How Nashville plans to save Music Row, a threatened cultural treasure

When country music megastars George Strait and Alan Jackson performed “Murder on Music Row” live during the 1999 Country Music Association Awards show, the two singers used the song’s blunt lyrics to critique the radio-friendly sheen of contemporary country and its threat to traditional songwriting and artistry.

Anyone familiar with the country music world immediately understood the reference to Nashville’s Music Row. This modest strip of homes and offices clustered southwest of downtown Nashville is considered the heart and soul of country music, and contains a critical mass of songwriters, recording studios, publishing houses, and industry figures unmatched anywhere else in the country. A 2013 analysis by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce’s found the region’s music industry, which is largely contained by this small neighborhood, generates $9.7 billion in economic activity each year, representing 56,000 jobs.

When Strait and Jackson uttered their particularly savage broadside—”Nobody saw him running from 16th Avenue / They never found the fingerprint or the weapon that was used / But someone killed country music, cut out its heart and soul / They got away with murder down on Music Row”—it’s a good bet that more than a few in the audience could picture those famous blocks.

Construction cranes dot the skyline of Nashville in March 2018. Shutterstock

Today, Music Row isn’t stalked by a metaphorical killer. But the threat to the heritage and musical legacy of this historic neighborhood is real: Nashville’s last decade of booming growth, rising real estate prices, and furious pace of new residential construction has meant this unique center of creativity and artistry is facing pressure from development, which has already led to the demolition and displacement of former studios. It’s all part of the rapid change rippling across the region. James Fraser, an urban studies professor who used to teach in Nashville, estimates the city is short 30,000 units of affordable housing, and told the Wall Street Journal that the city is at risk of becoming a “chic urban playground for the wealthy.”

The alarm has been raised, successfully in some cases, to preserve parts of Music Row: Indie rocker Ben Folds drew attention to the plight of Studio A, which has since been saved, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation has studied, chronicled, and cataloged the neighborhood’s history. But without a comprehensive strategy, buildings and studios continue to be bought, demolished, and turned into offices or apartments.

According to records kept by Carolyn Brackett, an expert on Music Row who works for the National Trust, 50 buildings in the neighborhood have been lost to demolition since 2013 to make way for apartments and even a new Virgin Hotel. Between 2000 and 2012, just 13 were demolished.

Nashville’s planning department, as well as preservation advocates and members of the music community, believe they have the beginnings of a solution. The new Music Row Vision Plan, introduced in late April, hopes to preserve the past while allowing the district to grow and prosper in the future.

According to records kept by Carolyn Brackett, an expert on Music Row who works for the National Trust, 50 buildings in the neighborhood have been lost to demolition since 2013. Metro Nashville Planning Department
Pressure from surrounding neighborhoods such as the Gulch and Midtown has led some developers to demolish Music Row buildings to make way for new apartment or condo developments.

More than two years in the making, after extensive input from studio owners and neighborhood groups, the Vision Plan isn’t the whole solution to what ails Music Row; current businesses still have to contend with the larger challenges of an evolving music industry. But the hope is that this combination of zoning changes, new schemes to fund historical preservation, and placemaking and transit improvements will help protect the dynamic cultural district, and perhaps offer a blueprint for other neighborhoods facing similar challenges.

“If we don’t preserve the character of Music Row today, then we lose some of what makes Nashville unique, and a reason that people want to come here,” says Sean Braisted, public information officer for the city’s Metro Planning Department. “There are religious undertones to the history of Music Row. For people to make that pilgrimage, that character needs to be well preserved.”

The original innovation district

Nashville is a much different place now than it was when Music Row started taking shape after World War II. Today, the city is in the midst of a huge expansion in business, real estate, and tourism. The region’s population grew 45 percent between 2000 and 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, hitting 1.9 million. This explosive growth has transformed neighborhoods near or adjacent to Music Row, like the Gulch and Midtown, the latter of which has seen a 176 percent jump in property values since 2010.

Last year, Amazon announced it was bringing an Operations Center of Excellence, and an estimated 5,000 jobs, to town. Also in 2018, the city welcomed a record 15.2 million visitors, leading to the famous strip of honky-tonks on Broadway being invaded by beer bikes and bachelorette parties.

When Music Row started taking its modern form in the ’50s, Nashville was a relatively sleepy Southern city. To accommodate postwar growth, the city’s planning commission decided to permit residential areas near downtown to be zoned commercial. Seeing a future marked by lower overhead, the music industry began setting up shop in homes in and around 16th and 17th avenues south. In 1954, brothers Owen and Harold Bradley became pioneers, establishing Bradley Film and Recording Studios, later called the Quonset Hut Studio, on 16th Avenue, and opening the first of many modern major label studios in the neighborhood.

A view of the offices and studios of Capitol Records in the area known as Music Row in October 1965 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Country music guitarist Chet Atkins standing in front of RCA recording studio.

Soon, a flood of studios and related businesses would transform the surrounding streets and alleyways into a musical mecca. By the ’60s, Nashville used Music City as part of its marketing message, and hundreds of businesses, including publishing houses and offices for major labels—as well as cafes, bars, and anything related to music—had opened for business. In 1965, Chet Atkins, a famous guitarist and record producer, built the famed Studio A, which has hosted recording sessions by legends like Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and the Beach Boys, as well as contemporary country stars like Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, and Miranda Lambert.

When the National Trust began researching the history of Music Row—which led to the entire area being declared a National Treasure in 2015—it sought comparative examples in other cities famous for being musical hubs, like Detroit and Chicago.

Not only was there more activity in Nashville’s Music Row than comparable areas in LA or New York, says Brackett, but the trust determined the interconnectedness of the music industry in Nashville was literally one of a kind. A survey conducted earlier this year of the Music Row Business Association found that half of area businesses are music-related.

The ability to interact with all levels and aspects of the industry in just a few square blocks is an irreplaceable advantage, says Pat McMakin, a member of the neighborhood steering committee that helped shape the new Music Row Vision Plan, as well as a studio owner and long-time employee of Music Row businesses. When he produced records in the ’90s, he remembers taking artists on trips to songwriters, literally shopping for songs with four or five different publishing houses during the course of a day. During a lunch break, he might meet someone with studio space to record those songs, or even make a deal with a record executive.

“It’s so important to have proximity and serendipity,” says McMakin. “It’s like Google’s campus. They’re building a space for people to meet and interact now. We’ve had this for the last 50 years.”

A proposed public space in Music Row, updated with more walkable streets and green space.

The new Music Row Vision Plan attempts to preserve and protect the neighborhood by recognizing one of the tricky aspects of maintaining a creative, cultural business district. If the only issue was protecting the architectural heritage of the neighborhood, then existing historical district rules would suffice.

But as the industry and specific companies evolve and require more office space, hard and fast restrictions that protect heritage and restrict growth may do harm while trying to do good. By its nature, such an area needs to continue to grow to evolve.

In fact, the city struggled with this issue before, and in 2015, issued a blanket ban on official code changes. Instead of stopping development, the freeze—and a lack of proper guard rails to steer Music Row development in a sustainable direction—led to a rush of specific plan (SP) rezoning projects, limited exceptions to existing rules. According to Brackett, since 2013, 64 percent of the new apartment and condo development projects encroaching on Music Row are SP projects.

“Music Row is unique in that it started as a residential neighborhood, with houses turned into office spaces, and that worked a lot better when it was all a small, fledgling industry,” says Braisted. “This planning process allowed us to think a little more broadly about what we’re trying to preserve. Is it the businesses themselves, or the character of the neighborhood? The plan does both.”

The Vision Plan tries to strike the right balance with zoning shifts, business incentives and support, and placemaking. First, the plan divides Music Row into four character areas, offering suggestions and support for each. Critically, the northern area, near Nashville’s fast-developing residential areas, would be upzoned as sort of a release valve for development.

Bigger music labels that need more office space can concentrate their multistory structures in this area, according to Braisted. There’s even a call to allow businesses to swap their zoning allowances, known as a Transfer of Development Rights ordinance, meaning smaller studios in other Character Areas, where taller buildings wouldn’t be allowed, could sell these rights to other developers and turn a profit.

On the business front, the plan calls for the creation of a private business association to represent the music industry, manage tourism, and push for affordability. The neighborhood would also be designated a Cultural Industry District, and there are suggestions to start a revolving preservation fund, which would create a trust to invest in and preserve properties, with the aim of providing cheap rent to music-business startups.

To encourage easier circulation, historical awareness, and safer and easier transit, and further tie together Music Row, the plan also includes a number of placemaking suggestions, including more pedestrian-focused streetscapes, new and expanded park space, and historic markers.

The city hasn’t run a cost analysis yet, says Braisted, because most of the plan involves rule changes and encouraging private investment, with city only paying to add transit and green space.

These ideas gel with what Jamie Bennet, executive director of ArtPlace America, considers best practice when it comes to protecting and expanding such cultural districts.

”When I’ve seen districts created, cities tend to enter that conversation with a focus on honoring the past or reinventing for the future,” he told Curbed. “In reality, you need to do both. You need to honor what made the area like it is, and build in adaptability for the future.”

Currently open for public comments, the plan goes up for a vote by the city’s planning commission on June 13. But an effort like this can’t come soon enough when the goal is to put safeguards in place.

According to Brackett, five Music Row buildings were demolished last year, and six are slated to go down this year. All of the Music Row buildings that have previously been listed on the local preservation group Historic Nashville’s annual “Nashville Nine” watch list have been torn down. And more properties and studios continue to be sold, offering the potential for even more high-end residential development.

The Tracking Room, close to Music Row and the scene of recording sessions by Chet Atkins, U2, and Donna Summer, just hit the market for $4.1 million. It’s reminiscent of the story of Studio A, which, before being saved, was purchased for $4 million by a developer looking to turn it into condos. According to Nate Greene, the agent with Colliers representing the seller, the Tracking Room’s fate could go either way; the significant studio could remain part of the music industry, or be bought, knocked down, and turned into high-end residential units.

“It’s such an active market, cranes are everywhere, and the activity is very much spread out,” Greene says. “The major studios are sticking around, but the smaller, less significant ones, their days are numbered.”

In an age when cities, developers, and colleges are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build innovation districts and startup spaces to foster new business ideas and collaboration, Nashville’s Music Row offers an existing and thriving blueprint for building a creative campus. The question facing city leaders, studio owners, and preservationists is how they can best guarantee music is being made on 16th Avenue for generations to come.

“If you don’t have the plan, you’ll see more haphazard growth, without an eye toward the character of the neighborhood,” says Braisted. “It’s about market forces. This is a way to create incentives for good development, while protecting people’s investment and the heritage of the area.”

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