Ar­dent Stu­dios ex­pe­ri­ences ex­ec­u­tive shake-up on cusp of 50th an­niver­sary

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - MUSIC -

In De­cem­ber 2014, Ar­dent Stu­dios founder John Fry died. For 48 years, Fry was one of the rocks of Mem­phis mu­sic, a vi­sion­ary who built a worl­drenowned stu­dio, a sonic in­no­va­tor and a lo­cal in­dus­try linch­pin. More than any­thing, though, Fry was a men­tor: to the leg­endary band Big Star, and to a gen­er­a­tion of mu­si­cians and mu­sic pro­fes­sion­als for whom he served as a guiding light, father fig­ure and friend. His death left a pro­found hole — one felt most acutely at Ar­dent.

Fill­ing Ar­dent’s lead­er­ship vac­uum on an in­terim ba­sis were a pair of long­time em­ploy­ees, gen­eral man­ager Jody Stephens and con­troller El­iz­a­beth Mont­gomery Brown. But as Ar­dent ap­proaches its 50th an­niver­sary this fall, there’s a new if fa­mil­iar face head­ing the op­er­a­tion.

Pat Sc­holes’ as­so­ci­a­tion with Ar­dent dates to the late 1970s, when he was a stu­dio in­tern. He took on a full-time role as Ar­dent’s se­nior man­ager for tech­nol­ogy from 1983 to 2000, and was heav­ily in­volved in the com­pany’s Chris­tian mu­sic la­bel. For the last 15 years, he’s been out of the mu­sic busi­ness, work­ing at Au­tozone in its in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy man­age­ment di­vi­sion while re­main­ing one of Ar­dent’s mi­nor­ity own­er­ship part­ners.

“My role has mor­phed,” says Sc­holes. “I worked full time at Ar­dent for two decades, and the last decade has been more as a co-owner and mem­ber of the board.”

At the end of 2015, a year af­ter Fry’s pass­ing, the Ar­dent board — which con­sists of three mi­nor­ity own­ers; Fry’s wi­dow Betty Fry is the ma­jor­ity owner — elected Sc­holes chair­man, with the idea that he’d re­turn to over­see­ing the stu­dio busi­ness more di­rectly.

“That’s some­thing I took on humbly,” says Sc­holes, who con­tin­ues to bal­ance his Ar­dent re­spon­si­bil­i­ties with his Au­tozone ca­reer. “It was an honor to be asked.”

Since the start of the year, Sc­holes has “been around Ar­dent more,” he says. “It con­tin­ues to be a sin­gu­larly unique place — a lot of great peo­ple, a lot of great gear, and a lot of great his­tory.”

He has spent the past six months on the job as­sess­ing the busi­ness and staffing as well. “Get­ting back into the mu­sic busi­ness, I’ve been rein­tro­duced to the chal­leng­ing head­winds fac­ing the in­dus­try,” says Sc­holes. Fol­low­ing some deeper or­ga­ni­za­tional anal­y­sis, he says “it be­came pretty clear our ex­ist­ing in­fra­struc­ture was not the best for the cur­rent en­vi­ron­ment, so we’ve mod­i­fied job de­scrip­tions, and roles, and there are some big changes.”

As part of a com­pa­ny­wide re­or­ga­ni­za­tion, 29-year Ar­dent vet­eran Stephens — one of the found­ing mem­bers of Big Star and the stu­dio’s pub­lic face — will re­main on in a re­vised ex­ec­u­tive role.

“Jody is a rock star and very bright guy,” says Sc­holes. “Af­ter (Fry) died, Jody served as a gen­eral man­ager, and now he’s in a busi­ness de­vel­op­ment role. He has and con­tin­ues to be tasked with de­vel­op­ing busi­ness — whether that’s for the stu­dio or some of the pro­duc­tion and la­bel type ef­forts we’re pur­su­ing.”

How­ever, Sc­holes’ plan means 20-year Ar­dent em­ployee Mont­gomery Brown and 10-year vet­eran, stu­dio man­ager Dan Russo will be mov­ing on later this month.

“Those po­si­tions didn’t go for­ward,” says Sc­holes. “In­stead, there is a new broadly con­sti­tuted gen­eral manger ti­tle cre­ated by us — the job will en­com­pass pub­lish­ing, artist re­la­tions, pro­duc­tion deals, sales and stu­dio book­ing as part of that.”

The per­son as­sum­ing this new role will be Ryan Wi­ley. A former Ar­dent pro­duc­tion and en­gi­neer­ing as­sis­tant who worked closely with John Hamp­ton, Wi­ley got his law de­gree from the Uni­ver­sity of Mem­phis and un­til re­cently was op­er­at­ing his own prac­tice. Wi­ley for­mally took over the GM job last week; Russo and Brown will tran­si­tion out of their roles on July 8.

For a com­pany built on a ABOVE: A wall of gold and plat­inum records served as a back­drop for Ar­dent Stu­dios founder John Fry in 2006. His fa­mous stu­dio is un­der­go­ing ma­jor changes in man­age­ment 18 months af­ter his death. LEFT: Fry was a men­tor to a gen­er­a­tion of Mem­phis mu­si­cians.

re­mark­able his­tory of sta­bil­ity, such changes seem jar­ring. But Sc­holes says the com­pany is try­ing to be re­spon­sive to the cur­rent busi­ness cli­mate — one that has be­come in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult for high­erend, big­ger-over­head stu­dios like Ar­dent. Sc­holes notes that Fry’s wi­dow, Betty, has sup­ported the moves.

“She’s not in­volved dayto-day, but she does have a pro­found in­volve­ment in car­ing for John’s legacy, and be­ing a re­source and sup­port for us,” he says. “And she’s given me her proxy.”

The changes are un­likely to af­fect Ar­dent’s var­i­ous off­shoot busi­ness — in­clud­ing its Chris­tian and rock la­bels and dis­tri­bu­tion busi­ness — in the short term. The Ar­dent rock la­bel has cur­rent re­leases from Austin, Texas, band the Grey­hounds, and Stephens’ new project Those Pretty Wrongs. Ar­dent-dis­trib­uted group Low Cut Con­nie is in the stu­dio this week work­ing on its new al­bum.

“And on the Chris­tian side, we have Todd Agnew fin­ish­ing a record, which we ex­pected out later this year,” says Sc­holes. “And we’re look­ing at re­leas­ing new al­bums from new [Chris­tian] artists.”

The busi­ness of Big Star and its cat­a­log will con­tinue un­der the su­per­vi­sion of Sc­holes, Stephens and Wi­ley. “Hardly a day goes by that a Big Star-re­lated op­por­tu­nity doesn’t get dis­cussed,” says Sc­holes. “That’s not to say there’s sud­denly go­ing to be a bunch of Big Star re­leases to­mor­row. There’s a bal­ance we have to strike; we have a bedrock of great his­tory, but we’re not try­ing to look back, as much as try­ing to build on that.”

Plans for mark­ing Ar­dent’s 50th an­niver­sary are still de­vel­op­ing, though sev­eral “give back” ini­tia­tives — in­clud­ing of­fer­ing 50 free days of record­ing to emerg­ing artists in the

Mid-south — have be­gun. “As we roll out some of the new things we’re plan­ning on an­nounc­ing for the busi­ness in the next cou­ple months,” says Sc­holes, “we’ll prob­a­bly tie a bow around cel­e­brat­ing the past, and cel­e­brat­ing the fu­ture, with an event in the fall. We’re look­ing for­ward to the next 50 years.”

NIX MAS­TER­ING MOVES

In some­what re­lated news, Mem­phis’ L. Nix Mas­ter­ing is mov­ing out of the Bluff City. The famed record mas­ter­ing ser­vice — founded by Stax Records alum­nus Larry Nix in 1975 and cur­rently run by his son, Kevin Nix — was housed in the Ar­dent Stu­dios com­plex for 40 years be­fore mov­ing to the Se­lect-o-hits fa­cil­ity last sum­mer.

Later this month, Kevin Nix will move his fam­ily and the com­pany from Mem­phis to south­ern Alabama, re-es­tab­lish­ing the busi­ness in the city of Fo­ley.

As Nix noted in a let­ter to his clients this week, “this move will in no way hin­der our abil­ity to work with any­one in the world with the same ease of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the same quick turn­around time we’ve al­ways of­fered, and the same qual­ity you’ve come to de­pend on.”

Nix points out that L. Nix’s “clien­tele has be­come ap­prox­i­mately 98 per­cent In­ter­net based al­ready. Over the last sev­eral years, I have made it my duty to teach clients how to send their mixes on­line, pay on­line, etc. The over­all ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing on­line has been very pos­i­tive, both for our clients, and us.”

L. Nix Mas­ter­ing will of­fi­cially re­open in Alabama on July 11.

KRAFTWERK CAN­CELS

De­spite much early ex­cite­ment for their pro­posed re­turn to Mem­phis ear­lier this sum­mer, it turns out Kraftwerk will not be com­ing to town af­ter all. The pi­o­neer­ing Ger­man elec­tronic mu­sic group was set to play Mid­town’s Min­gle­wood Hall on Sept. 7. The show was part of a nine-date tour mark­ing the group’s most ex­ten­sive U.S. jaunt in five decades.

The sur­prise an­nounce­ment of a Bluff City con­cert for Kraftwerk was spurred by a suc­cess­ful ap­pear­ance last year in Nashville. Though no rea­son was given for the can­cel­la­tion by Cal­i­for­nia-based pro­mot­ers Gold­en­voice, it’s likely that slower-than-ex­pected ad­vance ticket sales were the cul­prit. It’s also pos­si­ble that the 2015 Nashville date had ex­hausted the broader re­gional in­ter­est in a Mem­phis show. (The group is still set to play dates in At­lanta and New Or­leans.)

Kraftwerk ticket re­funds are avail­able at point of pur­chase.

COM­MER­CIAL AP­PEAL FILES

BOB MEHR

MEM­PHIS MU­SIC BEAT

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