Why Nashville should be the place where the music industry is blown up and fixed

Despite the commonly held belief that I live somewhere on the internet, I actually reside in Nashville, Tennessee. However, each year for business reasons, I travel several times to most of these following places: New York, Washington D.C., Chicago and the San Francisco Bay area. Those are the places that are “home” to the intersecting industries of my work: media, associations, marketing and technology.

As much as I’d like to think I could stay in one place and do everything I want to do virtually, I know that I must travel to those cities that are the centers of those industries. Those places are where I meet — face-to-face — with clients, with development and creative partners, attend board meetings, speak at or attend conferences and, as often as I can but not often enough, do that off-line, hanging-out thing that’s called everything from “meetup” to “camp.”

But Nashville is my home. It’s where I live and to where I always “return.”

It’s been with some irony that the thing for which Nashville is known around the world, the music business, is something I’ve never been involved with professionally. I’ve followed it (often “booing”) from the bleachers. And I’ve certainly ranted about it on this blog. But until recently, the only thing I’ve done regularly with music business insiders is ride the elevators in the office building where Hammock Inc. is on the 7th Floor and Capitol Records Nashville is on the 11th.

I have lived in Nashville for 30 years, so I can recall a time when local business, civic and social leaders actively distanced themselves from any association with “those hillbillies” in the music business. “Athens of the South” was the Chamber of Commerce-preferred sobriquet back then. All “official” city and chamber marketing and business-development efforts focused on education (with Vanderbilt serving as the marquee player), the healthcare “business” (it’s still the epicenter of the “for-profit” healthcare management industry), insurance and finance (where are they now?), travel and tourism (related to that hillbilly music thing) and religious-oriented publishing and printing.

About 25 years ago, some wise business people commissioned some marketing research that discovered something obvious, but unbelievable to “the powers that be.” I imagine when the researchers presented their findings to the Chamber of Commerce, they said something like this: The only people in the world who call Nashville “Athens of the South” and not “Music City” are the people in this room.

The people who ran Nashville back then had their world turned upside down. Their perception of their home as a genteel, progressive and intellectual center for education, commerce and the arts was mythology believed only by themselves. To the world, Nashville had become the mythological center of the redneck music universe.

At that point, those business and civic leaders could have dug in their heels and held onto their pasts, but an amazing thing happened. I’m sure with their noses pinched at first, the local business, civic and social leaders of Nashville began to accept the reality of what the world already new: Nashville is known for music and not all those many reasons everyone who lives here know it for.

During the past 25 years, a slowly developing love-fest has evolved between the “legacy” Nashville and the music Nashville. Banks, law firms, accountants, universities and philanthropic organizations have discovered mutually beneficial ways in which to serve the interests of the music industry and a little understood or appreciated, but extremely important “ecosystem” has emerged that has slowly made Nashville a unique music center and an unparalleled music business center.

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Recently, the demographer, economist and author Richard Florida wrote on The Atlantic’s website (a follow-up to a cover story) that, over the past three decades, Nashville has gone through a process related to the “music business” much like Silicon Valley did in technology.

Florida writes:

“While Nashville may not possess the size and scale of New York City, the celebrity-making allure of L.A., the top-40 hit-making appeal of Atlanta, or even the critical cachet of Austin or Montreal, across many genres it possesses the world’s best writing and studio talent and the best recording infrastructure. Today, it’s home to over 180 recording studios, 130 music publishers, 100 live music clubs, and 80 record labels. It’s turned into the Silicon Valley of the music business, combining the best institutions, the best infrastructure, and the best talent. And, like Silicon Valley’s broad reach across many high-tech fields from hardware to software, biotech to green energy, Nashville has become the center for multiple musical genres from country and gospel to rock and pop, attracting top talent from across the United States and the globe.”

As I said, despite knowing some “music people,” I have never done any work related to that industry. Yet over the past few months, I have discovered that my interests are finally intersecting with some people in the music industry — primarily people who have realized what the Chamber of Commerce people in Nashville learned long ago: You can cling to what you want to believe your world is, or embrace what the rest of the world has decided your world actually is.

Over the past few months, some very creative and connected individuals have asked me to, well, “just talk with them.” And I have. I’ve listened. And I’ve shared my thoughts. Nothing formal. I’ve loved what I’ve heard and I’ve come to realize that the bridge across which the music industry must pass to “get to the other side” is likely here in Nashville. Not because this is where the legacy industry is and certainly not because this is where the “executives” are.

Nashville is the place because of what Richard Florida observes: it’s where the creative talent — the equivalent of Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs and programmers — have decided to meetup.

Just like when I look at the media business and observe that it’s a wonderful time for those not burdened with the death-inducing weight that is dragging down the legacy giants (i.e., massive debt and the need to run those printing presses everyday), I look at the music business and think, except for the record labels and the industry-dominating legacy giants, this is a lovely time to blow up the music industry from the trenches of Nashville.

[Thanks to David Shaw for the TheAtlantic.com link.]

  • Jim

    Great article, lets hope it comes true!

  • You’ve already got things like NoiseTrade coming out of East Nashville, trying to shake up the way things are done.