Why Nashville Is Still America’s Music City

Warning: This Story May Make You Want to Move to Nashville

Story by Margaret Littman

Photography by Jake Giles Netter

Published on

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The factory that produces one-third of all vinyl records on store shelves today is easy to miss. With its pastel tile facade and retro-industrial trappings, United Record Pressings hides in plain sight in Nashville’s transitioning Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood.

But step inside the 52-year-old plant and the hum of machinery will remind you that this is where 30,000 to 40,000 records are pressed every day but Sunday. The presses run 24 hours for those six days a week, and even at that pace the company has been behind in keeping up with demand, with some orders taking as long as three months to fulfill. To fill the backlog, United Record is racing to complete a second plant that will double its capacity to 60,000 to 80,000 records daily.

No one makes money in music anymore. In a time when the song of the summer (hello “All About That Bass”) can be yours on repeat for 99 cents and an entire album saved to your record cabinet in the cloud for just a few bucks more, the chorus is as familiar as the latest Beyonce tune in most of the United States. But in Nashville, a different trend has taken shape, one that has the city thriving and creative industries booming.

“Nashville is as good as any place you can imagine being for this business,” says United Record CEO Mark Michaels, who plans to hire another 70 to 80 employees when the new plant opens.

United Record Pressing produces one-third of all vinyl on store shelves today.

In addition to United Record, there are startups like Artiphon, creator of a sleek wooden musical instrument powered by digital tools, and new apps for connecting songwriters who want to collaborate with one another on writing the next hit. Rock icon Jack White’s Third Man Records is both a record label and a retail store often mobbed by a stylish mix of locals and tourists. There are more copyright lawyers in Nashville than in cities many times its size.

In a nod to the ever-increasing population of working musicians, the city last year opened its first subsidized housing designed for artists, Ryman Lofts. Named for the iconic Ryman Auditorium where the Grand Ole Opry was staged for 31 years, the 60-unit downtown development was the brainchild of the Music City Music Council, a three-year-old partnership between the Mayor Dean’s office, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and the convention center. The lofts rented quickly and now have a long wait-list.

And the demand isn’t restricted to Ryman Lofts. New shops and residential developments are bringing new life to neighborhoods across the city, from hip East Nashville, to Wedgewood-Houston on the fringe of downtown, home to United Record Pressing. These neighborhoods are the stomping grounds of countless musicians, ranging from the bearded hopefuls playing guitar for barroom tips, to performers with household names and the songwriters behind rock and country music’s top hits.

Even the city’s growing tech scene is rooted in music. In September, the Nashville Entrepreneur Center announced its first music business accelerator, a 14-week initiative called Project Music, designed with the Country Music Association (CMA) to help wannabe music entrepreneurs make their startup sing. Six to eight startups will be in the first class; each will receive a $20,000 investment (in exchange for equity in the business).

Artiphon founder and CEO Mike Butera with his Nashville-made digital instrument.

This year, Rolling Stone magazine, perhaps the arbiter of all things music, finally opened a bureau in Nashville, signaling to the world that country is a genre that’s influential, profitable and on the rise — and that Nashville remains its thriving center. (Full disclosure: I occasionally write for Rolling Stone Country.) And since the show “Nashville” telecast the real Nashville into living rooms around the world, the city has been proclaimed an “it” city by the likes of the New York Times, Time, Travel + Leisure, and GQ, which came up with the quippy moniker “Nowville.” Crucially for Nashville’s future, the good news runs deeper than the hype.

Between 2012 and 2013, Nashville’s population grew by 2 percent, an impressive rate of growth bested by only six other big cities in the country. In 2012, the city ranked first in the nation among large metro regions for fastest job growth, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nashville has added jobs faster than the nation in every year since 1990. Perhaps most tellingly, the city’s gross metropolitan product — the regional GDP — grew by 4.2 percent in 2013, double the national average; the city ranked third in economic growth after booming Austin and San Jose.

While the tech industry is behind the growth in both of those cities, music is Nashville’s second-largest job generator, after health care. For every 1,000 people of working age in Nashville, there are 7.8 music industry jobs, a study by the local Chamber of Commerce found. Compare that to just 2.0 in New York, 2.8 in Los Angeles and 2.6 in Austin, Texas, which bills itself as the live music capital of the world. In 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked Tennessee number one for its concentration of musician jobs.

Downtown Nashville is a thriving hub of local music and commerce.

Maintaining a thriving music industry is no small accomplishment. By 2015, global music operations could have a $9.7 billion impact on Nashville, a recent study released by the Chamber of Commerce found. Part of the secret of the city’s success lies in its history, but let’s face it: Detroit, New Orleans and Memphis have pretty impressive musical legacies, too, and those cities don’t have the industry of Music City. For urban policy wonks, it’s hard not to wonder what Nashville’s magic is and whether or not it’s replicable.

Beyond Taylor Swift

Nashville has been called Music City for more than a century. Some say the nickname was coined by the United Kingdom’s Queen Victoria in 1873. As local myth would have it, the queen saw a performance by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an African-American a capella act from Nashville’s historically black college, Fisk University, and was so impressed that she remarked the group must have come from the “music city” of the United States. The moniker stuck.

By 1902, the American Federation of Musicians had set up shop in Nashville and in 1925, the Grand Ole Opry began broadcasting its weekly show. (Today, the show is billed as the world’s longest-running live radio broadcast.)

United Record Pressing opened in Nashville in 1949.

If you talk to experts about what has kept the music playing in Nashville, they will point to the logistical advantages first.

Pull out a map and look at Nashville’s decidedly non-coastal location. Its flyover country placement may at first seem like a detriment to those who believe all the action is in New York or Los Angeles. But the truth is most Americans don’t live in New York or L.A. In fact, you can reach at least half of the country’s population within a one-day’s drive of Nashville, making it an ideal place to start a tour or ship records from. In 1995, when the U.S. Department of Transportation revised regulations to limit the number of hours a driver can be on the road, Nashville’s location became even more advantageous; having trained drivers based in Nashville makes it easier and cheaper to meet a tour and swap drivers than if the company were based on one of the coasts.

“Nashville is the entertainer bus capital of the world,” says Chip Huffman, founder of the Celebrity Bus Drivers Academy, which opened its doors in 2009.

Location is in part why Kevin Greenwood relocated his Southern California-born staging company, Stage Tops USA, to just south of Nashville in Manchester, home of alt-music festival Bonnaroo. From his new location in Tennessee, he can send out stages and lighting to music festivals, sporting events and music tours across the country more easily than he could when he was closer to the action in California.

Rosepepper Cantina in East Nashville is one of the gentrifying neighborhood’s hot spots.

Then there is the issue of affordability. The cost of living in Music City is 10.2 percent less than the national average, according to the Chamber of Commerce. That difference is huge for small or young companies. Stage Tops USA moved from Southern California because it was not only less expensive to move materials, but also because it was less costly to buy land. Greenwood was able to buy a $120,000 piece of land that he thinks would have cost between $2 million and $3 million in California. The founder of Artiphon, Mike Butera, did the same math when he was deciding whether to locate his startup in Silicon Valley or Nashville. “It is affordable to live here and that makes all the difference,” he says.

But there are plenty of affordable locales in the middle of the country that are not music industry capitals. Another often overlooked advantage that Nashville has is its own local musical language: the Nashville Number system. Literally a citywide musical tongue, the notation allows musicians who only know how to read the most basic of chord progressions to jam with other musicians. As far back as the 1950s, Nashville session musicians were given these numbered charts instead of traditional sheet music.

“It allowed musicians to be able to fuse styles all in one,” says Butera. “Because Nashville developed this language, it sustained itself.”

And it has kept talent. The sheer concentration of local skill gives Nashville a leg above cities like Detroit and even New Orleans that, because of weak local economies, have seen creative talent flee. Remember the songwriters mentioned earlier? Some call Nashville “the co-writing capital of the world.” Every waitress in town is rushing off to try to pen that next big hit. If that waitress is lucky, she and her partner will sell that song to one of the more than 200 local publishers. A local demo singer will work with them to record it in the style of a performer who might decide to record the song. When it is picked up, the recording and production can be done in one of the city’s dozens of high-level studios, and released on a local record label.

Think of Nashville as vertical manufacturing for the music industry: All steps of the process can take place without leaving the central time zone.

“What we do differently than a city that just does live music is that we do it all,” says Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. “We do the writing, the production, the creation of the tours. It is all here. The lawyers, the business side, the PR. It is a big, complex industry and Nashville thrives.”

All of that happens through a mature civic infrastructure that has taken time and capital to build.

After all, the Dean administration provides direct support for projects like the Ryman Lofts and other Music City Music Council initiatives, as well as more indirect backing. Big subsidies go to keep the industry recording and filming in town too. The TV series “Nashville” took in some $20 million in subsidies in its first two seasons in the city. The show is currently filming a third season in town.

This fall, artist Candy Chang installed “As I Age,” an art piece adapted for Nashville from her “Before I Die” series, at the Music City Walk of Fame Park.

“When you get to other cities, they may have the music culture, but they do not have the infrastructure,” says Wesley A. Bulla, a professor and dean at the Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business at Belmont University.

The Music City moniker, Dean says, “is not something we made up. It was already here. What we did is say we accept it and welcome it and build a foundation for moving it forward.”

“Music Makes People Want to be Here”

On the second floor of the United Record Pressing plant, above the now-ancient working presses, are rooms that once slept Motown artists and executives who couldn’t otherwise find a place to stay in the then-segregated South. Down the hall is the room where an all-analog music series is recorded, the hum of the presses lending a background harmony. These are the historic presences that pulled architect Manuel Zeitlin and his Zeitgeist Gallery and studio to the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood in 2013. A Nashville native, he says the city as a whole is becoming a far more international, cosmopolitan and creative place.

“I moved back here in 1980. We had one Asian market. Now there are all kinds of ethnic food and all kinds of people. One hundred and thirty languages are being spoken in Nashville schools,” Zeitlin says. “You can see everywhere that the city is becoming a much more interesting place to be.”

Mayor Karl Dean has prioritized making Nashville more bike-friendly, launching a bike-share system, installing bike lanes and re-engineering streets to be more multi-modal.

In September, Warby Parker announced it would open its first corporate office outside of New York in Nashville.

It was a big symbolic win for the city. With its fast growth and likable yet hip and highly profitable eyeglass brand, Warby Parker represents everything promising about startup culture. The company spent months deciding where to open the office, considering standard metrics and less conventional ones like how its New York-based employees felt about the local culture and how large a percentage of their income residents spent on creative interest. In the end, Nashville beat out Salt Lake City, Denver and Louisville for the corporation location. A big part of why was the city’s musical heritage, says Ed Hardy, Co-Chair of the Music City Music Council. Council representatives met with Warby Parker executives while in New York on a recruiting trip, he says.

“The businesses we are now attracting are not only music businesses, but they want to be here as a place to do business,” says Hardy. “They may not all be related to music, but music is part of what makes people want to be here.”

At last count, Nashville’s population was growing at a 2 percent rate, making it one of the fastest-growing big cities in the nation. Homes like these are in increased demand in neighborhoods across the city.

Cities, even those in love with their own history, never stop changing. Nashville has never been content to sit on its fiddle-playing hands and let its Music City cred carry it.

Artiphon is a handcrafted wooden instrument the size of a ukulele but instead of holes for sound to travel through, it has an iPhone dock. In place of strings, there are touch pads. It’s not hard to see why the Nashville-made digital instrument has struck a chord (pun intended) in the city. For Nashvillians, it is the physical manifestation of hopes that the next big frontier for the city’s creative economy will be the tech sector.

“We started with local Nashville investors and they have given us time,” says Butera. “I think in San Francisco they might have said, ‘You have six months.’ If you fail, ‘Oh well.’ But here, we are careful. It is not turn and burn. I am going to make this happen and our investors are people who believe in what we are doing.”

There are challenges to growth, to be sure. To sustain expansion, Nashville will need to think like the bigger city it is becoming. Public education and public transportation are critical issues. The debate over AMP, a proposed dedicated bus rapid transit line that would be the first of many, has raged for more than a year with little progress other than countless pro and con yard signs dotting neighborhoods. In August, the city will elect a new mayor and the candidates have already begun fielding difficult questions related to the growth pains, on issues ranging from immigration to walkability.

“Good change is happening,” says Zeitlin. “Yes, we still have a lot of work to do with our schools and our transportation system. Just like every other city, there is climate change to worry about. But at least now, we are having these conversations and at the same time, we haven’t lost the culture that defines us. It’s not a bad place to be.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Margaret Littman is a Nashville-based journalist who covers small businesses, economic development, travel, music and all manner of other topics for publications ranging from Entrepreneur to Rolling Stone Country. She is the author of many travel guidebooks, including Moon Tennessee and Moon Nashville. Since back moving to Music City she has acquired a 1967 Ford pickup and a lot of pairs of boots, but still not the ability to carry a tune.

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