Metro agencies, nonprofit groups partner to assess live music industry

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

Metro Council unanimously approved last week a resolution to study Nashville’s beleaguered live music industry and offer solutions that can save its endangered independent concert venues.

The proposal was offered by Metro Councilman Jeff Syracuse, who represents the Donelson area and works on Music Row as an executive at the performance rights organization BMI.

Syracuse said the catalyst for his resolution was the pending sale of the independent venue Exit/In to a real estate investment firm specializing in boutique hotels.

Before the pandemic ever shut down Nashville’s concert venues, the city’s live music industry was under siege from rising real estate prices attracting speculative developers to corporatization.

At stake is Nashville’s live music ecosystem, which includes venues as small as the 250-capacity High Watt all the way up to Nissan Stadium, as well as artists representing virtually every genre of music.

There’s a sense of desperation to the work. AJ Capital Partners, the firm that purchased the Exit/In property, vowed not to demolish the 50-year-old rock club. But, the fear among music industry stakeholders and city leaders is that Nashville’s venues are susceptible to fail following a year of no revenue and a business climate that makes redevelopment a constant threat.

“I filed the resolution to try to turn a reactive situation into a more proactive opportunity to study our venues and determine both what their economic is, but also the cultural impact, and how important they are to the broader music ecosystem that we have here in Nashville,” Syracuse said. “These venues are at risk of redevelopment. Once they’re gone, replacing them is almost impossible. So we’ve got to show objectively, via a study, how important these venues are to Nashville and figure out tools we can use to encourage their sustainability and success.”

Syracuse already convened a meeting in advance of last week’s council vote with the Metro Arts Commission, Metro Planning Department, Metro Historic Commission, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp.

His goal is to collaborate with each on various aspects of the study. Syracuse said he borrowed inspiration from an analysis story that ran in the Tennessee Lookout in April, offering suggestions for the inventory aspect of the study. That analysis suggested creating a list of each venue in the city, its current zoning category, whether the operator owns or leases the space, how many years remain on the lease as well as the kinds of music booked at the venue.

Syracuse said the first order of business is to determine if a consultant should be hired to do the heavy lifting, and he said Metro Planning is taking the lead on answering that question.

The consensus is that time is of the essence. Music venues survived the pandemic by relying on government aid, both directly from the federal government courtesy of the Save Our Stages Act, included in the stimulus package passed in the waning days of President Donald Trump’s administration, as well as local aid provided to venue operators by Metro and Mayor John Cooper’s administration last fall.

“I’m very appreciative of this effort. We’re completely on board, but we’re all late to the game frankly,” said Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. “It hit us back in the fall when we were setting up meetings for the mayor with various hospitality industry constituency groups – hotels, restaurants, venues. We did the meetings with the venues and we heard them clearly say, ‘We may not make it through the fall.’”

In his work marketing the city for tourism, Spyridon regularly partners with the music industry. He said it’s important that Nashville has venues where mega stars can headline, like Bridgestone Arena or Nissan Stadium, in addition to smaller venues where local artists can get their start. Spyridon said Exit/In, Station Inn, the Bluebird Cafe and 3rd and Lindsley have cultural value because of the artists who have played those clubs as well as the diverse music offerings each provides.

“We don’t know exactly what the universe is that we need to try to take care of, or what are the tools we can legally implement to protect the venues,” Spyridon said. “That’s what we will try to answer. We do know the small music clubs are our incubators. They are our soul.”

Drivin’ and Cryin’, June 2019. (Kit Wood/Exit/In)

The issue of affordability has affected more than just music venues, according to Metro Arts Commission Executive Director Caroline Vincent. She said fine arts organizations, art galleries and nonprofits that rely on performance space have had difficulty finding venues as Nashville has become an increasingly expensive city in which to operate. Vincent said the arts commission’s primary purpose in the past year was to provide technical assistance as well as grant funds to shuttered venues. The availability of those funds increased thanks to last year’s CARES Act.

Syracuse hopes the arts commission can help capture the cultural significance of the venues, as well as the fine arts spaces that will also be included in the study.

“With performing arts, similar with music venues, they’ll be the first to close and last to open,” Vincent said. “Some may not be fully operational until 2022.”

While the collaboration launched by Syracuse’s resolution has not yet started its work, there are some intriguing tools other cities have identified that may make sense in Nashville. Syracuse said Metro Nashville Historical Commission Executive Director Tim Walker identified some preservation zoning tools other cities have used to protect culturally significant spaces. Vincent is studying a strategy utilized in Seattle to create a commission that offers incentives like low interest loans for culturally valuable businesses – a sort of Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency, but for music and fine arts groups.

“What we know is that Exit/In was not the end of the story. It was a wake up call and a call to action,” Syracuse said. “That’s what we’re hoping to study with this effort moving forward.”