An Open Letter To The Mayor of Music City
Dear Mayor Barry,
Congratulations on your first 100 days in office and best of luck with your stewardship of Nashville at this dynamic time. I’m sure you’re getting loads of advice and pleas for attention, but allow me to add my voice to the mix on the specific subject of asserting yourself as Mayor of Music City.
You have taken strong first steps in renewing the Music City Music Council and bringing Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires in to perform “Something More Than Free” at your inauguration. Of course you’re interested in cultivating Nashville’s music economy. But your administration coincides with a pivotal and delicate time for the larger musical ecosystem. So just because something is good for the music business as it’s traditionally been defined in Nashville, it may not necessarily be the best thing for today and tomorrow.
I say this because after a decade of digital disruption that leveled the music business playing field, fostering an exciting new era of art and commerce, the independent sector and the musical middle class are now at a critical juncture. From streaming royalties to internet neutrality, corporate entertainment and technology giants are working hard to assert control over music distribution and discovery. Many of the gains of the independent music sector, where creativity thrives, are in a precarious position. Much of that is happening far outside of Nashville of course, but there are issues in your purview that can help give art and diversity a fair chance in a world where commerce continually tries to assert mass market hegemony.
This urgent local issue offers you a chance to immediately stand up for the new music business. Recording has shifted from large legacy studios toward so called “home” studios, many of which are actually highly professional and working with artists in today’s vanguard. Of course, you don’t need a briefing on this. You sponsored legislation to end the blanket ban on studios in areas zoned residential, and you should renew that initiative now as Mayor. Certainly the right balance needs to be struck with respect to parking, congestion and noise, but coming down strongly on the side of progress and opportunity for smaller studios will send a strong message — that Nashville won’t artificially protect legacy business structures from innovative, affordable competition.
THE MUSIC COUNCIL
You’ve renewed Mayor Karl Dean’s Music Council with new chairman Joe Galante and new executive director Justine Avila. So no doubt it will be aggressive in its mission of economic development and its focus on recruiting business relocations and major media events. It has done wonderful work rebuilding music programs in Nashville’s schools. But you might be aware that when it was founded in 2011, the Council’s mission statement proposed “cultivating and advancing the ever expanding music community” which suggests to my ears a commitment to musical diversity. Initially there were many more voices on the council, including independent genres and Nashville-centric formats such as Americana and bluegrass. But they were dropped in a reorganization about three years ago. I’m concerned that with a council composed of people working in corporate scale entertainment, the musical middle class and the independent genres so vital to Nashville’s quality and culture may lack a robust and representative voice in your administration.
A very bright star in the constellation of the new Music City has been Project Music, the business incubator/accelerator set up by the Nashville Entrepreneur Center. This has been a space where great ideas have been able to touch all genres and all levels of music art and commerce. Granted, this is not a public agency or a Mayoral function, but you could have influence on the direction of Project Music with your engagement and priorities. I’d only recommend one tweak: encouraging the Entrepreneur Center to look at its heavy emphasis on technology-driven business concepts. Apps and software can change the world, but so can new, non-digital models for developing artists and cultivating demand for great music that doesn’t have deep support on radio or television. It would be heartening and exciting to see startups focusing on novel music presentation, broadcasting/podcasting, brokering of intellectual property and career development. You can also celebrate pre-Project Music entrepreneurial success stories like Thirty Tigers and Sorted Noise as examples.
REFORM THE EVENT MARKETING FUND
I’ve saved for last what I see as a trouble spot in the Music City policy portfolio. Every night, every occupied hotel bed in Nashville generates fifty cents for a fund that is disbursed as grants to events that “expand or enhance the Music City brand.” The bulk of this money, nearly two million dollars a year, has gone to support the CMA Music Festival and the Music City Bowl and I’d be shocked if it didn’t also help underwrite that not-very-classy Sports Illustrated swimsuit beauty pageant as well. Please take a hard look at the priorities and practices of this fund. Because a rich array of other events that expand and enhance Music City have been passed over. I know first hand that the International Bluegrass Music Association’s convention was denied even a modest grant during its challenging recession years, and that this was a factor in moving its World of Bluegrass event to Raleigh, NC. Americana has received far less than proportional support to market its amazing Fall festival to new constituencies and potential visitors despite the format’s engagement of dozens of Nashville businesses and thousands of artists and musicians. Applicant events are required to generate $5 million in direct visitor spending, a threshold that seems arbitrary and exclusionary. The grant criteria should also include an event’s cultural merit, its impact on independent music and its lack of access to major corporate sponsorship. When CMA and Music City Bowl have companies like Chevy, Colgate, Under Armour and Bridgestone lining up to fund them, it’s hard to see why they are first in line for city support as well.
Music City and you as Mayor should absolutely support and cultivate major label music, our lucrative publishing industry and large scale concerts and events. But sometimes historic inertia and a sense of entitlement leaves the have-hads with the political power to box out the should-haves. I know this is of concern to you in the general economy. I look forward to seeing how those values play out in support of the musical middle class and independent music sector.