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The Secret to Nashville's Music Economy

Dissecting the rise of an activist, inclusive, place-based artistic community.

Harrison McClary / REUTERS

Nashville has long been hailed as one of America’s top music hubs. In addition to its wide-ranging cultural influence, the city’s music scene has grown faster than any other—including superstar cities like New York, L.A., and London. Despite having the most vibrant country music scene in the world, Nashville has also extended its reach into pop and rock: Taylor Swift got her start there, both Jack White and the Black Keys relocated there, and popular acts like El Movimiento and Paramore call Nashville home. Back in 2009, I went so far as to dub Nashville “the Silicon Valley of the music business.” To this day, Nashville continues to top various lists of America’s fastest-growing and most livable places.

Daniel B. Cornfield’s new book, Beyond the Beat: Musicians Building Community in Nashville, provides important new insight into Nashville’s music scene and broader clues to the city and region’s economic success. A professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University, Cornfield digs deeply into the urban and community fabric that underpins Nashville’s music scene, drawing on detailed interviews with 75 Nashville music professionals.

Beyond the Beat identifies the rise of three new types of musicians, or “artist activists,” who take a more active role in shaping their careers and communities: “enterprising artists” who are entrepreneurial and career-focused, “artistic social entrepreneurs” who combine music with a social mission to build community or maintain social spaces, and “artist advocates” who are remaking unionism for music and the arts (a few of whom are chronicled in the book). These three types of artist activists not only work to develop their own careers, but to support and help one another. In turn, they have created an inclusive peer community, strengthened the broader network of musicians, and bolstered the very fiber of Nashville and its music scene.

To uncover more about Nashville’s changing music industry and music scenes, I spoke to Cornfield about his research.

Tell us more about the three types of musicians or artists you identify—the enterprising artist, the social entrepreneur, and the advocate. Who are they, what motivates them, and how do they differ from the conventional musicians or artists of the past?

These artist activists are musicians who span career stages and who are committed to an “indie ethos of mutualism.” It is an ethos of artistic freedom, deep identity within a diverse and inclusive artist peer community, and cross-promotion as the artist pursues her own and supports others’ artistry. Unlike musicians of the past who specialized in making art for radio play and mass consumption, the adherents to the indie ethos are generalists who not only make their own music, but also produce, engineer, and distribute their music in dynamic niche markets via social media and live performances.

Nashville’s Bluebird Café attracts both old and new talent. (@wewon31 #365 / Flickr)

Stereotypically, musicians or artists today either want to a) make a lot of money, b) become famous, or c) make great art. While that may be true, you see musicians and artists as having broader motivations that include building their own community. Your book, for example, discusses the role of unions and unionism in building the Nashville community. Why have these kinds of things become important to musicians and music scenes?

For musicians, arts trade unionism continues to bolster the economic foundation of music-making with large music organizations such as major labels and symphony orchestras. With the advent of indie entrepreneurial musicians, arts trade unionism increasingly addresses the needs of traveling, self-promoting, entrepreneurial musicians whose livelihoods depend on club performances and intellectual property protections. For the music scene, arts trade unionism supports the economic well-being of the critical mass of musicians for sustaining a creative, productive, and vibrant music scene.

You write that Nashville as has a dual music scene consisting of two, interlinking spheres: the indie music scene and the presence of major labels. If you watch the TV show Nashville, much of the plot revolves around the competition between the two. Are they really in such aggressive competition, or do they somehow fit together?

The two music scenes serve different, if overlapping, mass and niche market segments. Their degree of overlap determines the degree of competition. The two scenes also synergize one another. My research interviews show that early-career indie artists often hope to attain a record deal with a major label (the indie scene launches them into a major-label career). At the same time, I interviewed established artists whose early commercial success with major labels freed them up later in their careers to make their own music as “late blooming” indie entrepreneurial musicians.

I’ve long drawn a connection between artistic endeavor and broader tolerance as factors that underpin vibrant, innovative places. You argue that the rise of indie music and art-making is connected to the broader civil rights, women’s, and LGBT movements, and your book centers on the growth of an inclusive, place-based peer community in Nashville.  I am sure our readers will want to know more about that.

An increasingly diverse migration of people to Nashville—not the least of whom are indie musician migrants—effectively diversified the range of religions, cultures, and musical genres in Music City. Over five decades ago, the non-violent Nashville civil rights movement initiated the dismantling of Jim Crow two years before the enactment of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, putting Nashville on the path to becoming an open society. The subsequent cascading of rights movements—including the women’s, LGBT, and immigrant rights movements—accelerated Nashville’s journey to openness.

Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

What has enabled Nashville to develop such a vibrant music scene and draw in such a wide range of musicians and artists from a wide range of genres (pop, rock, country, and so on)?

Nashville is not only “Music City” and “The Athens of the South.” It can also justifiably claim to be a “welcoming city”—a city that trained Freedom Riders in non-violence during the lunch-counter sit-ins of the early 1960s. Although pockets of resistance to social change remain, Nashville continuously resettles migrants from across the nation and globe. Today, over one hundred languages are spoken by the families whose kids attend Nashville public schools. Stimulated by an urban culture of growing tolerance, corporate investment in music infrastructure, and rising musician wages, diverse musicians have streamed into Nashville over the last few decades, replenishing and growing the pool of world-class musical talent in Music City.

I know that Nashville’s city government has undertaken initiatives to support the music industry. What role has local policy toward musicians and the music industry played?

Local public policy has sustained musicians and the industry in several ways. On the demand side, economic development has focused on music-themed tourism, museums, and festivals that attract consumers of music and related retail and hospitality services. On the supply side, the city has encouraged the development of affordable housing for musicians and other artists, as well as arts districts that provide studio, performance, and display spaces for performing and visual artists, and their fans.

Last, I’d like to ask you, “Why Nashville?” What is it about Nashville that has enabled it to develop and sustain such a vibrant and activist music and arts community? How has it been able to circumvent the stark economic pressure and cut-throat competition of large music scenes and cities? What can other cities and scenes learn from it?

Nashville’s vibrant arts community is sustained by a city that both produces and consumes diversifying art genres. Genre diversification results not only from thoughtful economic development that sustains cultural innovation, but also from public policies that harness Nashville’s living legacy of tolerance to inspire creativity.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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