Memphis, TN’s Ardent Studios celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. Instrumental in this achievement is original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, who is now the studio’s director of business development. Artists who have recorded there include Led Zeppelin, James Taylor and Isaac Hayes. Big Star is also counted among the studio’s alums. The label arm, Ardent Records, has earned seven Grammy nominations.
Any studio that thrives for 50 years clearly understands its business. How has Ardent Studios remained productive? “They have people like John Fry at the helm,” Stephens explains. “He started the studio in 1966 in his parents’ garage when he was 14 with two friends, John King and Fred Smith. They struck a deal with an independent London record store for it to send them the latest English releases from bands such as the Beatles and the Stones.” Smith later founded Federal Express. Fry died in 2014.
Stephens’ primary duties include bringing in new clients and conferring with past ones in an effort to entice them back to the studio. “You revisit loyal and past clients and you look for new business,” he explains. “And I help with the label when I can. There are no walls between departments. We all help out when and where it’s needed.”
Running a studio in the wake of the changes the industry has undergone comes with unique challenges. “We went through that period of home studios and, of course, many people still have them,” Stephens explains. “That can be done successfully, but for the most part it depends on the operator or engineer. Folks are rediscovering—or want to discover—what a proper studio experience is. One thing Ardent can provide is a community. We have three studios and artists interact between them, since they share the same path and dream. As Fry said, ‘Walking into Ardent, good things can happen because good things have happened.’”
Like any prominent studio, Ardent keeps a number of recording engineers on staff. “Sometimes artists bring in their own, but we’ve got engineers like Adam Hill and Mike Wilson,” the studio exec informs. “Especially with regional and local projects, folks are looking for a full-service thing. Frequently the engineer ends up becoming the producer.”
Another key to Ardent Studio’s longevity is to remain affordable. “We make our rates competitive and there’s talent in the studios,” Stephens says. “That’s key to having a successful experience. People come in with a dream and we want to help them fulfill it. Just as with major clients, we make sure [new clients] have a great experience while they’re at Ardent.
“Some artists are superstitious,” Stephens continues. “If they’ve recorded a successful album here in the past, they return to that same environment.”
Finding new clients can be a challenge. But personal connections and face-to-face meetings can go a long way toward fostering new relationships. “Saying hello to someone in person is probably the most effective way to bring in business,” Stephens asserts. “I went to Nashville in 1987 to call on folks. R.E.M. was working on Document. I knew [guitarist] Peter Buck and had lunch with him. Later I went to the studio and met the [rest of the] band. That resulted in them coming to Ardent Studios to record Green. A similar thing happened with The Afghan Wigs and [1996’s] Black Love.”
Bands on the Ardent label with current or forthcoming projects include Greyhounds and Those Pretty Wrongs. A number of artists also have singles planned for this year. The label is always interested in talent that’s appropriate for its roster and accepts unsolicited demos.
For more information on Ardent Studios, visit ardentstudios.com.