Sound City Studios. From 1970 to 2011 this legendary studio recorded so many famous albums that it’s easy to now overlook the fact that, up until 2011, no one had ever heard of it. However in 2011, the drummer of Nirvana, lead singer of the Foo Fighters, and today one of the most recognizable figures in the music industry, Dave Grohl, purchased the then bankrupt studio and restarted it with his name attached to it. The first thing he did was release a collaborative album called Sound City: Real to Reel. This album, as well as the purchasing of the Sound City Recording Studios, was the successful execution of an attention intervention made by Grohl.
The audiences of this attention intervention were the fans of rock and roll, or the listeners. We are the ones who have enjoyed many albums released from Sound City without realizing where they were actually recorded, according to the documentary directed by Grohl, called Sound City. (Grohl, 2013) Before the purchase of the studio by Grohl, no one outside those labeled as musical artists were aware of the existence of Sound City, according to the same documentary. Grohl looked at this fact as an anomaly. When the studio was about to go under, he decided that an intervention had to occur to draw attention to the studio. Before the intervention by Grohl, the musical artists labeled Sound City as “the music industry’s best-kept secret.” (Grohl, 2013) After the attention intervention, everyone in the industry, including those just entering the scene such as myself, knew the studio Sound City. The reason this intervention is important is because Sound City deserves the same recognition as other recording studios such as Abbey Road and Motown and yet up until 2011 it received none. This paper uses the RSI model to analyze this intervention, as well as those laid out in Dave Grohl’s documentary Sound City and explains how Grohl promoted an attention shift among the listeners. Additionally, this paper also lays out an intervention discussed by Grohl in his documentary on the studio where the owners of the studio promoted a need intervention by labeling the studio and its sound as superior to its competitors. (Grohl, 2013) A search of scholarly databases turned up no research articles about the studio, however some rock ‘n’ roll websites are used in the post-intervention section of this paper, including Consequence of Sound and Pitchfork.
In 1969, Joe Gotfried and Tom Skeeter came together and purchased a fledging recording studio next to a parking garage in a back lot and named it Sound City. There wasn’t any action there at first, because the first few months were mostly spent bringing the studio back up to speed. Before Gotfried and Skeeter, Sound City was labeled a run-down grimy studio with outdated equipment that was to be avoided at all costs by those in the industry. (Grohl, 2013) The documentary actually opens with some of the early artists of the studio talking about this fact. Gotfried and Skeeter realized that they needed to create a reason to convince the artists to come to Sound City to record their albums. They needed to shift perception of need with their audience, the music artists, to convince them that Sound City was the place to go. Their solution was the Neve Soundboard. Costing $76,000, the Neve Soundboard purchased by Gotfried and Skeeter was one of four like it in the world and was the only one of those four that was custom-made. (Grohl, 2013) The analog board wasn't immediately recognized by the industry as being named as unique, because at the time the Neve electronics brand was also unknown. However over time, the board became one of the most well known boards in the industry.
What separated the Neve Soundboard from other boards in the industry is how much it could alter the sounds of the drummer. (Grohl, 2013) While the difference in sound may have been minimal to the ordinary listener, the difference was clear as day to those who were the targets of Gotfried and Skeeter’s need intervention. The only way that they could create the symbolic need among the artist audience was by producing albums so they could hear the superior sound of the drums and talk about it with each other. Gotfried and Skeeter needed a break to start this conversation. They hoped that it would come in the form of the Buckingham Nicks debut album. While this was the first major album recorded on the soundboard, it is viewed today as a commercial failure. Despite this, it did lay the groundwork for the break Gotfried and Skeeter needed, as well as, what turned out to be the formation of one of the greatest rock bands of all time. (Grohl, 2013)
The year is 1973. Thanks to a bit of luck, Mick Fleetwood was looking for a studio in LA and happened to run into one of the producers at Sound City who directed him to check out their studio. This was the break Gotfried and Skeeter were hoping for to begin their intervention. If they could get Fleetwood to sign a deal at Sound City on the Neve and record his next album there, every artist would hear the superior sound quality of the board. This sound quality and mixing ability of the drums, which was viewed as superior for its time by Gotfried and Skeeter, would bring the musicians in droves to come record at Sound City. While taking a tour of the studio, the track played by Gotfried and Skeeter to show off the board to Fleetwood was a track off of the Buckingham Nicks debut album. Fleetwood was sold on the sound and agreed to record his next record at Sound City. When one of the members of Fleetwood’s band left just before the initial recording session, Fleetwood recalled the track he heard at his first visit of Sound City and asked the members behind the album, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, if they wanted to create a new band, called Fleetwood Mac. They agreed, recorded their self-titled debut album at Sound City, and are still together rocking today. (Grohl, 2013)
As a result of the success of Fleetwood Mac’s album, Gotfried and Skeeter had enough clout to begin their need intervention at Sound City. Their audience bought into the superior sound of the Neve Soundboard, and they started coming in droves to record on it. To the artist, there was a symbolic need to use the Neve soundboard. The ability to alter the sound of the drums as much as you could on this board was unheard of at the time. (Grohl, 2013) Due to this freedom for the artist, as well as the distinguishable superiority in sound quality, the albums that came out of Sound City were superior to other albums of the time, and as a result they were successful among the listeners. While the listener may not have heard it on their vinyls, the secret was out among the target audience: the Neve Soundboard at Sound City was one of the best soundboards in the music industry. Many bands came through the studio after the success of Fleetwood Mac’s album and many recorded their best selling albums there, with most achieving platinum status (over a million units sold) at Sound City. (Grohl, 2013)
Unfortunately for Sound City, another need intervention occurred outside of their control in the music industry during the 80s because of the industry’s main audience, the listener. This intervention came in the form of the need for a synthesizer. Because of the success of bands like Duran Duran and Tears for Fears, the industry quickly turned to this fad as the next big thing and created a symbolic need for it, because that’s what the industry’s primary audience and source of revenue, the listener, wanted to hear. Sound City could not keep up. The anomaly that had been put in the background for years was that the Neve Soundboard was recorded with analog technology. (Grohl, 2013) The synthesizer instrument relied heavily upon digital technology, and because the technology was so new, there was simply no way for Sound City to be able to support this style of music. Before the studio knew it, this anomaly was in the foreground of the minds of the musicians, and there was nothing they could do to stop it.
To make matters worse, a stubborn mentality rose in the early days of Sound City that has stuck with the studio until they disbanded in 2011. Their philosophy was that they were not just sound engineers and producers: they too were artists. (Grohl, 2013) This was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because the sound engineers at the studio labeled themselves as the experts of how to use the Neve board. The artists would usually hand the production of their albums over to the engineers because they knew how to create the superior sound that Sound City was known for. It was also a curse when the fad of the synthesizer arose since the sound engineers of Sound City could not mix a synthesizer because of the limitations of the soundboard itself. While this philosophy of analog over digital was alive and well inside the studio, it was ignored everywhere else. Sound City was unable to use the influence it had obtained from 1973-1985 to convince anyone to come record at studio. No one saw Sound City as the place to go to meet his or her needs and to be successful. The studio fell into disarray from 1986-1991, releasing only one album in that span, which was a Fleetwood Mac Greatest Hits album. (Grohl, 2013) Gotfried and Skeeter needed a miracle to bring the studio back to its former prominence. To say they got one was something of an understatement.
In 1991, Sound City, on its last leg, got a call from Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl. Nirvana was looking for a studio to record their first album at. At the time, no one had heard of Nirvana. They were a tiny garage band stationed in LA that had yet to do anything even remotely memorable or noteworthy. Cobain had heard superior sound of the board, and knew that the sound of his band would be right at home on it. Fortunately for Gotfried and Skeeter, the need intervention they created before 1985 was not lost on all of the artists in the industry. For $600 a day for 10 days, Nirvana would record Nevermind at Sound City. (Grohl, 2013) Many in the music industry consider this album to be the greatest album of the 90s, as it almost singlehandedly killed the synthesizer fad and, with the help of Pearl Jam’s Ten, released just three weeks prior, started an entire genre of music that is still alive and well to this very day, called Grunge. (Grohl, 2013) Nirvana unintentionally caused an intervention that was noticed by its target audience, the musician. The intervention was the same as it was 20 years earlier: the Neve Soundboard was one of the best boards in the music industry, despite its use of analog technology. Sound City was once again in the foreground of the musician’s minds, and the anomaly of digital technology was once again put in the background of the musician’s minds. Everyone wanted to play at Sound City, and it seemed like everyone who did also became superstars, including Blind Melon, Rage Against the Machine, and Rancid all started on the Neve Soundboard in the first two years after Nevermind. (Grohl, 2013) Many more came to Sound City and recorded some of their most popular albums on the renowned Neve soundboard, which at this point was named as a legendary board by those in the music industry. (Grohl, 2013) Thanks to the success of many of the bands at Sound City, the studio again had enough influence to create an attention shift from digital back to analog within the entire recording industry. The need was once again in the foreground for artists to use analog and record at Sound City, and the studio was able to successfully mask the digital anomaly. This is considered the peak of the studio’s influence, which was in the late 1990s and early 2000s. (Grohl, 2013)
But nothing lasts forever. In the late 2000s, musicians began to shift from cooperating with recording studios to make their albums to doing it on their own on the computer. For years the recording industry had been able to mask the anomaly of the cost to record an album at the studio from musicians. They effectively did this because musicians had no other effective alternative than to spend thousands of dollars to use a studio. After all, Bands needed the sound of the studio. They needed a soundboard. However, the rise of the computer and applications like ProTools and GarageBand brought this anomaly into the foreground of the minds of the musicians. They realized that they no longer had a need to use a recording studio. All they needed to record a good album was a laptop. This intervention is still affecting the music industry today, as it has yet to find a way to respond to the practically free and homemade laptop-recording studio. One of the studios that fell to this rapidly rising trend was Sound City. Unable to pay its bills after the production of Arctic Monkey’s Suck It And See, the studio finally closed its doors in 2011. (Grohl, 2013)
In 2011, Dave Grohl, former Nirvana drummer and very well known musician and collaborator named Sound City Studios as “the greatest recording studio” despite its closure. He attributed that “greatness” to the Neve soundboard. In an interview of him in his Sound City documentary, Grohl said, “I thought that board would just go straight to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame [after the studio’s closure].” (Grohl, 2013) He found it a major anomaly that others were unaware of its greatness. Us, the listeners, had no idea what Sound City was. So, after buying the studio, he embarked on an intervention in the form of a documentary called Sound City and an album called Sound City: Reel to Real to change that.
According to Grohl in the same interview of him in his Sound City documentary, he gave the Neve Soundboard all the credit for his success. To him, the board is the reason Nirvana became as popular as they did and as a result made Grohl himself as popular as he is today. Without that board, he may still be in a little garage band somewhere in LA. (Grohl, 2013) He began this attention shift in order to give the board the same recognition it gave him back in 1991.
The documentary attempts to shift the viewers’ interpretation of Sound City Studios from “unknown” to “great” by changing what the viewer knows about the studio. Initially, Grohl brought credibility to the documentary by interviewing many of the prominent artists who recorded at Sound City throughout the years. Tom Skeeter and Rupert Neve, creator of the Neve soundboard, were also interviewed in the documentary. (Gotfried died suddenly shortly after the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind.) But the primary rhetorical maneuver of the documentary was Grohl highlighting the superior sound quality of the drums to the viewer. He did this by playing the drums in the studio and adding the recording track to the documentary itself. He then went on to play some of the more popular drum songs recorded at Sound City over the years. This maneuver put the naming of the “superior sound” that Gotfried and Skeeter had achieved during the run of Sound City in the foreground of our minds as the viewers. As a result, we began to also label the studio as “great” and with the help of this and the credibility of the documentary already established, Grohl created a successful intervention through the Sound City documentary.
To further create awareness of the studio, Grohl also released an album advertising the studio. This rhetorical maneuver caught the attention of listeners everywhere. Who could blame them? With names attached like Stevie Nicks, Rick Springfield, Joshua Homme, Trent Razner, and of course Dave Grohl, everyone’s attention was drawn very quickly. Grohl also made another bold move to advertise the album and bring attention to the studio. He collaborated with Krist Novoselic and Paul McCartney to create the first “Nirvana” track since Kurt Cobain’s sudden death in 1994, with McCartney standing in as the singer/guitarist. They called themselves Sirvana, and the song, called Cut Me Some Slack, was released in anticipation of the album in early 2013. (Grohl, 2013) Due to the work of Sirvana, the maneuver was successful and put the album squarely in the mainstream’s ears. This culminated in early 2014 when the song won Best Rock Song at the Grammys. Grohl even went on tour for a while in 2013 with some of his Sound City players to further promote the album. Rock site Consequence of Sound even wrote a complaint when this traveling homage to the studio was omitted from the renowned music festival Coachella in April 2013. (Young, 2013)
With the documentary, Grohl does a great job to label the studio as great. His tactic of using anomaly-featuring communication to point out all of the albums released over the years of Sound City’s life effectively brings the level of respect that Grohl desires out of the viewer. While the documentary was unanimously received well by critics, (it currently boasts a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes) the album was not. Consequence of Sound labeled the album as heavy yet tame and far too similar to the recycled music of Grohl and the Foo Fighters. (Hadusek, 2013) Despite the great names attached to the album, the critic Jon Hadusek says that the album falls into the world of clichés with its lyrics, despite a strong second half. Pitchfork called the album “as generic and laborious as a ProTools tutorial.” (Berman, 2013) However, the critics of the album still labeled the studio itself as great and the Neve board as superior to its competitors, even today. I think Consequence of Sound put it best when they summed up the album and its use as a rhetorical maneuver by saying, “Who cares if these songs suck, let’s do this for the good of rock music.” (Hadusek, 2013) Even the critics label the studio as great.
Since 2011, Dave Grohl’s Sound City has been relatively dormant. After the recording of Sound City: Real to Reel, which was released on March 12, 2013, no major artists have come in to use the studio. This is about to change though. On March 24, 2014, it was announced that the band Bush would be using Grohl’s studio to record their next album. Additionally, it was recently announced that Grohl’s main project, Foo Fighters, would be using Sound City to record their upcoming album. Beyond that, who knows? One thing is for sure: the board is still very alive and well. The studio now constantly receives recognition, as it was big news when Bush and Foo Fighters announced that they were going to Sound City. Not because it was BUSH going to Sound City. It was big news because Bush was going to SOUND CITY. The studio is now labeled as great not just by the artists, but also by everyone. This is thanks to Dave Grohl.
In conclusion, the attention intervention created by Grohl effectively shifted the attention of the listener by realizing that some of their favorite albums were recorded in this little building in a back lot next to a parking garage. Similar to Sound City leading to the quick rise of Nirvana, Dave Grohl’s intervention led to a quick rise in popularity for Sound City. There is greatness in Sound City. Now us, the listeners, can’t wait to hear what Sound City has to offer next.
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