Ardent Studios experiences executive shake-up on cusp of 50th anniversary
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.
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.
MEMPHIS MUSIC BEAT