Magic happens every day in Nashville.
Any garage, living room or makeshift studio space could be the birthplace of a life-shaping soundtrack. From first drafts to final recordings, some of the most influential albums in American history came to life inside rooms haunted by melodies from songwriting titans: Cash, Parton, Dylan, Kristofferson, Prine, Brooks, Lambert, Swift … and the list goes on.
Artists trek to Pie Town hideaways, huddle in Berry Hill basements or enlist polished Music Row operations. Every note could bring a songwriter closer to an idea — discovered after the first spin through Bob Dylan’s “Blonde On Blonde” or Taylor Swift’s “Red” — that they could cut a generation-shaping album.
Despite an ever-changing landscape for artists and fans, album-making remains a signature artwork that at its biggest can help define culture and — at its most intimate — offers an unshakable companion for life’s everyday wonders. TikTok fame? Instagram engagement? For some who enter Nashville virtually endless row of studios, disposable metrics come second to crafting a collection of songs that’ll long outlive the songwriter.
And in a city where some chase polished radio singles and fashionable trends, album-making continues to be a creative linchpin that can pull together an auditorium of sweaty, cathartic singalongs and propel once small-town singers to award season stages.
“Nashville has been above and beyond with talent,” said Dave Cobb, a Grammy Award-winning producer with credits including Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell and John Prine. “Incredible artists. Great singers, great songwriters. That’s why we all move here, right?”
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From vinyl to cassette tape, CDs, digital downloads, streaming and back to the LP, how fans consume music can feel a bit like playing a sport where the rules can change mid-game.
And what happens when a fan runs on the field to steal the ball? Enter: Piracy. Two decades ago, peer-to-peer file sharing upended the music industry in a way it never experienced before and wouldn’t again until COVID-19 derailed live entertainer.
Fans skipped lines record shops and department store electronics sections — where labels jockeyed weekly for endcap space — to instead steal albums online via Napster, Limewire and similar programs. Music sales — primarily CDs — began a slow spiral downward.
For example: In 2000, music revenue topped $14 billion, with $13.2 billion in CD sales, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. By 2010, overall revenue was cut in half, topping at around $7 billion. CD sales dropped to $3.4 billion that year, while digital sale crossed $2 billion.
“A lot of the erosion of CDs is a long-tailed thing,” said Doyle Davis, co-owner of Grimey’s New and Preloved Music in East Nashville. “I remember when I would go over an visit frineds’ houses and all they were using was an iPod with powered remote speakers. I would be like, ‘That’s your stereo? What happened to your real stereo?’ It got to where [they weren’t] playing CDs any more.”
But album-making? It continued. Artists didn’t stop creating, and fans never stopped listening.
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“People talk about songs for a second, and it just fades,” said Paul Roper, president of Nashville independent label Dualtone Music Group, home of Americana headliner Lumineers, country singer Hays Carll and more. “But if you have an album, it stands the test of time if it’s connecting and there’s something truly special about it.”
Around 2014, streaming became a go-to revenue source, a move that simultaneously transformed gatekeeping and music discovery — again.
And while still financially contentious for artists and songwriters who regularly lobby for higher royalty rates, streaming wrangled many from stealing music online into free or paid subscription models. Last year, music revenue neared $15 billion, the highest mark since 2000, according to the RIAA. Paid subscription streaming reached roughly $8.6 billion, more than 50% of all revenue.
Now — after years fighting to get a proverbial ball back on the field after piracy stole it — what happens if the rules to the game keep changing … and the old rules still exist? That’s releasing an album in 2022.
Artists and labels must navigate how to release music for all fans — digital natives, hard-copy album collectors, TikTok swipers and old-school CD buyers. Like endcap space decades ago, these groups now work to secure premier real estate on playlists and home pages across multiple streaming platforms, as well as vinyl subscription clubs and traditional storefront placement.
“Back in the day, it was: Take out some print ads, make sure you’re in the endcap at your chain, physical retail and try to get press and radio,” Roper said. He added, “It can be challenging. I think if you have songs that connect with people, they’ll discover the album.”
Despite a labyrinth of changes, many artists still want to cut an album sturdy enough to withstand any change the industry faces.
Last year, country artist Carly Pearce made the best album of her career to-date. The Kentucky-raised singer-songwriter channeled songwriting to grieve her brief marriage and public divorce on “29: Written In Stone,” a 15-song collection that propelled her to earn Female Vocalist of the Year at the CMA Awards and Female Artist of the Year at the ACM Awards.
The album connected immediately with women who heard themselves in Pearce’s words. In singing her truth, she printed a musical atlas for others who need to navigate life’s messy moments. While the project initially debuted as a seven-song EP, Pearce said that it didn’t tell a complete story.
“I put out the EP and I started to realize what I was doing,” Pearce said. “I realized that was just the tip of the iceberg of the story. I wanted to finish the story.”
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For some artists, like sisterly roots outfit Larkin Poe, creativity doesn’t come in single-song slices. Albums can capture entire creative seasons of songs that come in inspirational bursts of three or four at a time.
And three minutes may not be long enough to share someone’s entire story.
“For me as a songwriter, being able to create a body of work - instead of just a hand or a head, some isolated, creative endeavor - feels a lot more natural,” said Larkin Poe co-founder Rebecca Lovell.
Larkin Poe co-founder Megan Lovell added, “It is nice to have more than just one song to be able to tell a story. And that’s the beauty of the creation of an album.”
Sometimes, an album just needs to be an album — like Lucinda Williams’ “Car Wheels On a Gravel Road,” Randy Travis’ “Storms of Change” or Shania Twain’s “Come On Over.”
The same could be said for Chris Stapleton’s “Traveller.”
“People knew [‘Traveller’] was an album,” Cobb said. “It wasn’t meant to be broken up. … [you] put the whole thing on and really understand where he’s comin’ from at the time.”
Like playing a game from first to final whistle, releasing an album continues to make sense for industry gatekeepers investing top dollar in radio campaigns and marketing pushes for new music.
“Just all of the expenses that go into a recording an album - so many of our artists, fans buy their music in physical form - the economics of it still tilt heavily towards an album,” said David Macias, owner of Nashville independent label Thirty Tigers.
Albums largely remain a narrative-driven anchor in an artists’ career that media can embrace, Macias said.
“The press, maybe through a little bit of muscle memory, still treats the album the album release as the inciting event,” he said. “‘Here’s a body of where. This is what the artists’ come to say.'”
But delivery and discovery continues to change with each new Spotify feature and Apple Music campaign. For example, artists typically release multiple singles ahead of an album in a “waterfall” on streaming services, meaning fans can play each pre-released track simulantiously in a playlist that hopefully drives discovery to more than one new song.
Additionally, labels release remixes, deluxe editions and behind-the-scenes audio commentary in hopes of drawing new ears to an original album on streaming platforms. These providers can also push releases by email campaigns, push notifications and homepage algorithms that remind listeners of a new album.
“You can see a world where [music] does become more track-focused and more people are invested in passive playlists - they don’t know the artist,” Roper said. “But I think what we’ve seen it our artists [who] are translating a unique story in a compelling way are having careers. And careers are still tied to a record.”
And on top of the ever-changing rules for digital music, a long-pressed medium continues to regrow in popularity: Vinyl. In 2021, vinyl sales surpassed $1 billion for the first time since 1986, according to the RIAA. Albums from major star with fans hungry for a hold-it-in-your-hands listening experience - Taylor Swift, Adele and Olivia Rodrigo - topped sales last year.
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Why? Maybe because few things can top unwrapping the plastic, unfolding the artwork and sitting down for the first time with a new album spinning through a stereo.
“In the streaming environment, it’s a largely singles world,” Doyle said, “but when you get to buying vinyl, you’re getting the album experience. We can see from how much demand has increased, kids want that experience.”
Welcome to Liner notes, a new Tennessean series highlighting some of the ground-shaking albums to be released from Nashville this century (so far). From commercial powerhouses to critical mainstays, we’ll go behind the scenes each month with an album that helped shape today’s Nashville.
Want to see an album you love covered in an upcoming Liner Notes story? Email [email protected] with suggestions.