Dallas' Path to Becoming a Music City May Lie in Recording Studios

Niles City Sound was the springboard to stardom for Leon Bridges. Can it help make DFW a session city?
Niles City Sound was the springboard to stardom for Leon Bridges. Can it help make DFW a session city?
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There's more than one way to build a music scene. Supporting artists, multiple venues and large-scale events like festivals are necessary ingredients. But for many in Dallas, the presence of quality recording studios is the key pushing the city's stature to the next level.

It's not just the folks who own and work in the studios who feel that way, either. They are getting support from other industries who'd like so see Dallas regain its long-lost stature as a session city. 

Last month, the Joule hotel in downtown Dallas revealed plans to help incentivize musicians to come record in North Texas. Through an arrangement with Grammy-winning producer John Congleton, the Joule would put out-of-town musicians up for free while they record at his Elmwood Recording studio in Oak Cliff.

For Jeffrey Saenz and Beau Bedford, who run Dallas studio Modern Electric Sound Recorders, that sounds like a pretty good idea. A familiar one, too. "We've been doing that with the Belmont for about a year now," says Saenz, of the plans between the Joule and Elmwood. "I think there's more people wanting to do the same thing. The idea of tying in Dallas as a location itself instead of just a spot to record is enticing, obviously, for places like the Joule and Belmont."

The marketing potential for the hotels may be obvious, but the benefits are equally important to the studios and the artists. "They give the most friendly rate a hotel could ever give in order to incentivize them," says Saenz.

That's especially important in an age where big-money record contracts and other historically reliable revenue streams have dried up. "We're back to a time before popular music came around," Saenz says. "People who have money are going to have to support the art."

House band the Texas Gentlemen are a major draw for Modern Electric Sound Recorders.
House band the Texas Gentlemen are a major draw for Modern Electric Sound Recorders.
Texas Gentlemen on Facebook

Dallas may be ideally placed to capitalize on that new model and to become a recording destination of the future. Josh Block, formerly of Austin band White Denim and now a co-owner of Fort Worth studio Niles City Sound, moved back to the area for that very reason.

"I spent 12 years in Austin and a good bit of time in Nashville and decided to move back here. I thought this seemed like it had the infrastructure and possibilities of becoming a cool little recording city," Block says. He points to a long history of recording studios, plus recording schools, local industry, a surplus of musicians and technicians, and geographical room to grow as points in Dallas' favor. "We just have to connect the dots," he says.

Modern Electric co-owner Beau Bedford says it hasn't been hard to get out-of-towners to come record here, either. Many of them are attracted by the studio's house band, the Texas Gentlemen. "Bringing out the Texas Gentlemen to L.A. is a monumentally more expensive task than having them come here," he says. The rest seems to take care of itself: "Honestly, the L.A. people who we've worked with so far prefer Dallas to L.A."

Saenz, who moved from Los Angeles himself, echoes that sentiment. "People typically don't have any idea of all the things Dallas has to offer till they get here," he says. "We've got this great combination of a big city and small town where you're able to see a friend walking across the street downtown. ... That's pretty cool to people coming from more anonymous cities like L.A. or New York."

Bedford says he sees Dallas standing "on the precipice of being recognized as a breeding ground for fresh new artists." The question, though, is how to get the city over that precipice. Chris Vivion, a co-owner of Niles City, thinks more infrastructure like publishing companies and A&R houses would help complement the groundwork already laid by the studios.

"We started a publishing company because I think one thing DFW has is a whole lot a of great writers," Vivion says. A publishing district like Music Row forms a core part of the reputation in a city like Nashville, for example. "You're more than likely going to go to Nashville to make the rounds at all the big publishing houses to cowrite with people who have charted success."

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A strategy like that, however, means bringing things full circle and nurturing the homegrown talent, not just attracting folks from outside. After all, one of Niles City's first clients was a then-unknown Leon Bridges.

"Some of the most talented kids don't have the money to pay $450 a day. We really got to do what we can to make sure those kids are heard," insists Vivion. "When push comes to shove, you can build big, beautiful monoliths-to-sound studios all you want, but you really have to showcase the talent here."

Turning around Dallas' reputation as a music city will still take time. Block says optimistically that current efforts could pay off as soon as five years from now. No matter how long it takes, though, Bedford is unequivocal that it will happen.

"I really do believe that in the next 10 to 20 years, we'll acknowledge each other as classic engineers, producers, songwriters and artists," Bedford says, of his friends and collaborators in Dallas. "I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if I didn't believe that."


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