Pandemic pushes bill to legalize home recording studios

By: - May 12, 2020 7:00 am
Home studio owner Lij Shaw, 52, has been fighting over the home studio business since 2015. "People can't play together over the internet, it's just not possible." ((Photograph by John Partipilo ©2020

Home studio owner Lij Shaw, 52, has been fighting over the home studio business since 2015. “People can’t play together over the internet, it’s just not possible.” (Photograph by John Partipilo ©2020)

Just a few weeks before thousands of Davidson County residents were forced to work from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a Metro Council bill to legalize home-based businesses advanced to the brink of passing.

The legislation, sponsored by Councilman Dave Rosenberg, has stalled since then but is scheduled to be considered for public hearing and second reading next month.

Rosenberg is seeking to succeed on a proposal that has famously failed several times in Nashville – allowing business owners to operate out of their homes with some restrictions on parking, noise and number of visitors allowed per day.

The bill would impact thousands of businesses, Rosenberg estimated, but the issue is especially salient in Nashville to professional producers and sound engineers with home recording studios. To music industry professionals, it remains a zoning loophole as out-of-place as listening to a cover song at the songwriter-centric Bluebird Cafe: Commercial home recording studios are against the law in Music City.

Rosenberg argues that the pandemic has irreversibly altered the way business is done, and his legislation, while needed before COVID-19, is even more important now. He said his bill will eliminate a don’t ask-don’t tell zoning law and in its place codify what is already happening in virtually every neighborhood in Davidson County.

But, critics say the legislation flew under the radar because of the pandemic, which has muted opposition. Neighborhood activists also worry that allowing commercial uses in residential areas will disturb neighborhoods and stress the already stretched-thin Codes Department.

“It really was just, as I was considering various issues coming up in council or reading old news stories, it struck me as something that was anachronistic and fundamentally unfair,” Rosenberg said, explaining why he filed the legislation to allow home-based businesses. “It seemed like the time was right to fix this now with a younger council and the fact more people are working from home. I didn’t realize how critical it was going to be with the catastrophe going on right now.”

Metro Councilmember Dave Rosenberg. (Photo from Dave for Bellevue website)
Metro Councilmember Dave Rosenberg (Photo from Dave for Bellevue website)

Under the current law, home-based businesses are legal but can’t have any visitors. So, an accountant is allowed to work from their home. But, the moment a customer drops off tax forms, it’s a violation.

In reality, the understaffed Codes Department isn’t enforcing the law at all except when it receives complaints from neighbors.

Record producer leads push for home studios

Nashville record producer Lij Shaw received one such complaint four years ago, which has turned him into the face of the push to legalize commercial home studios. Shaw attempted a rezoning, which failed, and has since sued the city.

After losing at the local level, Shaw’s appeal is still pending. Braden Boucek, vice president of legal affairs for the Beacon Center, a nonprofit organization that has advocated for lifting the home-based business ban, said it is “unfair and nonsensical that the city of Nashville continues to spend taxpayer money to defend its archaic ban on home businesses during a pandemic, including music studios in the city.”

In the meantime, Shaw has become the grassroots organizer and chief spokesman for Rosenberg’s bill. As of Monday afternoon, 110,102 people had signed Shaw’s petition supporting the legalization of home recording studios.

Shaw, who performed a song about home studios during a council hearing on the bill earlier this year, estimates that about 6,000 supporters are Davidson County residents. Shaw represents a very common Nashville music industry story because he expanded his home studio business at a time when commercial studios were becoming too expensive and home equipment made recording world-class records cost effective.

Shaw says the pandemic will only lead to more producers seeking facilities at their houses because recording budgets will be tight and Music Row recording studios will often be too expensive. Shaw worried that Mayor John Cooper’s proposed 32 percent property tax increase will make renting commercial studios even more expensive, as the tax increase will be passed down to those who lease the studios.

He predicted home studios will see their popularity continue to rise. 

Photograph by John Partipilo ©2020
Photograph by John Partipilo ©2020

“It was just really important before, during and after this situation with quarantine for Nashville to allow home businesses to exist,” Shaw said. “It’s important for Nashvillians to be able to support themselves that way and make a reasonable, honest and considerate living by working from home when it’s something that Nashville does a lot anyway. It’s at the core of the music business here in Nashville with recording studios, and songwriting and everything that comes with it.

Neighborhood activists push back

Leading the other side of the debate is John Summers, chair of the Coalition FOR Nashville Neighborhoods, and one of the city’s most outspoken neighborhood activists. Summers said the arguments against home-based businesses are the same as they were a decade ago when a similar proposal failed.

Customers park on residential streets. Noise complaints go up. Traffic increases in calm neighborhoods. Referencing the city’s decision to allow short-term rentals, Summers predicted that should Rosenberg’s bill pass it will lead to a slippery slope of developers pushing for more and more commercial uses in residential zones.

“Everytime Nashville neighborhoods have learned about a proposal allowing commercial uses in residential areas, they’ve opposed it,” Summers said.

Summers also said he is concerned the issue has advanced during the pandemic, making it difficult for opponents to get the word out about the impact.

Photograph by John Partipilo ©2020
Photograph by John Partipilo ©2020

Rosenberg’s bill restricts the number of people who can frequent a home-based business at a time to just three and allows neighborhood associations to ban them. But, Summers said Codes already has a difficult time enforcing existing regulations and there’s no reason to believe the department will be able to crack down on bad operators.

“You also have a situation where there are many small business owners who have played by the rules, paid their commercial tax rate and taken on all the expenses that come with running your business by the rules,” Summers said. “And now, we’re going to give them government-approved competition in residential areas and during this tough, tough time for small businesses make it that much harder for them.”

Rosenberg said he can’t predict whether his bill will pass next month. Cooper’s spokesman Chris Song said the “subject requires careful consideration and input from all our neighborhoods. We defer to the Metro Council as members continue to engage directly with residents and small business owners in examining the proposed ordinance.”


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Nate Rau
Nate Rau

Nate Rau has a granular knowledge of Nashville’s government and power brokers, having spent more than a decade with the Tennessean, navigating the ins and outs of government deals as an investigative reporter. During his career at The Tennessean and The City Paper, he covered the music industry and Metro government and won praise for hard-hitting series on concussions in youth sports and deaths at a Tennessee drug rehabilitation center. In a state of Titans and Vols fans, Nate is an unabashed Green Bay Packers and Chicago Cubs fan.