SXSW: Niles City Sound envisions bright future for Fort Worth music scene

Leon Bridges performs at the Fonda Theatre on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Rich Fury/Invision/AP)

Niles City Sound is a Fort Worth-based recording studio that has time and again been credited with helping put Fort Worth on the music industry’s radar.

The Fort Worth Now house at South by Southwest hosted Niles City Sound producers and a local musician to discuss how studios can cultivate local talent.

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Musician Summer Dean moderated the discussion, comprised of Niles producers Josh Block, who grew up in Waxahachie; Austin Jenkins, originally from Weatherford; and Chris Vivion who’s from San Antonio.

These guys all had Texas roots and accidental or purposeful music backgrounds, so starting a recording studio came somewhat naturally to them.

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“I made it to Fort Worth about five years ago. I like helping people find what they want to say and express it, and we wanted to start a studio to do that,” Jenkins said. “We wanted to build a place to be a friendly and open environment for local musicians to hone their talent.”

With the goal of creating this creative space and a minimal budget, the crew set out to produce music that wasn’t what they refer to as “boardroom music,” opting for artists that, when they write, really care about crafting a song.

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After renting out wasted warehouse space in a large bar they outfitted the studio with vintage equipment, both out of budget necessity and sound preference.

“One of the things we didn’t have a lot of was ideal space or considerations, we just had the will to record it,” Jenkins said.

But that wasn’t the sole influence behind the vintage equipment approach Niles City Sound took when recording.

“We set up shop … and captured performances on an 8 track machine, tube console and some mics because that was the best way to do that (record) and still have a good sound,” Block explained.

“The other reason we did it is because so much of what you hear is what sounds like it’s being created in a void,” Block continued. “The natural ambience in our life — we shouldn’t miss that the second we put on headphones. We shouldn’t lose that. So, we set out to make music that sounds conversational.”

After finding some success with their methods of working with artists in pre-production versus the modern record and re-master to create a hit, Niles City Sound’s artist pool expanded beyond the locals. However, though Niles City Sound has worked with artists at the national and local levels, but they bring a true Fort Worth spirit to each client with their unique business model. Among the albums recorded at Niles City was an album by Leon Bridges that received critical and popular success. 

“We’ve kind of adjusted the model of our business and the studio’s business to support us investing in local talent that don’t have a budget or are still finding and developing their vision,” Block said. “What we liked about Fort Worth was that there’s just this spirit that seems to be kind of coming up from everyone who does anything in that town it’s kind of crazy. There’s this feeling of community that you don’t feel in a lot of places.”

But the buzz in the music community isn’t just because of what Fort Worth has to offer; the Niles City Sound approach is something Dean says sets the company apart from an artist’s perspective.

“Something I love about these guys and this studio is it doesn’t feel like you show up do your time and leave, it feels like an investment in the artist, and that’s one of the coolest things about Niles for sure,” Dean said.

That feeling of a culture of investment and deep diving into what will be successful for both the artists and the studio is imperative to the Niles City vision.

“One of the goals we have is to come in and workshop things with people,” Jenkins said. “It’s not a place with a time-clock running … in an uninspiring manner we really come in and get to the heart of what the artist is working on. We’re fairly big on what I call pre-production which is figuring out everything a little beforehand.”

The Niles City Sound vision coming to fruition means something larger for artists who call Fort Worth their hometown, it means the ability to stay in Texas to create art as opposed to moving to other industry saturated areas on the east and west coasts.

“It feels like a really exciting time to be in Fort Worth, there’s such a kind of energy and value out on I guess what you would call self-determinism,” Jenkins said. “The cool thing that keeps me there and keeps the studio there is this weird sense of independence that’s sort of rugged and stubborn.”

For the city of Fort Worth, being home to a thriving music community is beneficial for drawing new artists as well. Dean believes Fort Worth can not only attract, but retain these creatives.

“The more we do things like this the more people are going to come to Fort Worth to make and show their art,” Dean said. “If we can get our infrastructure big enough for music in Fort Worth people won’t leave because they can make their career here.”

Niles City Sound is in its third year of operation, but there’s more in store for the Fort Worth music scene as the producers hope to see their model of focusing on artist investment and development expanding throughout the music industry.

“More competition would be amazing for us because its just that much more press and that many more records coming out,” Vivian said. “It just keeps people directing their gaze towards fort worth, [and] anything that’s pushing the envelope out there that brings eyes back to that North Texas area is such a great thing.”