Rocky Mountain Way
Colorado isn’t widely known for its importance in the music industry, but maybe it should be. With a collection of Grammy-winning recording and mastering facilities in the Boulder area, and new ones being built, the world’s most important and unique performance venues and festivals, and an entire genre of music emerging from the area, Colorado is making a name for itself in the ever-changing music business.
In the early 1970s, Joe Walsh, Elton John, Chicago, Stephen Stills and Manassas, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart and other musical giants past and present recorded at what was the accidental hotspot of destination recording studios: Caribou Ranch.
Jim Guercio started it in a barn on his 6,000-acre spread outside of Nederland, and word traveled about the scene in the mountains. Artists flowed into town looking for an out-of-the-way place where they could write and record without the distractions of the real world.
“There was a mystique,” said Kenny Passarelli, bassist, songwriter and producer. “It was a pretty cool place to get into back then. It was expensive. There were guards, a 24-hour chef and accommodations. If you had a major band with a budget, you could do it.”
In 1985, the studio was lost in a fire and has been closed ever since, but not before it put Colorado on the music industry map. A lot has changed in the last 25 years, mostly in the way people listen to music. That has changed everything. Passarelli, who co-wrote and recorded “Rocky Mountain Way” with Joe Walsh at Caribou, points out that big budgets for high-end boutique recording don’t exist anymore.
Today, listening to recorded music happens on ear buds, and downloading music from the Internet, YouTube, iTunes and Pandora has put an end to the record industry artists knew when Caribou was in business.
“These days the challenge is getting noticed among the cacophony of everyone doing the same thing,” said Tom Wasinger, a Grammy-winning Boulder musician, producer and engineer.
Wasinger operates a recording studio and production facility a few miles outside Boulder and has been in the music business for more than 40 years as a performer, engineer and teacher. The walls of his studio are lined with instruments while a trio of Grammys he won for production work sit on a shelf overlooking workspace. In the old days (pre-Internet), he said performers had to deal with the bottleneck of big record companies controlling what would get produced and ultimately played.
“A friend used to call it ‘vampires at the well.’ He was talking about the wellspring of creative people and the vampires exploiting them,” Wasinger said. “That scenario is gone, and a lot of pretty nasty people are off doing other things.”
Just 10 years ago, selling records – and later CDs – was the name of the game, and artists would tour to boost record sales. This is still the case for well-established performers. But for many artists, income from record sales is small compared with revenue from live performances, and many will give away the recordings online to keep their fan base interested until the next tour comes to town.
The old ways may have faded into the background, but the best still exist, and new models built on a mixture of what is happening today with what was so great about Colorado’s musical history are emerging. Nick and Helen Forster, founders of the weekly nonprofit radio show eTown are creating something uniquely Colorado in their new eTown Hall.
In 2008 they purchased a 17,000-square-foot church in downtown Boulder that they are rehabbing into a state-of-the-art performance and recording facility. Along with an intimate 200-seat theater for producing the live show – what Nick calls a ‘listening room’ – he will also have a 1,250-square-foot recording studio that he hopes will re-create some of what Caribou Ranch had 25 years ago.
“I think we can infuse some Caribou juice into what we have here,” Forster said. “To create a (recording and performance) environment like that will offer something to Boulder that it’s never had.”
The multimillion dollar project is funded with donations and income from sponsors and performances. So far about 25 percent of the project is complete in the form of new offices. Demolition has started on the rest of the project, and Nick hopes to see it completed by the end of the year.
Along with changes in how people listen to music is how music is recorded. In the days of Caribou, equipment needed for quality recording was large, expensive and difficult to set up and use. That’s not true anymore. Most performers are making adequate recordings in their homes or on the road with a relatively small investment, further marginalizing the big record companies. With the staccato collection of recording facilities ranging from professional studios like Wasinger’s or Immersion Studios in Boulder to the home-based setups, the job of mastering the various pieces of the puzzle into a unified CD is tougher than ever.
“It’s possible to do amazing recordings from your home…. It’s rare for me to see a project recorded in commercial studios all the way,” said David Glasser, founder and chief engineer at Airshow Inc., a mastering studio in Boulder. “Equipment was really expensive; now it’s not, and many (recordings) are done in little project studios.”
Glasser’s spacious facility in Boulder has the comfortable feel of a living room with the sound-deadening insulation that creates an isolated listening environment perfect for putting the finishing touches on recordings. The walls are lined with Grammy nominations and gold and platinum records for mastering and recording. His two Grammys sit in the studio beneath one of the towering speaker arrays. He’s currently working on a 72-CD set of live recordings from The Grateful Dead’s 1972 tour of Europe.
“Our area has an amazing music scene,” Glasser said. “The Front Range is a hotbed of bluegrass acoustic music. You don’t find that in many other places, and that’s why we’re here.”
Music often defines the character of a city or region: Chicago is known for the blues, Nashville for country, New Orleans for jazz. Colorado is known for bluegrass. Along with eTown, Nick Forster was also a founding member of the 1970s bluegrass band, Hot Rize. His band used electric instruments, phasers and other electronics to give it a more progressive sound – sometimes tagged “New Grass.”
“Hot Rize helped push Colorado into bluegrass consciousness,” Forster said. “Today, String Cheese Incident, Yonder Mountain String Band and other jam bands have made Boulder County a home for that scene.”
Forster says that one of the things that makes Colorado’s music scene so special are the number of people who crave live music and their willingness to buy tickets for live performances. Of course, the quality venues don’t hurt. From one-of-a-kind Red Rocks, to the Fox Theater and tiny Swallow Hill in Denver, great music outlets are everywhere.
“It’s partly a strong economy, but it’s also just a thing that people like to do,” Forster said. “It’s part of the culture of the state … so it’s great for performers. Producers are bidding for the artists, making it more lucrative for the performers. It’s also driven, to an extent, by the party culture.”
Proof of this phenomenon is Planet Bluegrass in Lyons. The festival promoter puts on three of the biggest bluegrass festivals in the world: Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Rocky Grass and The Folks Festival in Lyons. It also promotes a series of shows in the spring at its Wildflower Pavilion.
On a chilly Friday evening in March, a string of cars files into the gravel and dirt parking area at the Planet Bluegrass compound on the outskirts of Lyons for a sold-out show. The rustic 300-seat venue is packed to standing room only. Beer is selling from folding tables in the back, and occasionally a stray bottle will clank onto the concrete floor, adding to the full-body experience of the place. This homegrown scene is a taste of the festival atmosphere when 10 times as many people flood the area for a weekend of listening to music, catching up with old friends and jamming with new ones around a campfire.
Rocky Grass, held in June, is a mecca for bluegrass aficionados. “Festivarians” as they’re called, travel from around the world and all 50 states to take part in the 39-year-old event. Just before the festival, a weeklong series of clinics and organized jam sessions, headed by professional musicians, is so popular it sells out in December via lottery. The other two events are no less popular with Telluride Bluegrass Festival drawing 10,000 people each day of the four-day event and the Folks Fest in August taking in 3,500 each day.
“The business has been really good to us,” said Brian Eyster, 37, director of marketing and communications with Planet Bluegrass. “Last year we sold out every festival ticket. Bluegrass is such a social music. You can pick up acoustic instruments and play. That goes with the Colorado mindset of being outdoors; it’s creative and collaborative. It makes a great place for it to thrive and new genres to form.
“Amid all of this, one constant remains,” Forster said. “For the average touring artist with 150 to 250 dates a year … the musical experience of touring and selling CDs at shows hasn’t changed. The bottom line is: Can you make good music that expresses feelings and moves an audience?”