Ben Folds vs. Harold Bradley – The Fight to Save Studio ‘A’ Heats Up

ben-folds-owen-bradley-001It appears historic Studio ‘A’ in Nashville’s Music Row district is not safe after all.

It all began when musician Ben Folds, who has rented Studio ‘A’ for the last 12 years, received notification that the building that houses Studio ‘A’ might be sold. Concerned that the property located at 30 Music Square West would be bulldozed and developed, Folds wrote an impassioned open letter hoping to drive sentiment to save and preserve the studio as a historic place. On Friday (6-27), it appeared that effort may have succeeded. Developer Tim Reynolds of Bravo Development, who was the party looking to buy the property, told The Nashville Scene, “We’re glad to [say] that if Bravo Development consummates its sale, it is our full intention to preserve and incorporate the studio into our design … It was always part of the plan.”

It looked like the crisis for Studio ‘A’ had been averted, and a Studio ‘A’ rally that transpired Monday morning in the historic spot turned out to be less about saving Studio ‘A’, and more about saving many of Music Row’s historic buildings and properties by asking the City of Nashville to designate the area as a historic district.

Now the current owners of the building, specifically the Trusts of the families of Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley who built the building in 1964, and Bradley’s brother, guitar player and Country Music Hall of Famer Harold Bradley, have written a letter to the Nashville Metro City Council members, and the Metro’s head of planning, zoning and development which held a meeting on Tuesday night.

“Historically, Metro Council has been hesitant to grant restrictive overlays without the consent of the land owner,” the letter says (read in full below). “When a tenant, with no ownership in the property, requests restrictions to a property without the owners’ consent, he effectively hijacks the owners’ original risk and the possibility of a good return on their investment. The Atkins and Bradley families have skin in the game as property owners, and Mr. Folds would ask them to just walk away. An overlay for the entire area would be a downzoning of the worst order, diminishing value almost immediately, and potentially stymieing future creative endeavors.”

Harold Bradley also questions why Ben Folds or others who want to preserve Studio ‘A’ did not purchase the property, which Bradley says has been for sale for the last 24 years. He also questioned whether Elvis Presley ever recorded in the space, as had been alleged by Ben Folds.

And then Ben Folds fired back, saying, The owners’ asking price has been $4.4 million for the whole property (it’s valued by local govt at $2.4 million) not to be divided. The studio comprises nearly half the building which comprises about one fifth of the footprint of the property. I’m a touring recording artist and not a developer or real estate mogul. Four million plus clams is well out of my range.” (read in full below).

Folds also said, Mr. Bradley, ELVIS HAS NOT LEFT THE BUILDING according to a lot mail we’re getting from engineers and musicians who worked on Elvis records in Studio A.

This entire battle might be water under the bridge if the Bravo Development deal goes through and they figure out a way to include the existing Studio ‘A’ in the new space. But the fight to preserve Studio ‘A’ might just be the start of contentious times as Nashville attempts to reconcile its past with its future amongst a surging economic boom.

READ: How Nashville’s Economic Boom Could Kill Its Creativity


 Harold Bradley’s Letter:

Re: 30 Music Square West
Fact v. Fiction

Dear Nashville,

We write to you today with an eye toward history in fact, several generations of music history beginning with our forebears (and architects of the “Nashville sound”) Chet Atkins and Owen and Harold Bradley.

These families have a longstanding commitment to Music City. Owen and Harold Bradley built their first studio in 1952, one at the corner of 2nd and Lindsley and the other in Hillsboro Village. But the Quonset Hut is where it all started. With no money in their pockets, Owen borrowed $15,000 against his insurance, and Harold agreed to work for free for ten years…and with that bold move, the Bradley brothers helped establish Nashville as Music City, U.S.A., and kept the music from moving to Jim Beck’s studio in Dallas.

The brothers erected the foundation for that storied Nashville sound in a squat little house on 16th Avenue. They stuck on a surplus Army quonset hut, assembled an “A-Team” of session players (the Nashville Cats), and reimagined country music as something bigger…and more marketable. By the time Brenda Lee recorded “I’m Sorry” and Patsy Cline channeled “Crazy” at the Quonset Hut, a new industry had emerged.

In the 1950s and 60s, anybody who wanted to be a part of that big new sound came to Nashville, because the Quonset Hut and RCA Studio B were producing it. These studios are where the Nashville sound was created and where the classic hits were recorded which is why they are worthy of being called historic. Thanks to generous donations and investments by the Maddox family, Mike Curb, and the Bradleys (who bought and preserved Studio B equipment and sold it at cost to the Country Music Hall of Fame), those early, important studios still exist for students and visitors to enjoy.

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. Billy Swan recorded his hit song “I Can Help” in Chip Young’s house. Should we force the owner of that house to register it as a historic landmark? Joan Baez, Dan Fogelberg, and Neil Young recorded hits in Quadrafonic Studios. Jimmy Buffett recorded Margaritaville there, yet Quadrafonic was sold without protest.

Of the three men who built 30 Music Square West, one of them is still living. Harold Bradley worked in that room as much or more than anyone. He knows the history of the building. He knows who recorded there. Elvis was not on this list. Elvis In Nashville, Don Cusic’s definitive book on Elvis’ time in Music City, confirms Mr. Bradley’s memory. Elvis Presley never recorded in that building.

Mr. Atkins and the Bradleys built 30 Music Square West in 1965 for RCA Studio A as an inducement to keep the music group in Nashville. The Bradley-Atkins play worked: RCA rented the 30 Music Square West offices and studio for 25 years. Nostalgia wasn’t a factor. This was business. When Chet Atkins and Owen and Harold Bradley built 30 Music Square West, Owen said, “One day we might not have anything, but if we buy this property and build this office building, we can at least have something to sell.” It was an investment in their futures.

Mr. Atkins and the Bradley family listed 30 Music Square West for sale 24 years ago, just after RCA moved out. They’ve been trying to sell it ever since. Mr. Folds leased space in the building about 12 years ago on a ninety-day lease. That ninety-day lease has been extended nearly 50 times, with the anticipation that someone might want to buy the building.

The building is now, finally, under contract for sale to Bravo Development. Mr. Folds, who has no ownership interest in the building, has made an impassioned plea to “Save Studio A” as a historic landmark. (He’s now asking, hyperbolically, to “Save Music Row.”)

Historically, Metro Council has been hesitant to grant restrictive overlays without the consent of the land owner. When a tenant, with no ownership in the property, requests restrictions to a property without the owners’ consent, he effectively hijacks the owners’ original risk and the possibility of a good return on their investment. The Atkins and Bradley families have skin in the game as property owners, and Mr. Folds would ask them to just walk away.

An overlay for the entire area would be a downzoning of the worst order, diminishing value almost immediately, and potentially stymieing future creative endeavors. Such restrictions would likely prevent two brothers from slapping a Quonset hut on an old house and trying something new.

Music City isn’t about making a perfect room, or hanging just the right baffling. Turns out, the architecture of Nashville’s evolving sound is a synergy of creative energy. That’s still here, and it has nothing to do with this building.

Sincerely,

Harold Bradley,
The Owen Bradley Family
The Chet Atkins Family Trust


 The Ben Folds Rebuttal:

I’ve written quite a bit about Music Row lately. I’ve said my piece, however there is a question that keeps coming up. It’s a legitimate question, but it requires a few paragraphs to answer. So this is for those who’ve asked. Then it’s time for this piano player to continue on his orchestra tour in Europe and step down from the podium.

——-

Why haven’t I purchased 30 Music Square West myself?

The owners’ asking price has been $4.4 million for the whole property (it’s valued by local govt at $2.4 million) not to be divided. The studio comprises nearly half the building which comprises about one fifth of the footprint of the property.

I’m a touring recording artist and not a developer or real estate mogul. Four million plus clams is well out of my range. As a tenant I’ve been trying to put together a scenario that brings the owners’ asking price, establishes the historical status of the property for preservation, and provides a cash flow for interested developers, but I’m just the dude renting this space. This has become even more feasible now, thanks to overwhelming response to my open letter. Now, with all the players we have on the sidelines, we have more time and I’m positive we can help pull this ambitious plan off. The obvious, easier and more regrettable path involves leveling the building and using the large footprint of the property, taking advantage of the generous zoning to put up condominiums. Let’s be real. Any developer that puts over $4 million into this property does so with intent to demolish and build condos or shopping and that’s probably why the property hasn’t closed yet in the face of public outcry.

As the tenant of 12 years I’ve paid $800k in rent, have thanked the owners privately and publicly, fixed what I could, and made sure the room was still making beautiful music. Mr. Bradley can’t ‘fire back’ because I never ‘fired.’ I have no quarrel with this man or his extended family, and I can sympathize with his plight and understand why he might take the history and acoustics of this room for granted. Maybe his generation can now appreciate that a musician of my generation or younger only has a few examples of the greatness of Studio A left on the planet. It’s a gift that Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins (and Harold Bradley) gave to the world, whether they knew it or not. By a few miracles it’s still standing. I exercised my First Amendment right to express my opinion as the tenant, and it turns out there’s quite a bit of support for what I had to say. If the owners would like to get their asking price, secure their family’s gift to the city and music history, and place the building into the hands of investors that can find the proper cash flow, then I would think I’ve been their best friend. Now they have supporters around the world who are also their best friends. It’s not my property to determine the fate of the building – I’ve just spoken my heart and put my efforts to brokering a solution.

My aim is to make sure historic RCA Studio A is standing and making music of future generations long after we are all gone. By drawing attention to this I also have the opportunity to cast a spotlight on those on Music Row who have been individually struggling with their versions of the same story as they watch bulldozers level acres of our rich music history every day. Now maybe #SaveMusicRow and #MIC can get together with the Mayor, and city and business leaders to galvanize their efforts. The incredible industry Nashville has attracted, from health care to car manufacturing, from future country stars to inspired tourists, are here because they want to be in Music City, and Music Row is the heart of that.

Nashville is good at getting things done. Let’s make progress and secure our lifeblood. Let’s take the tougher, smarter road – get past these few obstacles so we can move on to what we do best making music.

Yours,
Ben Folds

PPS Mr. Bradley, ELVIS HAS NOT LEFT THE BUILDING according to a lot mail we’re getting from engineers and musicians who worked on Elvis records in Studio A.