Cooper-Young Studio Wants to Elevate Memphis Music
Is Memphis music getting the attention it deserves locally and nationally?
Discussion at Young-Avenue Sound about why Memphis doesn't have a stronger music community.
By Ashli Blow/MicroMemphis Reporter
Sitting between two mixing boards in the low lighting of his purple studio, Young-Avenue Sound manager, Nil Jones, expressed concern for the Memphis music community.
Jones said Memphis has raw talent like no other city he has worked in before. And after working in New Orleans and New York and for labels like Cash Money, record label founded by brothers Bryan "Birdman" Williams and Ronald "Slim" Williams, he should know.
"(In other cities) you have people that can be trained to be good, but in Memphis you have people that are just good. Just straight out of their house, good,” Jones said.
"And it makes for a better feel for a record. Those people, the musicians, the artist, the writers, the producers, who are part of the music community (should be in this studio). That's the downside of Memphis. There is no real music community here that has cohesiveness to it."
Ari Morris, a Young Avenue Sound engineering intern, said the biggest issue with the Memphis music community is that people won’t go to local shows.
“I’m not sure why people won’t come to shows. We have so much talent and you could go to it any night, but I have buddies who play sold out venues in New York, but here you just can’t get more than 50 people to show up sometimes,” he said.
Down the street at Goner Records, co-owner Zac Ives and manager John Hoppe think Memphis already has a strong music community. Goner Records has been recognized as one of the top vinyl record shops in the country and is a record label for local and international artists - mostly punk.
“In every bar in Midtown, and even the suburbs now, every night there is live music. We definitely have a music scene,” Hoppe said as he pulled a James Brown vinyl off a record player to sell to a customer.
He mentioned the Memphis music community may be lacking in variety, perhaps, but is a strong environment overall. Co-owner Ives said that currently Harlan T. Bobo and Jack Oblivian are on tour in Europe, which is expanding its trans-Atlantic influence among the music community. He agrees that the music scene in Memphis is strong, however music sales are lacking.
Jones said he believed a major label office in the city would boost Memphis music business. He said Memphis is losing musical talent regularly because artists feel they have to go outside the city to succeed.
"There is a stigma with Memphis music, as far as music business. I was talking to a friend and he is a vice-president of a major label and he was like, 'It's the business of music in Memphis that is the problem.'
"For instance rap, why would any other city that had Triple Six Mafia, 8ball and MJG, Yo Gotti, Al Kapone, and at the time Kia Shine. All of these people with major label deals and there is not one major label office in that city. It's unheard of," Nil said.
There is always the possibility of having a major label come to Memphis, according to Johnnie Walker, executive director of Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission, but she doesn't see it happening any time soon.
“Anything is possible, but the state the industry is in ... (a major label) is not going to just move here or put in an office because it is a nice thing to do,” she said.
“The labels here do not have the infrastructure to push songs on the radio, or in magazine, or put them on tour. There is not enough visibility or local interest to stimulate these artist sales. They are struggling. So the industry is not going to come here if Memphis isn’t selling anything."
The Young Avenue 'Sound'
It's hard to put on a finger on the type of music Young Avenue Sound makes. Morris said that the studio serves as a melting pot in the Memphis community, recording a rich and distinct variety of sounds.
“We do every style of music from gospel, gangster rap, jazz, we even cover electronic music. We are a studio that will service anything,” he said
Mixing a variety of music in one studio is how Young Avenue Sound claims it is strengthening the music community. The studio has even partnered with a public relations firm, Signal Flow, to create recognition for local artists. The PR office is located just above the recording studio.
What Young Avenue Sound is contributing to the local music community is exactly what locals artists need: more exposure and support.
But it could always use more, according to Laura Mitchell, a local bass player for a honkey-tonk band called Swamp Donkey.
“I think that Memphis has an extremely strong music community, we just need the music to be readily available and accessible like a central music website. We have Live From Memphis, but again it just needs more exposure,” she said.
What is Young-Avenue Sound?
A facility quietly located on the corner of New York and Young is making some noise in the Cooper-Young community as it records some of the most prominent musicians and rap artists in Memphis.
Donald Mann and current Memphis Music Foundation director Cameron Mann founded Young Avenue Sound in 2001 to house their label, Memphis Records. Cameron Mann said that they chose Cooper-Young to put a studio because it was where the local artists lived and worked.
“Memphis has a history in great music tradition. We wanted to continue this tradition with deals with local artist with a realistic possibility of helping them realize there potential. Having a locally grown label and a strong mission would advance the tradition in the city,” he said.
The business dropped the label during a financial downturn and transitioned into strictly a production studio.
“The early 2000s was a very difficult transition period for the music business to land a new label. We had three artists on the label for a short period of time. And then we quickly realized how expensive it became to be a label. We decided it was better to use those recourses to be a production company, carrying awesome music producers and helping artists create good records, and just letting them do what they want to do.”
Nil Jones just took the management position at the studio following the death of former manager Skipp McQuinn.
Jones says that Young-Avenue Sound is again in a transitional period and is working on creating another label for the studio. He said gathering the right sound and networks will make it a long process. Right now he is more focused on how he can help Memphis create the music community it needs.
What's the Future of Young-Avenue Sound?
Sharing the woes of struggling musicians, production companies are also beginning to struggle due to the ease and convenience of home recording technology. Cameron Mann hopes to see Young-Avenue Sound survive but says it will be a challenge.
“In a studio that size, overhead can be difficult to cover, and the past few years have been splotchy. Now any kid can go into Guitar Center and create a small studio in his garage. The competition against a 15-year-old that thinks he is a pro didn’t used to be a problem,” he said.
"But, if he is only charging like $75 an hour or something like that, it becomes an economic choice. I would be happy to see if we could see some government funding and partner up to become a non-profit organization.”
Young Avenue Sound, though, has a leg-up on such entrepreneurs -- after all, it's competing against amateurs with technology you simply can't put in your mother's basement. For example, the studio runs on a 60/120 technical power grid. That means the building runs on two different circuits, so there is not interference coming in like a buzz from when you plug in a lamp. It keeps the sound as clean and clear as possible.
Nil Jones said they have recorded artist from Yo Gotti to Disney Channel Stars like Tiffany Thornton. He said the biggest way they get people in the studio is word of mouth, as engineers and producers that come through tell others in the industry about the studio.