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M-m-m-my Corona! Live Music and Recording Industry During the COVID-19 Pandemic

September 28, 2020

In Episode 12, award-winning record producers and engineers Chuck Ainlay and Jeff Balding talk with Chris Kane about how COVID-19 has impacted the recording and live music industries. After decades of transformative change in these industries, learn how technology is shaping music recording and production and live music events in the midst of the pandemic. Chuck and Jeff share how artists are approaching recording new music safely in Nashville studios and explain the challenges of streaming events to promote new music and generate revenue in this new, uncertain climate.

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Transcript and Show Notes

Christopher Kane: Hello, everyone. I’m Chris Kane, your host of today’s podcast Boom! The Southeastern Commerce Podcast. We’re going to tackle a really exciting topic for me; I’m going learn a lot and I think you’re going to learn a lot from two incredible individuals in the recording and producing field in the music industry.

Combined together they have over 65 years of experience; I’m not trying to age you guys, but that is a lot of expertise that we have joining us and we’ve got Chuck Ainlay and Jeff Balding who are well-known in the Nashville scene and Music Row and are two clients of our firm that we really thank for having you here today, guys.

Let’s start off with, if you don’t mind, just telling us a little about yourself: where you sit in the industry and what you’re doing. Chuck, we’ll start with you.

Chuck Ainlay: Well, I’m a local self-employed producer/engineer and been here, like you say, a number of years; also have a group that I’m involved with called The MET Alliance. We kind of deal with quality issues and education.

But otherwise, yes, I’m producing artists like Peter Frampton, Lyle Lovett, George Strait at the moment, and some other independent artists.

Christopher Kane: That’s great and we’re going to talk a little bit more, I think, get into some details about exactly what you’re working on right now and some of those challenges. So, I look forward to that.

Jeff, what about you?

Jeff Balding: Yes. I mean, like Chuck, I’m a producer and engineer here in town, a mixer, and, you know, I’ve been here since ’91. You know, it’s home, it’s a great place, it’s a creative place and, man, it just keeps changing and growing. It’s inspiring.

Christopher Kane: Well, you guys are both fairly modest. Your recognitions are very impressive; you guys have a lot of hardware and it’s pretty neat, too, seeing some of the artists you’ve worked with.

Jeff, for you, one of my favorite groups is The Eagles and my daughter can’t stop listening to Taylor Swift—she’s a nine-year-old—and for somebody in your industry to be able to cover both of those and work with two incredible artists, both of you have that aspect.

And, again, when I say. “Been around the industry,” it’s an industry that, I’m sure—Chuck in 1983, I think, is when you began your career path somewhere around that timeframe—the industry looks drastically different today and when I’m talking about today, I mean even pre-COVID.

Tell us a little bit, if you don’t mind, about some of those significant changes that you’ve seen through the years as we walked into COVID. And then we can talk about COVID.

Chuck Ainlay: Well, when I was a kid I kind of—best of all music periods, I think, happened and The Beatles came around and really inspired the idea of creating sounds in the studio. So, I was just always inspired to work in studios and got into it kind of earlier on starting with 8-track and 16-track tape recording and 24 track and then multiple 24 tracks locked up and eventually tape format, digital recording, and now hard-disk recording.

It’s—kind of the technology has gotten to the point to where we can actually make really high-quality recordings in our homes. So, here we are during this COVID period and fortunately because of the technology we can continue working to some degree without having to step inside the studio and to be around other people.

Christopher Kane: As a follow-up, Jeff, would you piggyback on what Chuck was talking about?

Jeff Balding: Yes. I mean, we’ve definitely seen changes in the industry and I’ve been involved probably in the backside of the analog era in the ‘80s and then as digital came into sort of existence in the later ‘80s and on through the ‘90s and forward, things definitely change.

And one of the things I think that Chuck’s done well and I’ve tried to do is you adapt and you embrace and you move forward and you find inspiration in the changes and use that to just continue to spur your creativity. That’s sort of my attitude and what I read into it.

And so, yes, we’ve seen a lot of changes and they seem to happen quicker and quicker nowadays. And I think that’s one of the things that within this industry I think we have that ability or at least we try to have that ability to adapt and change with it and embrace the things that we can use creatively and that tool belt has come in handy with this unexpected COVID-19 stuff.

Christopher Kane: Yes. And, you know, we on our podcast recently we’ve been talking to a number of different industries and the impact COVID has had particularly. And the reason why I really wanted to start from an historical perspective of the number of changes—and really how the business model has been manipulated through technology in the music industry—is because I think that the music industry comes into COVID with maybe a better skillset to deal with the adaption.

Not meaning that it’s easier because it’s certainly not; but when you compare it, for example, to say, a school system, right, very few school systems really had any sort of creativity originally from a standpoint of coming up with how you are going to address going literally from one day to the next to remote learning or virtual learning.

The music industry, though, has seen a number of really transformative changes throughout the last 30 years, both in live music and recorded music. Let me ask you, then, specifically from a COVID-specific perspective, what has been the top one or two obvious challenges that you’re facing in order to be able to adapt and get back to some kind of new normal.

Chuck Ainlay: From my perspective, a lot of the artists, as I’d mentioned earlier on that I’m working with, are older artists and obviously COVID is affecting older people, but more so in a more tragic way and worrisome way than younger people, although that’s not all necessarily true.

But I have found that the artists that I’m working with are kind of reluctant to go into the studio and it’s not so much like that you can’t go into the studio and social distance and wear a mask, but that it requires travel by air and some of the other things to get to the places that are bringing people together to make it happen.

So, there’s a couple of projects I’m right in the middle of that are at a standstill. Obviously, there’s ways that we could collaborate online and get different individuals to work on the projects one at a time from their own locality. But the problem with that is it’s actually kind of fun to make records and I think the artists would prefer that we kind of, like, just wait until we can get in a room together and make records. So, that is one of the biggest challenges.

The other main thing that’s really challenging from the recording perspective is that live performances are not being allowed. So, when we release records, we really rely on the live performances to promote the record and so there’s a lot of reluctance to even release recordings in a major way because there’s no live performances.

Christopher Kane: Yes. And actually, you know, that’s the trick, right? I mean, live music makes up about I think over 50% of total revenues in the business model of music and it also plays an important function, as you mentioned, from a standpoint of sales and promotion and distribution side.

And that—we don’t know when that’s going to come back and there’s been some creativity around streaming performances. I think this week Jimmy Fallon is going to have the first live performance on The Late Show.

So, you’re seeing some effort but we’re not filling up arenas and large venues and that’s really all been shut down. I’ve got to imagine that’s a significant challenge for your industry.

Chuck Ainlay: Yes. In fact, I was just speaking with Lyle Lovett yesterday about how we’re going to get back into the studio to finish his record. But he was discussing that he’s done several virtual performances with other artists and that they’ve been well-attended as far as people watching the streams and so forth.

The next one he’s planning to do they’re actually going to offer for-sale tickets and the challenge there is that once you start asking for money for the performance, the views drop way off.

So, they’re going to try something and we’ll see what happens. But people don’t want to buy tickets to go to a show, promoters don’t want to promote shows not certain when the COVID issue will clear up. And so, I mean—and that all has to happen six months in advance. So, things are really at a standstill.

Christopher Kane: Yes. That’s what really is tricky about COVID. I live down here in New Orleans. God forbid, I don’t want a hurricane to come here, but if a hurricane came, we have a plan: we know what we’re going to do, you’re going to rebuild if something gets destroyed, you’re going to evacuate.

I mean, you have clarity in the disaster at least, right? With this, we don’t know and that’s the scary part. And you were mentioning just even getting into the studios and folks having concerns about even if you can social distance still not getting into the studios.

It’s because the artists you work with, they have concerns about their own health and the unknown of the novel coronavirus, which is really, I think, the most crippling thing about this whole experience is just not knowing what next week is going to look like or bring.

And for you, in the music industry, when it comes to live performances, that just pushes out the window of really when that might return.

Curious. You mentioned that some folks are steering clear of the studio. Have either of you guys recently been in the studio? Is anyone recording in-studio right now?

Jeff Balding: I’m in the studio today, funny enough. I’m doing vocals on a band called (Korean Soul) that I’m producing with BeBe Winans and we’ve been coming to the studio to do vocals. As with other production projects, a lot of it is—you know, I send out to musicians. That’s just kind of the new trend and it’s been around but it’s definitely more heavily used right now.

I think that’s a challenge on the other side is that it takes a lot of people, whether it’s the engineers, the assistant engineer studios, it cuts a lot of people out of the pie, you know? So, that’s another challenge on its own.

But there’s studios that are operating and they’re covering all the aspects with HEPA filters and UV lighting to disinfect a room and the equipment because a lot of the knobs and consoles and stuff you can’t—you don’t want to spray or anything, but they use a UV light to disinfect those.

So, everybody’s taking the precautions and wearing a mask in the studio and doing everything you can do. But at the same time some of the artists I’m working with are okay to get in the studio and do vocals and work. And as long as everybody’s comfortable that’s in the room with it, I think it’s alright as long as all the precautions are being taken, you know?

I’ve got a pop artist out of Miami that I’m getting ready to start three songs on and they’re going to have to come to town in a few weeks to do vocals once I get the tracks built. We’ll just sort of navigate it as it comes and if things flare up then, as we have, we put it off for a little bit this summer.

So, you just kind of have to, like I say, navigate it week by week and take the challenges and, you know, some of the challenges creates bumps in the road for everyone. But you just kind of adapt and work and keep creating.

Music is important, you know? It’s important to people especially if you’re isolated and stuff. I mean, you’ve got TV or you’ve got music, you know, and a lot of people rely on music to sort of balance themselves, you know? So…

Chuck Ainlay: And I rely on music just for my own sanity, too. I mean, I’ve got to be in the studio and be creative. I mean, there’s a certain amount of it I’m doing at home but being around other creative people and that collaborative thing that happens, it’s just kind of—makes your life move along.

And so, I’ve been in a few times as well and we’ve just taken the precautions, like Jeff said, to wear masks and check temperatures at the door and when we are together, like having lunch or something, we’ll do that outdoors rather than in an enclosed environment.

And so—and everybody seems to really be very in-spirit in a big way, too. So, the creative juices are really flowing when you’re in the studio.

Christopher Kane: Yes. You know, and you look at it from a standpoint of you come up with some guidelines and rules that make sense. And folks, at least my experience and, I don’t know, maybe everybody had cabin fever, at least down here in New Orleans after we were—we really went into a very hard shutdown.

We have some significant COVID numbers early that put us kind of on a hot map and we really did a good job, at least in Orleans parish, to slow the spread and got our numbers really, really in check. But then it was like folks forgot that we just went through quarantine and wanted to get out and about.

And I get it; I felt the same way. It was just you get cabin fever a little bit and so our numbers went back up for a little bit of time and now they’re—they’ve improved and I feel that folks are really taking it more serious right now, at least in our community here.

And I feel it in my profession too in terms of what other lawyers are doing and how we’re conducting business the best way we can, but also not taking away the things, as you were mentioning, the importance of being with folks and creativity in your industry.

You know, we’re seeing it a little bit more now with more travel occurring slightly and now a lot, more interest with clients who do want to responsibly go and have a meal or, you know, have a business meeting in person. It’s definitely a different experience, right?

That needs to come back in a safe way and a responsible way, but it is important particularly to the music industry because, as you mentioned, I could imagine the creativity and the collaboration that occurs in person as compared to some collaborative format through a virtual system, right?

Chuck Ainlay: Yes, it’s totally different.

Christopher Kane: Yes. You mentioned earlier you’ve got an artist coming up from I think you said Miami. Now, understanding the community in Nashville is—the music community is vast, but travel is pretty critical, I would imagine, in your industry too, particularly not just the live performances but also in order to record and get into the studios.

Are you seeing any sort of positive trends in terms of travel or is it still pretty flat and light?

Jeff Balding: Well, I mean, industry-wise I’m sure it’s flat and light, but the encouraging thing is I think the cleanliness and the air on the planes and everything is so far above where it used to be, it makes me feel better. I think, you know, about travel and it’s like everything’s really safeguarded.

And I think from a health standpoint it’s safer than it’s ever been: all the disinfecting that’s gone on and the cleanliness and the HEPA filters and everything. It really is a lot safer, you know, in that aspect.

Christopher Kane: It kind of makes you question, like, you think about it: like, how gross were we before, right?

Chuck Ainlay: I think it was pretty bad.

Christopher Kane: We’re taking all these precautions. Right. I made fun of it originally. Before we came back to the office, they sent around a video that we were required to watch of how to wash your hands and I was sitting there like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

It wasn’t the directions of how to wash your hands that was important; it was the reminder, right? It was, “Okay, we’re going back to work, we have to follow rules, you’ve got to continue to do these things or we’re going to have to revert back.”

And I think travel—I’m a little bullish on it; I agree with you. I think there’s a lot of safety precautions. I have not traveled by air since March 13, but I probably will be soon and I’ve got a number of friends who have—colleagues and friends, they feel that it’s pretty safe and comfortable by and large.

So, hopefully that will help—from an economic standpoint will help industries like the music industry begin to find its path forward.

Chuck Ainlay: Personally, I’m still a bit reluctant to get on an airplane. And a couple of things that might come up would require travel to Texas; I’d probably drive.

Christopher Kane: Well, right. You know, I appreciate that, too. Again, from a New Orleans’ perspective, I feel good about where our community is right now. Does that mean I think we’re going to have Mardi Gras? No, I don’t think that we’re likely going to have Mardi Gras like we would normally see it, but I don’t know what it might look like. But I feel good about where our community is now.

Depending where I was going, right? There’s some hotspots out there that would not make sense to go travel to or if driving is an option and you don’t mind doing it, then that’s obviously the safest path. I was in Atlanta, Georgia a couple weeks ago and it’s about a seven-hour, eight-hour drive from New Orleans and we elected to drive versus fly, a 50-minute flight.

We made that decision based on, you know, how we felt about it. But I think travel’s going to be important to stand up and get into a position where folks feel safe to do it and, again, depending on where you’re going.

Christopher Kane: Let me ask you guys this…

Chuck Ainlay: It’s also not just—if I can just interject.

Christopher Kane: Sure.

Chuck Ainlay: There’s also international travel in our industry is—I mean, I’m working with an artist from Austria at the moment and obviously she can travel here or wouldn’t travel here and we certainly can’t travel there, we’re not even allowed to.

So, that’s—you know, until we start getting the numbers down to where other countries will even allow Americans in, that’s another issue.

Christopher Kane: You raise a really good point and that’s an issue that the entertainment industry and the sports industry particularly are having. I know Major League Baseball ran into that issue relative to how they were going to allow for international players to come in as well as international teams to play and it is a challenge. And I guess the concerning part for me, while our numbers in the US still remain high, there’s a couple other countries that are starting to pop back up a little bit. And depending on what day of the week and what doctor you’re listening too, there seems to be pretty consistent messaging that there’s a concern that we’re going to see an increase in cases when we get into the more traditional flu season.

Hopefully that’s not correct, but if that happens then that’s only going to slow us down, vaccine or no vaccine, I think, because I don’t have a lot of confidence that we’re going to get folks utilizing vaccinations right out of the gate at a rate that’s going to impact us quickly. Again, it’s my nonmedical view of it and I could be wrong and hope that it’s quicker than that.

But, guys, I think you’re both involved with the Recording Academy. Can you talk to me a little bit about what are some of the industry organizations doing right now to help the artist and the industry itself to keep itself together and doing good things in a time of need?

Jeff Balding: A couple of things come to mind: I mean, one of the big things is MusiCares. They do a lot to help people in the industry and such an amazing organization within the Recording Academy. In times of need they’ve come up to the table big time. So, you’ve got that working hard.

Another thing, you know, even on a smaller level through the producers and engineers of the Recording Academy, we’ve worked through a paper, a document that we had studio managers, engineers, producers, people on the committee that put together a paper of just recommended guidelines for cleaning and keeping the studio a safe environment during this time.

And I can’t tell you how many people—the feedback was amazing: “Thanks for putting this together. It’s helped so much.” And so, even on a granular level like that they do a lot of stuff. So, it’s a good organization as far as pouring back into the industry and at a time like this especially everybody coming together.

Chuck Ainlay: And I’m also on the Academy of Country Music Board of Directors and the Academy is about to have their award show that they’re bringing to Nashville for the first time, but it’s going to be at three different locations and it would be essentially without an audience, but they’re going to have—utilize some of the places in town: the Ryman and the Bluebird Cafe to kind of, like, spotlight some of the important venues in Nashville.

But they’ve—they’re also doing a lot of virtual shows and highlighting some of their artists and doing podcasts and that sort of thing to promote artists and all, as well.

Christopher Kane: Yes. And, you know, usually a lot of good creative ideas and energy yields from when folks are in need. After Katrina here we had a big effort to help musicians rebuild and actually acquire homes. We have homeownership in the Seventh Ward, the Tremé area, it’s called Music Village and what’s been pretty neat during the pandemic to see is that some of the musicians have gotten together. A lot of those folks did a lot of live performances and that’s all shut down, obviously. And without a live performance they’re not getting paid.

So, a group of folks got together and, you know, just a little thing as much as making a meal, right? So, there was about 30 or so musicians in Music Village who really needed some help and I guess for about maybe a three-month period every day there’s 30 meals that show up in Music Village from folks that are just caring and making food for them at home, not just buying from restaurants and delivering, although we’ve done some of that too because the restaurants are in need as well.

But you see that and that’s—you know, I think the music industry, I feel, does a better job than really probably any other industry in that regard and probably because of the creativity and relationships that are developed. And we see that here in New Orleans, although our music community is obviously—is different than in Nashville from a standpoint of the whole collective industry. But it’s really incredible with some of the work that’s being done out there.

Guys, let me ask you this and this is, I know, one of those kind of funny questions and hard maybe to answer. I think it’s important particularly for those in the music industry to hear from your experience and looking forward as to what the crystal ball might look like in your mind and where we might be, let’s say, six months or even out to a year from now and what you predict the music industry’s going to look like and where we’re going to be? Jeff, we’ll start with you.

Jeff Balding: Oh, isn’t that the million-dollar question? Boy, from a live perspective, you know, like you had mentioned before, the industry’s great at adapting and, you know, being a creative industry especially, a lot of people are creative in how they could do this.

I think we’ll see some interesting things come to pass in the next six months to a year as people start to get their, you know, feet firmly on the ground during this thing and figuring out how to move forward.

I think from the recording side of things, I don’t think much is going to change. Like I say, there’s things that will, you know, put pressure on certain things, but overall music is such an important part of life to everyone, really. People still want to experience it, whether they want to get away or they want to connect with something happening in their life through music. It’s a big thing.

And, you know, we’re going to continue to make music and, you know, hopefully we make great music. I think it’s going to be amazing, you know? I’m encouraged. I don’t see dark days at all. I’m encouraged by it and I just think, you know, it’s going to rise to the top through all of this.

Chuck Ainlay: Yes. I think also, too, I mean, when we’ve seen periods of unrest like we’ve had with Black Lives Matter and you look back historically sort of—I mean, I’m old enough to remember the Vietnam War and all the things that were changing in life at that time, and we saw dramatic changes in the music because of the social changes.

And something as big as this pandemic along with the social unrest, I kind of foresee that there’s going to be a shift in music. It’s going to—you know, what people have to say is just more dramatic and that when someone comes up with the right way of saying it, the music itself is probably going to have a shift to kind of help that message.

So, I mean, I think what we’re looking forward to, like Jeff said, is very encouraging and I’m looking forward to seeing what does come around and I hope I’m still here when it does.

Christopher Kane: Yes. You know, you really—you raise a good point in terms of the social unrest coupled with the pandemic, I mean, how 2020 has thrown everything at us. But not just culturally; I think for a social fabric standpoint the role that music plays in bringing people and communities together regardless of race or beliefs or anything that could cause disagreement among folks, you really see it and it lives live.

The best experience I can recall I’m having with it and it still impacts me today when I hear the YouTube Green Day and Trombone Shorty version of the “When The Saints Go Marching” is when the reopen the Superdome after Katrina which was, you know, a remarkable feat in and of itself.

And it wasn’t—it had nothing to do with just football being back or that activity; it was getting together with our community and 70,000 people crying their eyes out when this beautiful song was made for the moment, really, or recrafted for the moment.

From a New Orleanian’s perspective, that song became an emotionally charged trigger. Every time you would hear it, it had a positive effect on your—or at least on me—and reminded us of how far we had come when a short 365 days before that, 85% of the city was underwater and devastated.

So, I see the music’s role here is already playing a very similar role and even has more importance because, very candidly, the whole globe has been attacked by COVID; not many folks have gotten—been able to avoid what we’ve experienced and certainly here we’ve added to that with social unrest.

But, yes, I’d like your perspective on that as well.

Chuck Ainlay: The interesting conversations we’re having amongst ourselves every day, how we manage to get through this, how we manage to, like, support each other; I was just speaking with someone right before this conversation and his wife had had a stroke not too long ago. So, he’s having to, like, keep himself out of the studio environment and interaction with other people just so that he doesn’t bring it home to someone who would really have problems with it.

Butand just in speaking with him, there’s just a number of our friends that have COVID and it started with one person walking into the house and the parents got it and the children got it and it’syou know, and it’s not as though it’s a distant thing: everybody knows somebody that has been impacted by it.

Christopher Kane: It really, really is impactful. Well, guys, before we close, one thing I’d like to talk about—and this has been a really interesting conversation—I’m trying to be as positive and optimistic a person as possible through these times and one of the ways to do that is envision when we get to a new normal doing something fun.

I love coming to Nashville. I want to knowyou guys each give me a recommendation of where I need to go to either eat some good food, get a good drink or to go listen to some real good music.

Chuck Ainlay: Well, I’d say you need to be here on a Monday evening when things get back to normal and go to 3rd & Lindsley and hear Vince’s group The Time Jumpers. They play western swing and every one of the musicians in that band is just, like, incredible and it’s just really something else. But you got to make sure you get there early to get in.

Christopher Kane: Alright, good enough. I definitely will do that.

Jeff Balding: Chuck, you’re so much more cultured than I am. See, I go immediately to food. It’s like, okay. And then I go, “Okay, well, you got to have barbecue.” Martin’s Bar-B-Que or you’ve got have Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, Nashville hot chicken. So, unfortunately, that’s where my head goes which isn’t real healthy, but it’s good.

Christopher Kane: Well, look, I’m from New Orleans, so food is near and dear to me. I can dig that. I think I’d take both of those up; I’d have to do lunch and dinner and try them out.

Well, guys, I hope to do that. I hope to be in Nashville when things become a little more normal and safe and I really do appreciate both of you giving us your time. I know my colleagues in our music office really appreciate the work that they go to do with you as our clients and really it’s been a joy to get to meet you.

Jeff, Chuck, thank you very much. To our listeners, we will be back soon with the next episode of Boom! The Southeastern Commerce Podcast. Thank you.