Three years ago, the pandemic temporarily turned Nashville recording studios into miniature ghost towns.
The business looks a whole lot different in 2023.
“Every engineer out of work in 2020 is so slammed now that they can’t take a vacation,” says producer Trent Willmon (Cody Johnson, Granger Smith). “I was talking to somebody — I can’t remember who said it — but booking a session, he said he called seven steel players before he found someone available. That means country music is badass, baby. Four years ago, all the steel players were just like, ‘Hey, man, you got any work?’ And now they’re just all overwhelmed.”
A year or two ago, the bulk of that workload would have been a result of artists bringing new material created during COVID-19 isolation to the studio. But the volume of recording work in Nashville hasn’t subsided since that first postcrisis wave, and it appears that another development from the pandemic era is behind the ongoing studio traffic.
Morgan Wallen’s Dangerous: The Double Album rode 30 tracks to a record-setting run atop Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, which reflects streaming and sales data compiled by Luminate. Following its success, now albums — which were typically 10 to 12 tracks in the past — have become much more robust. A dozen have hit No. 1 since the beginning of 2021, and only two have fit the historic range: Carrie Underwood’s 11-track holiday album, My Gift, and Luke Combs’ 12-track Growin’ Up, which was later revealed as the lead-in to the 18-track companion Gettin’ Old.
The rest of the No. 1 albums have spanned from Underwood’s 13-track gospel album, My Savior, to Wallen’s 36-track One Thing at a Time. Those larger albums obviously utilize more songs, but that also means they require more hours from the artist, producers, engineers, musicians and other crew members. Thus, the country studio business is booming.
“I’m busier than I’ve ever been in my life in terms of workload, and at the same time, it’s fewer artists,” says guitarist Derek Wells, one of country’s first-call studio players. “The reality is your big, premiere artists kind of gobble up weeks and weeks and weeks of your year. And there’s just no room left for some of the newer stuff. It’s not an unwillingness to do it, or lack of a desire to go be amongst some of those things. It’s just kind of first come, first serve.”
While supersized albums are an aggressive way to compete for chart superiority, they also serve as a digital-era method of satisfying artists’ superfans. The maturation of streaming has given consumers quicker access to music by their favorite artists for a set monthly price, rather than compelling them to buy albums. Artists’ biggest fans have always wanted more music. And with home studios and digital recording techniques providing more flexibility, it’s easier than ever to satisfy that hunger.
While the leading acts are supersizing albums, artists with smaller fan bases are releasing EPs with greater frequency, putting out more music than their predecessors often did at a similar career stage to satisfy their own strongest supporters’ demands. The combination of supersized albums and more frequent EPs is stretching the resources in Nashville.
“Work is definitely surging,” Nashville Musicians Union president Dave Pomeroy says. “We’ve more than gotten back to where we were before the pandemic, in terms of [recording contracts] we see coming through the building,”
That makes booking a recording session something of a Rubik’s cube. A producer’s top musician choices will likely not all be available at the same time for a session that wasn’t booked far in advance. That encourages even more overdubbing, with producers doing bare bones tracking dates and hiring musicians to layer on parts at home.
“A lot of the times I’m not doing a full session on my songs,” says Alana Springsteen, who co-produces her music. “We’ll start [recording] things in the room sometimes the day we write the song, I’ll lay down an acoustic, lay down a vocal, one of my co-writers might play the electric, and we’ll lay down a path. Sometimes it looks a little different than a traditional session.”
While it’s possible to record musicians one at a time, many artists still want to use a larger room with the players all working in unison. Many of the established studios have shuttered since 2000 as home recording increased, so now that recording is in a boom cycle, it’s increasingly difficult to find an available large studio. As a result, many individual tracks are recorded in three or four different locations, and a full album may be pieced together at six or more sites.
“It used to be when we’d do a record, if we did three or four different tracking days, it was all going to be in the same room,” says producer Frank Rogers (Scotty McCreery, Frank Ray). “At the end of the day, I put the players first, because if you have the right players, you can go and set up in a living room and still make a really good record. If you got the greatest studio in the world and C [grade] players, then it’s just not going to be what it needs to be.”
Chris Young found a previously untapped studio when he booked Sony Music Publishing’s upgraded facility for the master tracking session on his new single, “Young Love & Saturday Nights.” At the same time, he also has a home studio, and his output there is using engineer hours beyond the traditional venue. Multiply that phenomenon by dozens of artists, and the ramifications become much more apparent.
“It’s sort of insane,” Young says, hinting that his next album may be larger than a traditional project. “I have seven songs for my next record already. And part of it is, I try and write all the time when I’m home [from touring]. I usually write, every single year, 100 songs on top of what I find outside… I’m [taxing the system] a little bit.”
The engineering sector may be stretched thinner than every other area of production.
“With the ease of recording, everybody — half the songwriters in town, and every musician, every producer — is an engineer,” Rogers says. “But the ones who know how to track really, really well or know how to mix really, really well, there’s not a whole lot of them that are great. There’s a lot of good, there’s not much great, and so those guys are as busy as they’ve ever been.”
At the other end of the music chain, the increase in the number of tracks is stretching the infrastructure with radio and digital service providers (DSPs), too.
“There’s always too much music — it’s not manageable on any of the platforms,” says artist consultant John Marks, a former programmer for broadcast radio, satellite radio and Spotify. “Wherever you are today, you cannot manage that traffic, the amount of releases, regardless if you have an album of 12 tracks, or 36 tracks, or 50 tracks. Whatever it is, you are treading water in the ocean.”
The DSPs get thousands of new tracks every week, and while they can make educated guesses about what to playlist from new albums and -individual -singles, fans’ choices will ultimately require programming adjustments. Similarly, traditional country radio stations — which have drawn their playlists primarily from major labels — are increasingly auditioning songs from sources they would not have considered in the past, thanks to digital consumption.
“If Zach Bryan’s new song gets streamed 20 million times, why would I think that radio listeners wouldn’t feel the same way about the song if they were exposed to it?” Cumulus vp of country formats Charlie Cook says. “So then it’s incumbent on me to expose it. When you get 20 million streams on Oliver Anthony or 13 million on Tyler Childers, why am I smarter than them? I’m not.”
Traditional radio still plays one song at a time, no skips, so instead of trying to satisfy every artist’s superfans, its business still requires identifying the songs that fit the widest number of individual tastes. Even if it means sifting through more music to play the same number of songs.
“It’s radio’s opportunity to find the strongest songs and play the heck out of them,” Cook says. “We had a liner for a while that said, ‘We’ll cut through everything that’s out there and find the best music for you.’ And I think that has now become radio’s position.”
The new, longer albums are likely to continue as the artists, and the media that exposes their music, attempt to superserve their most ardent fan base.
“I think it will last, and it will permeate the lower rungs of artistry,” Marks says. “Really, the only way to get to your fans these days is a continual release pattern, keeping in front of your audience and not letting them rest. Listeners and fans want more of whatever they’re finding, and they want it now.”