On The Record: Meet Ronald Corso

The owner of 11th Street Records and National Southwestern Recording on how to rev up the local music scene, a recent famous customer and vinyl’s revival

Ronald Corso | Photo by Jon Estrada

Ronald Corso | Photo by Jon Estrada

What was your impression of Las Vegas’ music scene when you moved here from Michigan in 1990?

I remember thinking that, as a songwriter, Las Vegas hadn’t been “done” yet. I had these poetic notions of becoming the Lou Reed of Las Vegas, writing songs about hookers and all that shit. I did open-mic nights at Café Espresso Roma, but there wasn’t any work for anyone who was into audio; [there were] no studio jobs. The best you could hope for was being a casino soundman. So I ended up working at a tree nursery.

But you kept your hand in music, right?

I got married and had children, so it went on the back burner. But that luckily coincided with the home-studio revolution. As consumer-recording gear and computer-recording gear became available to people at my level, I started building my own little home studio.

I looked for bands that I wanted to work with—A Crowd of Small Adventures, Hungry Cloud, Holding Onto Sound, Twin Brother, Wyatt McKenzie. A young Brandon Flowers came over to my house, in 2001, I think. I started making records for local bands, and by 2007, I began to get a little bit of local press for it. That led to Downtown Project finding me.

How did that meeting go?

I got a call from (former DTP music team leader) Ashton Allen, who was on a fact-finding mission about the local music scene. His first question was, “What could Downtown Project do to help cultivate the music scene in Las Vegas?’” My answer to him—and he’ll tell you the same thing—was this: “Where are you from?” He said, “Florida,” and I said, “The first thing they can do is quit hiring people from Florida to help our music scene.”

That was the beginning of what has grown into a very warm friendship. And at one point over drinks, he asked me, “What would you do if money was no object? Would you build a recording studio?” I said, “No. It’s a tough business, man. I wouldn’t want to do that” … but I had, at that point, already started the process of opening a record store. I had been accumulating records for years. I was actually looking for locations. I had applied at (the U.S. Small Business Administration) for a loan. I was going to do it.

So I said, “I’m in the process of opening a little specialty vinyl store.” And he kept saying, “What if we could combine the two?” And I came up with this business model, where the studio only has to pay for the square footage that it occupies. And here we are.

What inspired the studio’s classic feel?

I’m a big fan of mid-20th-century classic recording studios. You’ve seen all those black-and-white pictures of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Johnny Cash and Elvis making records? I wanted to build a studio like those black-and-white pictures, but in color. Something like the old, great studios—Sun, EastWest, United, RCA, Capitol—with their acoustic tile, checkerboard floors, big windows … I wanted to make an homage to that golden age—no lava lamps, no black-light posters, just a good-sounding room that’s big enough for a band to play in comfortably.

Studios used to be a place for capturing performances, you know? More like a photograph of a band playing. Then they became laboratories, where it was more like painting. You’d put a layer on, then put another layer on, then another. That’s cool; a lot of brilliant music gets made that way. But I like having a studio where people can play music together in a room, and capture those human moments.

Richard Branson recently visited the record store and studio. What was his reaction?

His first words when he walked in were, “Oh, what fun!” He looked almost wistful. I like to think he had a twinge of nostalgia: “Boy, my life would be much simpler if I could just hang out in a record store.” His empire began with a record store. You never know where life’s going to take you. He has a very big, awesome, complex life, and his reaction—“Oh, what fun!”—was very telling.

Aside from offering only vinyl, what sets your record store apart?

I tried to correct the things that I didn’t like about record stores. I don’t segregate by genre. The point of spending time in a record store is spending time in a record store. I want to slow down the process a little bit. If you’re a metal guy, you’re still going to have to look at jazz records.

It gets you thinking about context—seeing Miles Davis with Dio. It makes you see the connecting threads between the two.

It does. I love that. I even do it, during down time. I know damn well what’s in the racks, but I still flip through them a little bit every day.

You’re in what Downtown Project once hoped to make a “music block”—Bunkhouse, the forthcoming Wheel House and you. What does that area need to become a music mecca?

Rehearsal spaces for bands. A hotel marketed toward touring musicians or resident artists. Tour-van rental for locals. You’ve got to travel to gain new audiences, and that’s a financially prohibitive thing for a lot of bands. If I were to expand, I’d move into mastering and cutting. I’d love to have a short-run pressing plant that could do short runs of vinyl by local bands.

Vinyl has made a surprising comeback. What makes LPs sustainable in an era of streaming music?

Streaming music doesn’t satisfy. It doesn’t scratch the itch. It shows in the music that the music industry is putting out now—music for people who don’t really give a shit about music, because so much of it fucking sucks. I hate to sound like a cranky old man, but think about what was going on in the 1970s, when record companies were taking gambles on Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. These people made music that created social movements and emotional reactions in people. You’d almost think it was a conspiracy, killing off the power of that music.

Vinyl is the way to buy music for people who really do care about it. Those are the people who walk through the door and go, “Wow.” Nobody does that when they open iTunes.

Vegas Seven