However the situation at Exit/In plays out, Nashville has received a fresh reminder about the precarious nature of its independent music venues.

The city’s oldest rock club is under contract to be sold to a company that focuses on boutique hotels, but has vowed to preserve Exit/In. The sale of the building is not final and it’s still to be determined if current operators, Chris Cobb and Telisha Cobb, can accomplish their goal of buying the property from prospective new owners AJ Capital Partners. In addition to the impact on the Cobbs, it remains to be seen if AJ Capital Partners intends to work with a major corporation like Live Nation to run Exit/In. In that scenario, the architecture of the club may be saved, but the city still will have lost an independent venue. 

In the meantime, Music City has been through this cage match before. Seven years ago, heirs of Owen Bradley and Harold Bradley sold historic RCA Studio A to an apartment developer who planned to raze the building where Dolly Parton recorded “Jolene” in order to build condos and a music-themed restaurant. As a former music business reporter, I covered the twists and turns of the Studio A saga, including the dramatic efforts by singer-songwriter Ben Folds, his inner circle and songwriter Trey Bruce to save the building. There was a moment when it looked bleak, and demolition permits were pulled.

As independent music venues become threatened by development, I should remind everyone that we are Music City not Boutique Hotel City. 

Preservationist Aubrey Preston stepped in at the 11th hour to pay the new Studio A owner his purchase price plus a premium. Today, Studio A is a crown jewel in the city’s music scene, operated by Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb and home to an array of successful small businesses.

While Studio A was spared the wrecking ball thanks to a benevolent millionaire, the broader impact of that close call was more of a mixed bag. In the wake of Studio A’s near demolition, a group of Music Row stakeholders convened with the city officials to ponder a new zoning code that would restrict density on parts of the street that, like the Rock Block where Exit/In is located, were under severe threat of redevelopment. The Music Row Code, as it was called, never came to fruition in part because of the same challenges that now confront Nashville in saving its independent music venues. Are we trying to save the architecture, which in many cases is frankly nondescript and perhaps unworthy of preservation? Or are we trying to save the historic and the cultural significance of the building?

The Ryman Auditorium. (Photo: John Partipilo)
The Ryman Auditorium. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Exit/In isn’t exactly the Ryman Auditorium when it comes to architecture, but virtually every major rock band in the last half a century has stood on its stage. Nashville’s creative class has seen this story play out time and time again. Entrepreneurs take great risk to start a music venue, see that venue become a tremendous asset to its neighborhood and increase property values, which then attracts developers who may, or may not, care about preserving the club.

With the lessons learned from Studio A, and having talked in recent weeks to city officials, music industry executives, lobbyists and preservationists, here are four easy steps I would recommend to saving independent music venues.

Take an inventory of live music industry

First, I would recommend Mayor John Cooper partner with a nonprofit to take an inventory of every music venue in the city, from our smallest rooms like the High Watt to our largest stadiums like Bridgestone Arena and Nissan Stadium.

The inventory needs to research these categories for each venue: 1. Who owns the club? 2. Who operates and books the club? 3. What genres of music does it book? 4. How old is the venue and what is its history? 5. What is its capacity? 6. What is its current zoning status? 7. Do the current operators have a long-term lease to maintain the building as a music venue?

A view of atmosphere during the Billy Joel performance at the 2015 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival - Day 4 on June 14, 2015 in Manchester, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
A view of atmosphere during the Billy Joel performance at the 2015 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival – Day 4 on June 14, 2015 in Manchester, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

The second question – who owns and books the venue – is vitally important because Nashville is in the midst of seeing its live music industry completely upended by corporatization. A decade ago, Live Nation, the mega company that also owns TicketMaster, had a corporate presence in Nashville but did not own or operate any venues. Since then, Live Nation has purchased a controlling stake of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, won the city contract to operate Ascend Amphitheater and entered into partnerships to help operate the Basement East, Marathon Music Works and the new Brooklyn Bowl venues.

AEG, Live Nation’s top corporate competitor, is in the midst of completing its new venue that will be located inside the Nashville Yards downtown development.

The goal of the inventory should be an honest accounting of the vibrancy of Nashville’s live music scene. Is there healthy competition or are the little guys, like Chris Cobb who has run Exit/In for 17 years, being squeezed out? Understanding the economic impact of the live music industry will likely reveal that Nashville has a concert industry that is second to none. There are small venues where up-and-coming artists can play all the way up to enormous stadiums where Beyonce and Taylor Swift can headline shows. There is an entire ecosystem, including touring professionals in charge of building stages, tour buses for rent and of course top flight musicians as talented as anywhere in the world. It’s at this point, I should remind everyone that we are Music City not Boutique Hotel City.

That takes me to the next step in working to save independent music venues, and that’s asking the government to actually do something about it.

Independent venue grant fund

Metro Councilman Jeff Syracuse watched the Studio A drama unfold from practically outside his office window. Although he represents the Donelson area on the council, Syracuse is an executive at BMI, the performance rights organization headquartered on Music Row.

Syracuse told the Tennessee Lookout he is hard at work studying solutions to help Nashville avoid the Studio A and Exit/In situations from happening over and over again.

Metro Councilmember Jeff Syracuse speaks. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Metro Councilmember Jeff Syracuse speaks at a rally to save the Exit/In. (Photo: John Partipilo)

One idea Syracuse is considering is a zoning designation for culturally significant venues – perhaps those with at least 15 years of continuous operation as a music performance space.

If the inventory above reveals that there are independent clubs with many years of operation and the property owner would agree to protectionary zoning, the city could offer as an incentive a grant to cover their property tax bill for up to 10 years.

The federal stimulus bill passed late in 2020 included the Save Our Stages Act, which offered grants to cover the expenses of shuttered music venues. That legislation was available to small businesses and not mega corporations like Live Nation.

The purpose of the grants would be to ensure that 3rd & Lindsley, the Bluebird Cafe and, perhaps most urgently, Station Inn, remain thriving businesses that are foundational to Nashville’s status as Music City. The zoning designation would prevent tearing down culturally significant venues in order to build condos or boutique hotels, but no one would lose their property rights. If an owner didn’t want to participate, that would be up to them.

And it’s very possible that not a single property owner would trade several years of relatively small grants in exchange for the ability to sell their buildings and truly cash out, like the Nash and Anthony families who own Exit/In are trying to do. That’s their business.

But, Syracuse says that it is urgent for Metro and other stakeholders to act now.

“Local, independent venues have always been considered critical places in Music City, so much that we allocated federal dollars via the CARES Act to support them,” Syracuse said. “The fight to keep Exit/In sustainable as a locally operated, independent venue is just one of several I fear. Cultural preservation is not just preserving the past, its advancing opportunities for the up and coming artists of the future.

“We can no longer take for granted any aspect of what makes us the global capital of music. If we want songwriters and artists to continue beginning their journey in Nashville, we need to provide our local, independent venues the support they need to ensure their sustainability. A key component of that is to also support the property owners where those venues exist.”

As the pandemic eventually comes to an end, live music venues will be looking to restart at a time when corporatization and redevelopment are swirling around them. No one knows what the concert industry, which over the last decade-plus has become by far the most profitable component of the music business, will look like.

Should Nashville do nothing, the independent music venues that became the city’s most valuable cultural assets could fall by the wayside.