do you look at a three-month window or do you look at a six-month window?” says McBride. “Those are two different things.”
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