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Hanging On To Our Heritage

Over the past few weeks, a brouhaha rose up on Nashville’s Music Row, spilling over into the worldwide audio community.

Frank Wells Over the past few weeks, a brouhaha rose up on Nashville’s Music Row, spilling over into the worldwide audio community. At issue is the fate of the former RCA Studio A, until recently also known as Ben’s Studio and currently branded as Grand Victor Studios in homage to the facility’s rich history. The “Ben” in question is, of course, musician Ben Folds, who has rented the studio for 10 years, opening it for commercial use in more recent times. Property on Music Row is selling at a premium, and RCA A has been for sale for 20-plus years, according to the legendary Harold Bradley, the guitar player and producer who built the room with his brother and Chet Atkins, the families still sharing ownership to this day.

After receiving a letter that informed him the building was in the process of being purchased, Folds wrote an impassioned open letter calling for the facility to be spared. “Historic RCA Studio A is too much a part of why such incredible business opportunities exist in 2014 in Nashville to simply disappear,” he wrote. “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?” The developer responded, saying that if protecting the studio could not be worked into the plans for the site, the purchase process would end. The Bradley and Atkins families responded to Folds letter and the social media uproar with their own letter, saying in part: “What makes a place historic? 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.”

At issue for the family is their financial investment—with the sale reportedly valued at $4.5 million. The rights of property holders cannot be swept aside.

Folds and the building owners do agree that Music City was built on, well, music. But while the Bradley and Atkins families see the building itself as what a builder friend refers to as “just bricks and sticks,” others see hallowed ground where legends have walked and history was made. There is significant history in the building, including the design by Bill Putnam—it’s the last standing of four RCA studios built on his concepts. The late Phil Ramone cut strings in the studio a few years back, and elicited a promise that the managers would try and preserve the room. Folds has pondered how to keep the facility a working studio while also opening it up to increased public exposure.

After his open letter, the music community rallied behind Folds, with over 200 attending a Save Studio A rally that became a Save Music Row rally (see our cover photo). Much of Music Row’s historic infrastructure has fallen to the wrecking ball, with condos springing up all over. Curb Records owner Mike Curb has personally saved many of these facilities, including a leaseback of the 34 Music Square East property to Belmont University (where the original Quonset Hut studio built by the Bradleys has been restored), the Masterfonics building (leased to Masterfonics Mastering and Loud Recording) and Oceanway Nashville, where his donation allowed Belmont to purchase the facility. But one man can’t do it all.

The city of Nashville is typically hesitant to impose historical protection overlays without property owners’ consent. And while substantial rent has been paid and leasehold improvements made, the tenants of the building have few rights, and the owners’ rights are not to be trivialized. Without a magic bag of cash, it’s hard to see where these facilities will be preserved in the long run, except through benevolence on the part of any new owners.

All that said, it would be a crying shame to see Studio A and more of Music Row fall.