In the first of our 3 installments, we dig deeper into the DNA of the city of Nashville, TN, which has made headlines in the last few decades as one of the top up-&-coming cities in the USA.
In this installment, we will explore the making of “Music City USA,” which has contributed to the establishment of Nashville as a “top destination city.” The second one will explore the community dynamics within Nashville’s music industry, and the final piece will be dedicated to the future of Nashville as a city—particularly “Nashville Next,” the urban vision for its future.
Racing toward the future, cities will need to spare no effort in becoming destinations for talent, innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship. Being able to create and foster a vibrant, inclusive and connected city is key for growth and prosperity, especially with the current generation clearly leaning toward living in dense and social urban cores.
Nashville has been successful in creating a cool and appealing brand that has attracted the attention of people around the globe, resulting in more than 80 people per day moving there. Travel and business magazines often include it on their Top 10 lists to travel or start a business, and shows like “Nashville” have given it more global exposure in the last 5 years.
Dubbed “Music City USA,” it serves as a hub for the music industry and is just one of an array of nicknames: “Athens of the South”, “Nash-Vegas”, “Little Kurdistan” (reference to its large Kurdish community) and even “Cashville”, popularized by rapper Young Buck on his 2004 album. The abundance and variety of bottom-up nicknames show nothing but the richness and diversity of the city’s social fabric.
During our visit to Nashville, and multiple interviews with city officials and community leaders, we noted the confidence and pride in the sustainable long-term growth of the city that started more than 2 centuries ago.
With the regular life cycles of the national economy, Nashville has had its ups and downs, but overall, has been growing steadily, with music at the core of its DNA, and has enjoyed a significant $10 billion impact on the economy.
A study by Richard Florida concluded that Nashville has the highest concentration of musicians and music-related businesses in the United States. This steady growth, in addition to its music identity, has supplied the city with a notable source of pride.
It’s one of those few cities you hear city officials and business leaders mention, in a confident manner, regarding their progress and future. “If I showed you the strategic plan we wrote in 2003, it probably holds a record for executing the outline strategies; I’d say we probably achieved 99% of the plan,” Butch Spyridon, President of Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., told us at the start of our meeting. That was the affirmative tone we were hearing during most of our interviews in the city.
If Nashville’s focus in the last two centuries has been to “attract growth,” now is a turning point in which the city is reorienting toward “managing growth” to ensure inclusiveness and sustainability. (I’ll dedicate the 3rd installment to discussing the challenges of growth in terms of affordability, gentrification, transport, authenticity and the plans to address it.)
A Hub for Creativity
When it comes to history, geography has its influence. Starting with a few settlements in the late 18th century and a port on the Cumberland River, the city grew quickly, becoming the capital of Tennessee by 1843. Rivers have always played important roles in connecting cities and communities to the world, allowing the flow of culture, people and goods. This is one of the reasons the city has been prosperous during most of its history, leveraging its strategic location as a trade and shipment hub, then later, a major railroad hub.
Of course, being a southern trade hub in the 19th century also meant a history of slavery and acting as a key battleground during the American Civil War. This led to a vibrant civil rights movement later in the 20th century that enriched the following creative scene.
After the Civil War, the city fostered an exceptional educational tradition, as part of the Reconstruction period of US history, which earned it the nickname “Athens of the South.” This included the founding of universities such as Vanderbilt (1873), Belmont (1890) , Tennessee State University (1912), and some historically black colleges like Fisk University (founded in 1866, one year after the Civil War).
We met with Daniel B. Cornfield, Professor of Sociology at Vanderbilt University, to understand a bit more about the key components of Nashville’s DNA. “We have this tradition of universities which are generally, not always, positively related to [this] kind of creative city development,” said Professor Daniel Cornfield. “If you have organized higher education, it’s a city that’s willing to look at visions of things, whether it’s the old social order or to envision the new one.”
While Nashville had a white majority during the first half of the 20th century, this creative ecosystem laid the groundwork for progressive communities in Nashville (based around pluralism) that welcomed immigrants from all over the world during the second half of the century.
Professor Cornfield stressed this point: “Artistic communities generally, in a diverse democracy, are one of the countervailing forces against tyranny of the majority. And so, expressive occupational communities, whether they’re musicians, journalists, social entrepreneurs, professors, writers… those occupations—when they’re allowed to thrive as they basically are in the United States—they contribute to cultural pluralism.”
The Emergence of a Music Ecosystem in Nashville
Although there has been a vibrant country music scene in Nashville since the 19th century—including the opening of the famous Ryman Auditorium in 1892 (dubbed “Carnegie Hall” of the South), the true emergence of a music industry started in the 1920s, when several small radio stations went on air from Nashville, including the famous WSM and WLAC, launched in 1925 and 1926, respectively, by big insurance companies.
During the same year of launch, WSM hosted a weekly live show, called the Grand Ole Opry, that’s been on air ever since, making it the longest running radio program in history. Radio, a dominant music-discovery medium in the first half of the 20th century, gave the music ecosystem in Nashville a powerful national outreach to millions of American music fans and helped to promote country music.
In addition, several of the radio show’s staff members went on to create various businesses to complement the music industry ecosystem. Publishing houses, recording studios and independent labels started to open around the city. The Sound of Nashville emerged as a modern adaptation of country music, and the ‘A-Team’ of session musicians was one of the top choices for A-List singers like Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline and Bob Dylan.
Today, one-third of all vinyl records in stores are produced by one Nashville Factory: United Record Pressings. All of these businesses started to gradually add to Nashville’s competitive strength, relative to other music hubs in the US, especially the two main coastal hubs in New York and Los Angeles.
The Exodus to Nashville
By 1960, Time magazine reported that Nashville had nosed out Hollywood as the nation’s second biggest record-producing center, after New York. The music industry organically began to join forces and build its own hub in Nashville, driven by affordability of housing and real estate in the city, in addition to its central location providing a perfect hub for shipping records or starting a tour.
A neighborhood like Music Row, in downtown Nashville, thrived due to the hundreds of recording studios and companies located there. The Nashville sound started to emerge—via music pioneers in Nashville like Chet Atkins, Bob Ferguson and Owen Bradley—as a modern sub-country genre that helped to revive country music nationally, during the time rock ‘n’ roll was taking over.
The influx of musicians and music industries from the US and all over the world has helped to enrich the ecosystem to also grow as a center for R&B, blues, Gospel music and jazz.
The Country Music Association (CMA) emerged as a vital force in pushing country music further. CMA supported radio stations nationwide to adopt a country music format and launched the CMA Awards, in addition to the CMA Music Festival.
By the 70s, corporations and big labels started to follow musicians to Nashville—particularly from the two big coastal hubs (New York and L.A.)—not only to produce and distribute country music but to also benefit from the thriving industry boosting all genres.
This fueled more musicians coming to Nashville, especially from Los Angeles. “By 1990, that migration stream was pretty well-known, and with the diversifying stream of musicians coming to Nashville, you got—at a time in the US cultural history similar to the 60s—rejection of the established order; a lot of that sentiment would’ve been housed in New York and L.A., and so that kind of came into Nashville,” said Professor Cornfield.
Nashville’s Civil Rights Movement
Even though there were countervailing forces in the city, including a conservative Protestantism presence, Nashville had enough of an open cultural tradition, allowing the Civil Rights Movement to take off there in the 60s. “The upshot of all that is the role that Nashville played in the Civil Rights Movement was to train many of the famous Freedom Riders who went on to desegregate the South, especially to create voting rights and to dismantle Jim Crow laws,” explained Professor Cornfield.
Nashville played a key role, not only in protecting human rights, but becoming an exemplary city to produce human rights activists who would then go and bring down the “US-style apartheid.” “And so, Nashville has that tradition of an open society or a human rights tradition that I think is conducive to the creation, ultimately, of this mutualism among the creative sectors, especially musicians of many different genres and backgrounds.”
Professor Cornfield noted a quote in Billboard magazine by Tennessee Governor Frank Clement in 1963: “Country music was representing Tennessee’s heritage, culturally, and by the way, it brings in about $40 million in tourism and whatever to the state.” This highlights a clear recognition of the music scene’s role at the state level and definitely at a city level.
What is more interesting is the timing of this quote, which had been cited 3 years after the Civil Rights Movement of Nashville. “So, you had the two developments going on, which I do think are related, by the way, to the change in the music scene and from the bottom-up perspective, but it wasn’t a planned bottom-up cultural change; it happened. It was part of the Civil Rights Movement,” affirmed Professor Cornfield.
“What can I do for you?”
Travel + Leisure magazine has picked Nashville, 3 years in a row, as the friendliest city in the US. We sensed this friendliness before coming to Nashville, with the level of greetings and openness from city leaders, while we were preparing for the visit.
“What makes Nashville different is we are a city that says, ‘what can I do for you, not what can you do for me,’” noted Mayor Megan Barry, as a reference to the collaborative spirit in Nashville. “And that just permeates, and you’ll hear that when you’re out in the next days. People will just be warm and welcoming,” added Mayor Megan Barry.
“It starts with the people; it’s real. We work on it, we try to be mindful, especially as there’s an influx of new people, but that friendliness leads to willingness to help somebody. So, it goes from friendly to ‘Do you need a hand here?’ and ‘You’re lost? Let me give you direction,’ or ‘You ran out of gas? Here’s $5 to help you get to where you’re going.’ The city is truly built on random acts of kindness,” said Butch Spyridon.
This is due in part to migration to Nashville; most of the music community itself is comprised of migrants. A lot of the musicians see Nashville as a congenial and cohesive environment. “I believe that the major reasons why Nashville is a welcoming community—and this is important for all occupations, not just the creative ones—is its history in human rights; it’s huge!” proclaimed Professor Cornfield.
The Rise of Indie
Nashville did well in the 60s, 70s and 80s. This was when corporations and labels where dominant. Back then, the omnipresent industry was a complex structure based on division of labors and specialization: songwriters, publisher, singers, promoters, pluggers, labels, etc. The 90s, however, marked a shift toward a more entrepreneurial approach, where the music ecosystem started to be structured around generalists, rather than specialists.
Musicians were expected to run part—if not all—of the production, booking, promotion, writing and selling (sometimes from home). Nashville was poised for this latest phase of the music scene.
In this new era, relationships and coalitions have been very important, and every person in the ecosystem supports one another. “They are inter-dependent; they can’t do it all by themselves,” stated Professor Cornfield, about music entrepreneurs.
“Musicians had to reorganize themselves in form of coalitions that needed partnership and mutualism. The density of musicians in Nashville (density is 10 times higher than NYC and Los Angeles) provided the perfect platform for relationship building and organic bottom-up collaboration necessary for this new era. A waiter in the morning is a songwriter during his break and often play[s] in many bands and different genres in the evenings, hoping that he will be discovered by an independent label or build more fans for his Facebook. The different live venues and studios of Nashville are an ecosystem, in its own, in facilitating this organic flow of collaboration.”
Confidence Comes Through Focus
A walk along Nashville Broadway, on a regular weekday, was a bit surprising for us. Not only was it packed with live shows on both sides of the street, but the audiences were so diverse in terms of age and demographic, with a remarkable attendance of local Nashvillians that gave it an authentic touch.
It really is a utopia of live music, 365 days a year. What was also surprising was the fact that it’s comprised mainly of local music venues with almost no franchises or chains. We couldn’t find any Starbucks, H&M, MacDonald’s or boutiques selling “Nashville magnets and mugs,” which is the norm along similar famous streets around the world.
A big push for this came from Nashvillians themselves, but the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp (NCVC) also took this issue seriously. “We’ve fought hard; Walgreens had a contract on a building and we took the lead to fight that. There’s plenty of corners for Walgreens; it doesn’t belong on Broadway,” said Butch Spyridon, president of the NCVC.
“We don’t have gaming, we don’t have a theme park, we don’t have a beach, we don’t have the New York, Chicago, Dallas business travel; we have a brand, and our brand is our product. The brand is music, and its authentic, friendly offerings, and we have to do everything to protect that.”
The city is currently working on some formal zoning to protect the authenticity and uniqueness of the city’s music identity, even if it comes at the expense of losing some lucrative real estate investments. Citizens and visitors are appreciative, however, of this effort.
Macdonald’s had been on 2nd Avenue in the 90s, but it went out of business. “I think McDonald’s is killing it 8 blocks from here, but if they moved within 2 blocks, I think they’d suffer. The visitor doesn’t want it, the locals don’t want it and it doesn’t fit, and so people will vote with their wallets, and we’ll remind that we have a chance to talk to just exactly that. I’m not above going through the drive-up window at McDonald’s, but I’m not gonna do it in the core of what differentiates us,” added Butch Spyridon.
When the city planned for a convention center, they made sure it reflected the city brand, naming it Music City Center, “to make a statement about the city; even the convention center shape is music: roof like sound waver, ballroom like a guitar with a top-quality sound system.”
Many cities aspire to become music cities, and they invest differently to achieve this goal. Nashville, however, has made this goal the core of its DNA. What started as a bottom-up initiative from the community was eventually embraced by the city, and all stakeholders took it to the last mile.
It wasn’t seen as a tool to attract tourists or investment; it was carefully nurtured and protected as an identity, and compromises were made to fulfill this goal. At the end of the day, this is the power of focus, enabling the city to thrive and grow even during a period in which the music industry, as a whole, was suffering. It’s the power of focus that creates confidence.
In the next installment, we will further discuss the dynamics of the music ecosystem in Nashville, and in the final one, we will explore the city plans and vision to manage its growth.