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Welcome to Nashville: The New Scoring Destination

Nashville is making a major play for film and TV scoring work that, for economic and political reasons, has typically been going overseas. New legislation in Tennessee, which took effect July 1, is designed to attract that work, and some say it’s already having an impact.

When it comes to music for major studio films, most composers’ first choice is to record in Los Angeles and London. But independent films with smaller budgets and video-game producers tasked with creating many hours of gameplay music, two sectors that have been unable to strike a deal with American musicians’ union officials, have been taking their business elsewhere and making a show of it.

Tennessee state officials recently made a pilgrimage to L.A. to pitch the country-music capital as an American alternative. The state’s Visual Content Modernization Act, passed in May and signed by Gov. Bill Haslam, contains provisions for recording music in the state regardless of where the project originated. The idea, Tennessee
Entertainment Commission executive director Bob Raines says, is a cash rebate for producers, likely to be 25% (details are still being worked out). So a project that spends $100,000 on recording can expect $25,000 back — a substantial savings.

“It closes the gap in costs between Eastern Europe and other places,” says Steve Schnur, worldwide executive and president of music for video-game company Electronic Arts, which frequently records in Nashville. “London and L.A. are comparatively expensive. In Eastern Europe, it’s less quality but comparatively cheaper. Nashville has some of the best musicians in the world, and because of the composers who are going there regularly, the quality bar has gone up.”

While cities like Prague; Budapest; Bratislava, Slovakia; Skopje, Macedonia; and, more recently, Vienna have become attractive alternatives to higher-priced recording locations, Nashville is now out to replace them. The History miniseries “Texas Rising” was recorded there; so was music for TV’s “Fargo” and “Outlander” series. Several “Call of Duty” games and one “Star Wars” game recorded in Nashville, as did the movies “Show Dogs,” “Mother’s Day,” “The Star” and “Acrimony.” Says Jeff Russo, an Emmy winner for his “Fargo” music: “I loved working there. It’s a different feel from anywhere else in the world, and it
certainly feels like making records.”

Austin Wintory, who used a Nashville orchestra for the game “Abzu,” says: “We were all just blown away at the caliber of musicianship. One of the nagging problems of recording in Eastern Europe is, even when the orchestras are good, the quality of the physical instruments they’re playing on is not as good.”

And while Nashville is inevitably more expensive than overseas — sources say one hires players in Nashville for $75 an hour as opposed to $25 or $30 an hour in Eastern Europe — Wintory says bang for the buck must be considered. “The challenge is reconciling the per-player rate with the speed at which one can move,” he explains. “If you pay a little more for Nashville but you can go twice as fast, it might be cheaper.”

Tennessee is a right-to-work state; you don’t have to be a union member to perform in the studios. That’s attractive to producers who aren’t interested in signing union agreements that tie them to later residual payments (the primary reason so much recording work has left California).

Says Alan Umstead, a top Nashville contractor for recording dates: “Most of my clients went to Eastern Europe but were not happy with the quality of work. Then they realized that they could come to Nashville and get quality and a nonunion buyout at a reasonable price.”

The drawback is that Music City only has one recording studio that’s suitable for film, TV and game work: Ocean Way, located in a 100-year-old church, and it can comfortably accommodate only about 75 musicians. Composers needing a larger orchestra generally record strings, brass and woodwinds separately and then mix them together later. There is talk of building a larger studio to accommodate the growing demand.

Says Raines, “We see ourselves as a state of content creators and storytellers. This is a way for us to help sell the state on our quality and efficiency and utilize our unique competitive advantage.” The pool of money available for the scoring rebate is expected to be $5 million, which, if it were all used, says Umstead, “would translate to $20 million worth of scoring work — a nice little incentive.”

But American Federation of Musicians Local 47 president John Acosta tells Variety that companies going to Nashville are taking advantage of the right-to-work laws to exploit talent. “They know that they can get these musicians cheaper by not having them under a union agreement,” he says. “They don’t have healthcare, or retirement benefits, or Social Security contributions or unemployment insurance.”

Prague contractor James Fitzpatrick has a different take. He notes that the competition for scoring has become worldwide. “With ever-tightening music budgets, more alternative venues and musical ensembles are on offer than ever before,” he says. “Surely that is a good thing for all musicians.”

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