The Tennessean published a momentous sounding story in Sunday’s paper whose headline asks breathlessly: IS COUNTRY CRUSHING NASHVILLE’S CREATIVITY? Over about 1500 words, reporter Naomi Snyder fails to answer, frame or contextualize the question.
Snyder quotes rock veteran Rick Vito who’s personally ambivalent about his experience in Nashville. She cites an academic who ranks Nashville below several other cities on a musical diversity index, and identifies a band from Portland that plays left-of-center music as a kind of anecdotal thought provoker about what WE have in Music City. But she never really attempts to sketch a portrait of this city’s musical diversity, which is well known to its musically diverse practitioners but apparently not Snyder’s editors. I’ll put the Sparrow Quartet, Space Capone, the Nashville Symphony, Jeff Coffin, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Sarah Siskind, The Features, DJ Wick-It and the entire performing roster of Next Big Nashville and the Americana Music Association’s fall confabs up against Blue Martini any day. Nor does she even mention the newly formed Nashville Music Council, which is at least addressing Music City's generic diversity.
The Tennessean SOUNDS like it's asking if songwriters hoping to make a living in this town find themselves considering (consciously or unconsciously) the narrow expectations of country radio programmers and the other gatekeepers between their song and publishing revenue when they’re at work in the writing room. Any honest assessment, as I’ve learned vividly at Leadership Music and in hundreds of conversations with musicians and writers, would find that of course they do. The days of the free-thinking genius like Kris Kristofferson writing icy tales of human struggle or dangerous behavior getting on country radio are over. Our home town industry (aided of course by their multi-national media conglomerate parents) abdicated creative control to focus group and research-based programming years ago.
Another stab at the question might ask whether Music Row’s country music business effectively crowds out other genres trying to use Nashville as a base of operations, with its extensive management, legal and media infrastructure. She would have found evidence in both directions I think, but at least it would have made an interesting article.
At the end of the day though Snyder is asking the wrong question. It makes country music, which is, bless its heart, just a business, sound malevolent towards Nashville’s jazz and hip-hop aspirants. I can’t see that they really care one way or the other. The related and much more vital issue is how far Nashville has come developing an alternative artist development infrastructure that will work in the 21st century, share-everything, post-FM radio, post MTV/CMT world. We became Music City with nationally powerful radio stations (WSM and WLAC) that broadcast Nashville-based pop, jazz, R&B, gospel and yes country music. We continued with a record business that for all its flaws, acted as a pretty amazing curatorial force for great and exceptionally diverse music. That lasted until sometime in the 1990s when the record business lost its way and mass exposure became just another commodity to be purchased on the open market, not a gift given to the most exceptional. People are building the models to replace the record industry at the center of the music business ALL AROUND THE WORLD. If we don't build some of it here, the Music City dream could be in trouble.
Country music (the industry as distinct from the genre) has been crushing its own creativity for ages, but it’s hard to see how the CMA or its members could effectively stifle Nashville’s most innovative artists, even if it occurred to them to try.