VOL. 132 | NO. 98 | Wednesday, May 17, 2017
Soulful Sounds Made in Memphis Again
By Michael Waddell
An original Stax Records sign hangs in the stairwell of the new Made in Memphis Entertainment facility as inspiration for artists and guests entering as they head up to the new company’s main offices.
Image of Made in Memphis Entertainment Studios in the foreground at the edge of the Memphis skyline.
For founding partners David Porter, Rev. Tony Alexander and Hamilton Hardin, the transfer of knowledge gained from years of working inside the “Memphis Sound” in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s is central to the company’s philosophy.
“When we walk down those steps and see that sign that says ‘Stax’ on the wall, the reason it’s important to me is because it prepared me for this,” said Porter, producer and songwriter who penned mega-hits like “Hold On, I’m Coming” and “Soul Man.”
Porter was the first staff songwriter at Stax – and headed artists and repertoire (A&R) for several of its labels – and is now a member of the National Songwriters Hall of Fame and one of Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Songwriters of All Time. His lifetime catalogue is associated with more than 300 million unit sales worldwide.
“My career is the door-opener for this opportunity,” Porter said. “And this opportunity is a door-opener for the future of the industry in this city and the impact around the world of music from Memphis, Tennessee.”
Porter brought on Alexander as president and managing director to provide stable, long-term leadership. Alexander is a patent and trademark attorney, entrepreneur and ordained minister who helped form Faith Christian Church in 2011.
“It’s certainly a labor of love, for David in particular,” Alexander said. “Memphis has been so good to him, and he realized he needed to give back to the city and to the young people in this city to give them an opportunity to be mentored and see the level of success that he’s had.”
Porter also recruited Hardin, an accomplished producer and multi-instrument touring musician working in Nashville, to head up the company’s A&R.
“I can give creative input, from melody creations to lyrical creations to transference of resolution of chord progressions that make sense, but what I don’t have is the youth stamina to make the energy that comes from what’s currently palatable and marketable in today’s climate,” Porter said. “What he (Hardin) can do is take what he knows is relatable to his generation and make it marketable to them.”
Made in Memphis bought the building at 400 Union Ave. in October 2015 for $750,000. The interior needed to be completely renovated since it had formerly been used by an ad agency.
“The beautiful part about the building is that it’s concrete construction, and that’s perfect for being able to do some sound-proofing for the studios,” Alexander said. “But the layout of the basement and the first floor was very poor for what we wanted to do.”
More than $3.5 million in renovation work got underway in January 2016, along with the installation of an additional $1.5 million in audio and video equipment.
The basement now is home to three comfortable production suites, as well as Studio C – one of three uniquely designed studios in the building, all created by renowned Nashville-based Michael Cronin Acoustic Construction.
“As a touring musician, producer and recording musician, I’ve played in every studio in Nashville that’s of standard – one of which was Blackbird Studios, and Michael Cronin is the same one who designed it,” said Hardin, who has also recorded at studios in New York City, Los Angeles, and Rome, Italy. “So when I heard he was involved here, I knew we were straight. The three studios here have very distinct personalities.”
Studio C is great for a “live” sound similar to being on stage, the smaller sized Studio B produces a true, darker sound, and Studio A is ideal for larger bands and a more spacious, open sound. Each studio features audio diffusers along the walls and a skyline diffusing system on the ceiling.
“All of that is to maximize the sonic qualities of the rooms, so you can get the exact sound that you want,” Alexander explained.
Upstairs for the larger studios A and B, a slab of concrete was poured for each of the rooms so they have their own foundation on top of springs.
“Each room has been decoupled from the building and isolated completely from each other, so when you are walking down the middle hallway you are actually on a platform elevated above the ground to match the concrete slabs in each of the studios,” Alexander said.
Studio A is the property’s flagship commercial studio, and its control room will be equipped with a nine-foot, 2017 analog console – one of only four in the world.
“It gives us a cutting edge with technology. It gives us a more pristine sound,” Hardin said. “If Justin Timberlake’s producer or Beyonce’s producer came through here, they could look at the gear and say ‘I can work here.’ They could look at the microphone list and say ‘I can work here.’”
The roster of talent already signed at Made in Memphis includes Porcelan, Jessica Ray and Matthew Michael.
“All of the artists we have here have great work ethic and are very focused people,” said Hardin.
In fact, Michael is a product of The Consortium MMT, a nonprofit music development/mentorship program that was founded from Porter’s philanthropy in 2012. Porter and Alexander actually met through the consortium when Alexander was doing volunteer work for the organization.
Legendary artists like Valerie Simpson (Ashford & Simpson), Stevie Wonder, Jimmy Jam, Bobby Womack and Ray Parker Jr. contribute video lessons and wisdom that is shared with young artists as part of the program at The Consortium MMT.
Music from the new company is not far off, as they have already recorded complete albums for Porcelan and Matthew Michael, and they are in the post-production stage.
“We think we’re going to be able to change and innovate in how our music is delivered, how we’re able to connect the audience to the artists and the music,” Alexander said. “Having music that emotionally connects with the audience is the key.”
In addition to recording songs with the company’s signed talent, other songs written by Made in Memphis’ full-time songwriting team will be licensed out to artists at other studios and for use in TV, film and even video game soundtracks.
“What’s most valuable to any company in the music business is to have catalog value so you’re going to be generating money off songs for decades as opposed to just hitting the top of the charts and then disappearing after two weeks,” Alexander said. “David’s teaching these young people the science of songwriting and music production for longevity, so that you’re making music that will endure the test of time.”
The company currently has a staff of 10, and Alexander thinks that by the end of the year they will have about 25 employees. Hiring this year will include marketing and promotions people, a couple of engineers, several producers, and possibly some additional songwriters.