How Nashville’s Independent Music Venue Ecosystem Can Come Back Stronger

Jazz night at The Local DistroJazz night at The Local DistroPhoto: Daniel Meigs

This article is part of a two-part cover package on post-COVID recovery. See also: “How Restaurants Are Approaching Problems Caused (and Worsened) by the Pandemic.”

The ecosystem of independent music venues in Nashville, along with its counterparts around the U.S., has been on a roller-coaster ride since the pandemic began. Every time you breathe a sigh of relief, it seems there’s a white-knuckle drop waiting. The second stimulus package in December included $15 billion in Shuttered Venue Operators Grants for venues that have been unable to operate normally since March 2020. As of press time, venues across the city have returned to limited-capacity operation, but not a dime has been disbursed. 

Following twists and turns like this has offered an up-close view of long-standing problems in an industry that’s so important to our cultural identity and our economy. None of these issues has an easy solution, but the Scene has reached out to industry pros to learn more about how we might address two of them. First, how do we keep our independent venues from being squeezed out by gentrification? And as we tackle that, how do we expand venue ownership to better include Black and brown communities, which are vastly underrepresented?

Over the past four months, a landmark Nashville venue has faced a predicament that’s become all too familiar: The Elliston Place property home to historic rock club Exit/In and its sister bar Hurry Back was put up for sale. Chris and Telisha Cobb, who own the business, set a plan in motion to buy the site with backing from North Carolina real estate firm Grubb Properties’ Live Venue Recovery Fund. Reportedly out of spite, the owners chose to decline the offer, and instead the buildings went under contract to AJ Capital Partners, whose projects include luxury hotels and multi-use developments. AJ Capital has made a pledge to preserve the building, but there’s a great deal of concern about maintaining the contributions that Exit/In has made to Music City since 1971 — and for most supporters of the local music scene, that means keeping the Cobbs in control of the business. The Cobbs are continuing their bid to buy: They still have Grubb’s financial support, equivalent to the undisclosed figure that AJ has paid, and they launched a campaign to raise funds to sweeten an offer. Since April, more than 4,000 donors have contributed roughly $270,000 — including $45,000 from a special T-shirt sale organized by Paramore’s Hayley Williams — and the goal has been raised to $500,000. 

Jeff Syracuse is among a group of vocal Metro councilmembers who are keenly aware of the risks faced by independent venues, most of which lease their spaces. When owners decide it’s time to sell, rent tends to skyrocket. Following the news about Exit/In, Syracuse asked the Metro Council’s Planning, Zoning and Historical Committee for a full rundown of laws at the Metro or state level that could potentially help venues and other small businesses remain in place. The closest thing they found was a program in which Rutherford County offers a property tax abatement to encourage maintenance and repair of historic homes and commercial buildings. 

A similar program enacted in Nashville could push property owners to renovate rather than sell. But it would most likely focus on historic architecture, and Nashville music venues are mostly significant for what happens inside. Frustrated by the lack of options, Syracuse proposed a thorough inventory of the city’s independent venues to the Metro Council, which adopted his resolution May 4. Some organizational meetings have taken place, and he expects a consulting firm will carry out the work of gathering and analyzing the data.

“We need to figure out the kind of property that a venue is in, what is their sustainability as far as length of time of leasing,” says Syracuse. “And then be able to hopefully craft some tools around that. I want to be able to look both short term and long term. I do think that we have an opportunity through the American Rescue Plan Act. We have money coming to us, which I know will be going to support small businesses and nonprofits and getting people back on their feet after the pandemic. Other cities are already looking at using their ARPA funds to help support the creative economy.”

The U.S. Treasury has issued broad guidance for how money from the relief bill, signed in March, can be spent, but it’s up to city governments to determine the best uses and work out many granular details. Seattle’s City Council included music venues in its resolution on how it plans to spend its share. Arts Alliance Illinois is gathering support for a proposal to put $500 million of the ARPA funds coming to Illinois cities into venue relief and other programming over the next four years. That’s on top of Arts77, a program Chicago launched without ARPA money that includes $60 million in public arts support. One notable element of Arts77 is Chicago Presents, a grant program that will cover costs of producing concerts and other events in the city this summer. States can play a role, too: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a substantial bill that sets aside $10 million for tax rebates for small music venues and festival promoters, based on state alcohol taxes that have already been paid. 

Though Metro hasn’t announced a specific initiative for aiding venues, the city has helped before: Among other initiatives, the Metro Council approved $2 million in CARES Act funding to support venues in the fall. Looking forward, the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp could launch a program similar to Chicago Presents, using $500,000 earmarked by Mayor John Cooper for events highlighting the city’s diverse communities. A nonprofit called Sow Good has created a proposal for a series of concerts in 2022 called Music City Bands Together that would generate funds for nonprofits, venues and many other beneficiaries, to be paid for out of Metro’s Event Marketing Fund. The proposal will be considered in the June 24 Metro budget vote.

Any assistance can’t come quickly enough. Exit/In’s Chris Cobb is also the president of the 15-member trade group Music Venue Alliance Nashville, whose achievements include lobbying for that CARES disbursement. He notes that as the federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grant process has dragged on, MVAN member venues that are able to generate some revenue have contributed to help others pay rent.

“In theory we’re open, but the reality is that there’s a huge mountain to climb — to get the band together, rehearse the songs, get the show ready, get beer back in the coolers, get kitchen staff back in the kitchen,” Cobb says. “There’s the cost of additional cleaning that we all need to do.” 

With so many immediate concerns, it’s hard to focus on the future. But as we look at ways our music venue ecosystem can come back stronger after the pandemic, it’s hard not to notice that the business side of it is a very white space — something MVAN’s members are aware of. Black and brown businesspeople across the city own nightclubs and lounges that sometimes offer live music. While they are very important for the city, those businesses don’t interact with the creative community in quite the same way.

Eric Holt, co-founder of LovenoiseEric Holt, co-founder of LovenoisePhoto: Daniel Meigs“What I envision, and what hasn’t been consistent in my lifetime, is a ticketed live music venue that’s Black-owned — [one that is] intentional, that’s ‘This is all we do, live music,’ ” says Eric Holt, co-founder of the long-running soul, hip-hop and R&B concert promotion group Lovenoise. “Having that opportunity is something that will push Nashville up a notch, and will spread the experience. It’s not here. It used to be here — on Jefferson Street, during those years [before the construction of I-40 in the 1960s]. But we need to bring it back.”

Holt notes the importance of creating a sustainable business model, which requires someone to thread a lot of needles. Increased investment in the city from massive corporate concert promoters like Live Nation and AEG makes it harder for entrepreneurial promoters to compete for top-drawing acts. That said, establishing thoughtfully balanced partnerships with those big players can be a help to both the venue and the promoter. 

Adrian Granderson is one of the few Black businesspeople who’ve recently run a ticketed venue in Nashville. In 2010, he and his partners opened Jazz and Jokes at 174 Third Ave. N., the space now home to rock club Bowie’s. Ultimately, the economics of doing shows in the relatively small but expensive space didn’t work out over time, and they closed down Jazz and Jokes in 2013. Not long after, they opened the nightclub WKND Hang Suite on Church Street, and more recently the bar Minerva on Buchanan Street in North Nashville. They also ran the Gulch-area nightclub Agenda. As he’s run these businesses, Granderson explains, he’s had constant battles with landlords, neighbors and more. 

“There is a mastery that you have to develop over time,” says Granderson. “That is the balance between being popular and the place that people want to be — and making enough noise to get the business that you’re looking for — but not being too loud to be out there where the police are coming by you all the time and where the residents around you are calling you a nuisance.”

But as much work as that is, Granderson feels that what the city’s Black business community in general needs to thrive is better integration into formal and informal business networks. That way, it’s easier to identify opportunities and avoid pitfalls.

“Not even a hand up — I’m looking for a heads-up,” Granderson says. “Help me know what I don’t know. Show me that you can be my ally — not when it seems like an opportunity for you, but when you can see that there’s a group of guys that know how to run businesses [and ask] ‘How do we enhance those guys?’ That seems like it would be the smart play for the city.”

That kind of support is growing organically. Holt says there’s a possibility that Lovenoise could open or partner in a venue venture. They’d need a lot of help, and some well-known businesses are willing to pitch in.

“The Black live music history in North Nashville is so unbelievably rich and was so horrifically erased,” says Chris Cobb. “It’s definitely way past time for it to be reestablished. It’s not my place to be an owner of it, but I would do anything I can to help move that forward.”

The night before he spoke with the Scene, Holt went to Monday Night Jazz at The Local Distro on North Nashville’s Garfield Street. He explains that years ago, that corner was known to people who lived nearby as a dangerous place. Today, gentrification is driving longtime residents out of the neighborhood. But The Local Distro and Monday Night Jazz are symbols of ways that positive change can include everyone, with Black ownership at the center.

“Having a Black-owned business serve that to the community is important for everybody to see and for everybody to experience,” says Holt. “It does feel different for me as an African American male to stand there on the corner, proud of my culture — jazz being played, real authentic jazz by TSU graduates, the owner of the facility is a TSU graduate as well, an African American male. It sends the right message. It’s not, ‘They took this neighborhood from us.’ It’s like, ‘OK, the neighborhood changed, and we participated in its success.’ ”

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