To Save a Studio

If you follow the recording studio industry much, you know that there are lots of ways for studios to fail (competition from home recording, decease in recording budgets for artists, online piracy making music less valuable). Automobile traffic is not one of the typical risks, until now.

This story comes to us via United Sound Systems. Located in Detroit, Michigan, United Sound Systems (USS) has been around for, in recording studio terms, eons. Originally built in 1933, USS has been the birthplace of many great recordings by many great artists, including John Lee Hooker, Miles Davis, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, just to name a few (not to mention Berry Gordy, Jackie Wilson, Smoky Robinson and the Miracles, Issac, Hayes, and Aretha Franklin).

Outside United Sound Systems Studio
United Sound Systems (Courtesy of detroitwiki.org)

But, now, urban expansion is threatening the very building where history has been literally made. The Michigan Department of Transportation is redesigning the exchange between Interstate 94 and Highway 10, and the property where USS sits is slated for purchase and “removal” by the Michigan Department of Transportation. So, if this plan comes to fruition, Unites Sound Systems will be no more

However, don’t think that MDOT is planning on destroying a vibrant, working, integral-to-the-industry (like that exists anymore anyway) studio to begin with. The last time this property was sold (in 2009), it sold for only $20,000, and all accounts point to the studio space has been largely unused since 2008, if not before then.

Not to say that the studio is permanently dark, either. According to reports, the studio is still active, with acts such as Allee Willis and George Clinton recording there recently.

To combat this threat, the current owners of USS are starting to offer tours to showcase the history of the building. It’s possible that, if more people know about the historical significance of the building, this may generate more interest in the studio and lead to a new era of recording at USS.

Efforts to save historical studios have been met with sometimes-successful results it he past. Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, a once-great (and possible future great) studio, has had a rocky past few years. After falling into disuse,Noel Webster purchased the studio, who used it as his own personal studio and opened it up for tourists, while making it on the National Register of Historical Places. After running the studio for a few years (and having, at least, some success with it), Webster sold the studio to the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation, who is getting financial support for the studio from Jimmy Iovine at Beats. The future of MSSS is secure, in terms of preserving the building, for now.

However, Muscle Shoals isn’t in any real danger of running out of space for their cars either, like Detroit, apparently is (aren’t people moving away from there anyway?).

What do you think? Are old studios worth saving? If so, under what conditions? Are studios that aren’t actively recording really studios? What’s the measure of when a studio should be “rescued from destruction”, versus letting it slip away into a purely historical context? Should the market decide who live & who dies? Or, should we seek to preserve the history of the music industry? Should we call USS “preserving the history of the music industry” to begin with? If it’s a money-making business that pays its taxes, what difference does that make?

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