Our Observations

Studio Sessions: A Visitor’s Desire to be Engaged

Standing in the same room where international recording artists like Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, U2, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers and hundreds of others recorded some of their biggest hits was the motivating force behind a recent trip I took with a life-long friend.

Several lessons were learned about music history, personal reflection and, for the purposes of this blog, the importance of the user experience. The places we visited were incredible, but with rare exception did it seem like they wanted to ever see or hear from us again. 

Our trip started in Memphis, Tennessee at Sun Studios. Known famously for being the first place a young Elvis Presley was captured on a professional recorder, it became the locale for the “Million Dollar Quartet,” featuring Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. After its heyday and several years of not being used as a recording studio, it was revived it as a tourist destination in the late 1980s.

Our attempts to engage in conversation with the ticket agent fell on deaf ears and we got the impression she wanted to be anywhere but there.  While many furnishings – and the floor – appeared to be original, they did not appear to have been the subject of cleanings in quite some time. Merchandise was incredibly overpriced. The soda fountain offered time-honored treats to what was a very full house late on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-July.

The exceptions were the displays, the original studio and the most incredible tour guide we encountered on our entire journey. His enthusiasm for the studio, the artists who recorded there and the music of the era provided the perfect atmosphere as we walked through the small spaces. My hope is that he is teaching a college class on music history somewhere. If so, the students should consider themselves very, very lucky.

The next morning, we drove the 2.5 hours to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The town and its incredible place in music history were beautifully captured in a 2014 documentary “Muscle Shoals.” If you have any appreciation for rhythm and blues and pop music from the 1970s through 1990s, the documentary is time well spent. Currently, the movie is available via Netflix.

We were joined for the morning tour at FAME studios with about six others, including a family from England. Most of what we saw – and heard from the tour guide – was captured in the movie. Still, there was magic in seeing the same furniture, instruments and recording equipment that was used for hundreds of hits. A rather small selection of merchandise was available. 

We then ventured down Jackson Highway to the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios that was built as an alternative to FAME. The studio is much smaller, but seeing the places where groups like the Rolling Stones and others recorded was a treat. 

The next day was spent back in Memphis at the STAX Museum.  The original building was torn down many years ago, but benefactors and music heritage aficionados decided that the studio – which was originally a theater – needed to be rebuilt on the same location. They also added plans to house a museum and places where young people could take lessons and develop musical talents.

My thoughts in visiting these historic studios – beyond the musical thrill they provided – focused on the visitors' experience. At Sun Studios, the physical experience left me too much feeling like I was a walking ATM. Had it not been for the incredible tour guide, who clearly had a passion for the history he was sharing with us, I would have walked away very disappointed. His presentation, highlighted with providing context, showing up important artifacts and incorporating recordings into his remarks, made for an enjoyable experience.

In Muscle Shoals, there is a palatable sense of history walking into the studios. But the history is not preserved very well. Like Sun Studios, there appears to be a sense that money should not be spent on enhancing the visitor’s experience. The Muscle Shoals Sound Studios has made some attempts to use photos and foam core to share a bit of the history. From a marketer’s point of view, however, there is so much history that is lost, and unless you ask the right question, the tour guide may not share a valuable story with you. And, in both cases, there is little to buy to take away with you – other than recordings or a t-shirt – that will provide even more insight when you get home. 

Stax has wonderful exhibits and a nicely produced introductory video to get you in the mood for the museum. Clothing, personal items and even Isaac Hayes’ car are on display. The tour ends with a walk-through of the reconstructed studio with a large ceiling and the historic slanted floor. The gift shop has a wide range of souvenirs and materials to extend your appreciation of the visit.

Stax has the advantage of being able to rebuild its site from the ground up, whereas the other studios are dealing with original designs. Visitors to these historical sites need to feel engaged. The tour guide at Sun Studios understood this, but not his colleagues in the front of house. The people at Muscle Shoals could not have been friendlier – but I wish they had understood why those of us that paid the admission fee were really there to experience. 

Taken together, this was a very enjoyable tour. You could easily add Graceland, a visit to Tupelo and a tour of the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi. It’s a rewarding journey and one I recommend. Some moments will leave you wanting and others will inspire you deeply. When you’re done with the tour, take a moment to get some classic Memphis barbeque and order a drink from an outdoor venue along Beale Street.

If you have a historical business that attracts tourists, it’s important to take the time to find out why they are there. At all the places we visited on the tour, we were never asked to fill out a survey or to provide an email address to get on a list for future news. While Stax did offer a plea to support their cause, none of the organizations provided a personal opportunity to engage further with the organization. Collecting admission and selling souvenirs seemed to be the end game. But for my friend, the dozens of others who took part in these tours and me on those days, an opportunity for further involvement was lost. Don't let your organization lose those opportunities.

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