“It’s basically a city of songwriters and that’s what gives it its strength, that’s what gives it its lasting ability. You’ve got people making all different kinds of music and that’s what attracts me to Nashville as Music City.” – Emmylou Harris
In the music business, there are only four world-renowned music “centers”: New York City, Los Angeles, London and Nashville. It is Nashville that leads the way in music industry jobs per capita of these four cities. The music and entertainment industry contribute $15 billion to the Nashville economy.
Nashville is synonymous with country music, but it’s also the uncontested capital of contemporary Christian music and Gospel and its diverse and dynamic music scene has launched the careers of everyone from Elvis to Jimi Hendrix to Taylor Swift.
So how exactly did this laid-back Southern city, far from the bright lights and big studios of New York, LA and Chicago, become “Music City, U.S.A.”? The true story of how Nashville got its nickname is credited to WSM radio announcer David Cobb who ad-libbed an introduction to a 1960 Opry broadcast by saying that the sounds the listeners were hearing were coming from “Music City, USA.” And the moniker stuck.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers helped put Nashville on the musical map. They were also one of the first musical acts to perform in Ryman Auditorium, a “gospel tabernacle” built in 1892 by riverboat captain Tom Ryman that’s still Nashville’s most-beloved music venue.
The Barn Dance broadcast was so popular in Nashville that people would come downtown every Saturday night and crowd outside the WSM station to catch a glimpse of the musicians. WSM soon built an auditorium to accommodate the audience and in 1927 changed the weekly program’s name to the Grand Ole Opry.
In 1932, WSM got a brand-new antenna (the tallest in North America at the time) and broadcast a 50,000-watt clear channel signal that reached every home in America coast to coast. The Grand Ole Opry was one of the most popular radio programs of its day, and in 1943 the live music review moved into the Ryman Auditorium, where it would stay for the next 31 years.
Don Cusic, a Nashville-based country music historian and the Music City Professor of Music Industry History at Belmont University, says that the decade of 1945 to 1955 was the Grand Ole Opry’s heyday. “That’s when it was the place that every country performer wanted to be,” says Cusic. Nearly every country and rockabilly star of the 1940s and 1950s got their big break playing for the Opry on the Ryman stage, including Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Charley Pride and Elvis.
It’s hard to overstate the magnetic draw of the Grand Ole Opry to country musicians. All the top talent came to Nashville to play the Opry and the recording studios and record labels followed. The nascent industry set up in Nashville’s Music Row along 16th and 17th avenue, home to legendary RCA Studio B, where Elvis recorded 260 songs, including his first number one hit, “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1956.
“The music business is the music, the business and the technology all rolled together,” says Cusic. “You can’t hate the business side because that makes it profitable.”
Musicians who call Nashville home now include Justin Timberlake, Sheryl Crow, Jack White, Paramore, Kings of Leon, Ben Folds, Steven Tyler, Little Richard, Def Leopard, and many more. And although the Grand Ole Opry moved to a new home in 1974, the Ryman is still hosting sold-out concerts more than 125 years later.
Before visiting or moving to Nashville, many people have misconceptions about this place. They either get the shock of their lives and adapt, or leave disillusioned.
Most people seem to have a fictionalized idea of stardom in their heads – and who can blame them? TV shows and movies all perpetuate that myth. Ask anybody that knows anything, and they’ll tell you it’s a “ten-year town” (sometimes closer to twelve). If that shocks you, consider this: Turnover is very high. Many people move to town with the idea they’re going to become the next Carrie Underwood or Garth Brooks after playing a few open mic nights. In short order, they’re on the plane back home when they didn’t get discovered after just a few months. And this isn’t a new phenomenon – it’s been going on for decades.
Folks in the industry tend to shrug most new people off for the simple reason that they’re unlikely to still be here in a year or two. In a way, you need to prove you’re serious. This means more than showing up and expecting to be discovered. You’re going to need to knock on doors, get told “no” a lot, work hard on polishing your songs, and hone your craft. It’s not an easy road, but nothing worthwhile is. If it’s in your blood, you can’t help but put in the work and hustle.
Myth – If I can just get a number one record, I’ll be set for life. Getting a number one hit can be difficult – there’s a lot that goes into the process. First, the song has to be absolutely “amazing.” Second, the right people have to listen to it and pass it on to the artist (this means getting to their producer, A&R person, manager, etc). Third, the (hopefully A-list) artist has to actually want to cut the song. Then – most importantly – it’s got to catch on with radio listeners, iTunes, Spotify, and all the rest. All these things have to come together for the magic to happen.
Don’t get disheartened just yet – it’s not impossible. There are many Nashville writers who have had number one hits, and a few others who have had multiple number ones. But if you think that means you can retire to the Bahamas after just one…think again. With the advent of the internet, the music industry isn’t what it once was. More than a decade after Napster, they’re still trying to figure things out (although they’ve got a better handle on it). That being said, while you might have gotten a check for millions in the 90’s for a top ranked song, that’s simply not the case today. And keep in mind, if you’ve got co-writers, you’ll be splitting any proceeds with them. You can still make a chunk of change – possibly even enough to make a living on – but put that gold Lamborghini out of your mind until you’ve had a bit more success.
Myth – A publishing deal means you’ve “made it.” Not necessarily. In a publishing deal scenario, you’re giving up all or part of your publishing rights for a “draw” – that means the publisher is paying you a salary so you can write songs exclusively for them. That doesn’t mean you can sit back and rest on your laurels, though – publishers expect you to write every day, usually multiple times a day. And for that matter, you will be expected to churn out a hit. Depending on the contract (usually a year) they have the option to renew or drop you if you haven’t hit gold yet. While publishing deals as such are increasingly being abandoned in favor of single song contracts, they do still exist. But should you get one, instead of patting yourself on the back for “hitting it big.” look at it as validation of your talents.
Myth – Nashville is only country music. You can always tell a tourist here if they’ve got boots, hats, and Western fringe shirts on. The truth is, many rock, indie, and pop records are made in town (and quite a few indie rockers even make their homes here). While country music is certainly a main driving force, the lines between genres have been blurred for quite some time.
Although the niche for non-country music in Nashville may be a little smaller, it is there and growing. If your music is something a little off the beaten path, I encourage you to visit and do some research. You may find that you are perfectly at home here.
Unfortunately, the life of a songwriter and artist is often difficult. If you’re doing it for the money, you’re going to be sorely disappointed – people with a “lottery mentality” often wash out very quickly. Bottom line, you do this because you love it and you couldn’t possibly do anything else, which makes it easier to take some of the disappointment that comes on the road to success. There’s a reason they call Nashville the “Music City” – it’s made the careers of many well-known artists.
I first came through the city in the late sixties as a rock musician, I left within a week and chalked it up as a bigoted and narrow-minded hick town and went back to the West Coast where I fit in better. I returned in 1986 with Lionel Richie as one of the stops on his nationwide “Dancing on the Ceiling” tour. I didn’t recognize the city, it had all changed, there were some of the best recording studios and concert venues in the country, they even had a sushi chef downtown. It had changed from a country music small town to a mecca for about every kind of music you can imagine. I remember the small airport we flew into during the eighties, that just had a few flights, and watched it grow into a major hub and airport terminal in 1988.
Over 150 people move to Nashville every day. mostly from the west and east coasts. They come here for a variety of reasons, but at the top of the list is the music scene, followed closely by the medical scene (Vanderbilt University and Hospital). The amazing thing about the rapid changes is that Nashville still has its Southern charm.
We moved here from Southern California in 2009, when the housing market crashed there. Although we left the comfort of great weather and are now experiencing different seasons, we now have the comfort of being surrounded by some of the best talent in the world. Just to make us feel a little more like home, they now have a Trader Joes, which we had on every corner in San Diego.