Two years ago, an article ran in a local paper analyzing why homegrown bands in their particular city have such a difficult road to success. A roundtable of bookers, bands, club owners and radio personnel was assembled to address the usual questions. Why is this happening? Is there lack of a distinctive sound? Is there a negative stigma attached to the city keeping us from making inroads to national success?
The answers were illuminating. “The majority of songwriters and bands here have nothing to say either musically or lyrically,” one band member said then. “They don’t write very well. They don’t sing very well. They don’t play very well. They seem to think that ‘being cool’ is sufficient. The best music arises from a community. ‘I want to be rich’ and ‘I want to be a pop star’ are not the kinds of needs and ideals around which a community is likely to grow.”
Of course, not everybody agreed. “There is a lot of well-recorded music in the city and a lot of good bands the mass population just isn’t aware of it,” another insisted. “It could also be that the industry doesn’t know of the talent,” a promoter chimed in. They argued about jealousy stamping out any band on the verge of success, about audiences who preferred background music at clubs to active listening and about the general lack of local radio support for their acts. Ultimately, most participants thought there simply weren’t enough people interested in live music
The city these music aficionados were waxing about? Pittsburgh. But change the names, and the story could be ours. The roundtable even tackled the “Pittsburgh Curse,” that excuse of mythological proportions that rationalizes the failures of bands everywhere, Nashville included.
It’s not all sour grapes, either. A British study published in January analyzed the listening habits of 300 people, ultimately concluding: “The degree of accessibility and choice has arguably led to a rather passive attitude toward music heard in everyday life.” This music-as-wallpaper theory is generally attributed to an iPod generation bombarded with music from every outlet, creating a society of passive listeners who only need wake up and press a button to hear new music.
It’s easy to see how this translates to live audiences. Rick Whetsel of Great Big Shows, which owns Exit/In and also books acts at other area clubs, says his company doesn’t compete with other live venues for crowds; it competes with movies, television and living rooms across the city. Terry Cantrell, who ran Cantrell’s back in the ’80s and currently manages Springwater, says audiences in Nashville are so accustomed to live music that they’ve gotten spoiled and now expect it without paying for it. Bruce Fitzpatrick, who has booked rock and punk bands in Nashville for over 20 years, says people are just apathetic, that the spirit of musical discovery isn’t what it used to be.
So what’s to drag you out of your car, living room or coffee shop to watch a live band when it’s cheaper and easier to lounge at your leisure and let the music find you? I can’t count how many shows I’ve attended in Nashville that should have drawn hundreds of people, but couldn’t even draw flies. But maybe it’s something else, something simpler and more obvious that we’re just overlooking. Maybe we’ve got too many venues?
Take a look at the music listings for rock shows in Nashville any given night, and there are as many as 20 different places catering to the same rock crowd. The Exit/In, The End, The Basement, City Hall, Mercy Lounge, Cannery Ballroom, 3rd & Lindsley, 12th & Porter, The Muse, Rcktwn, The Five Spot and Radio Café are just the handful that come to mind. That’s not even counting the GEC, The Ryman, Starwood or the smattering of venues in Murfreesboro.
There are half a million people in Davidson County—and over a million in the greater area—and of those hundreds of thousands, less than half are between the ages of 15 and 40. That’s the still-going-out demographic, and you’d think there’d be plenty of them willing to check out original music. But of that group and within the subset willing to go out, there’s no accounting for which of them prefer bluegrass to blues.
But take a city like Atlanta, which has 4.7 million people in its greater metropolitan area, well over three times Greater Nashville’s population. According to a local rock band manager and booker in the city, Atlanta only has about 10 rock venues, and they’ll still draw some crowd even on the worst night.
Maybe we’re just a city full of musicians and industry types and few casual fans—you know, the people who will just show up at a club and see whose playing. (Pat Embry, we’ve noted you as both the demographic and general exception.) “Nashville routinely under-performs,” Whetsel says of the typical show turnout. “I think that there’s no such thing as a casual music fan in Nashville. There’s a group of people who go to live music. Nobody else will. We say ‘Hey, let’s look through the paper and see who’s playing tonight.’ They’ll go the movies; they’ll stay home. They’ll do anything but. We all have friends not in the industry who don’t go to shows and think it’s crazy that you do. They think you’re biting heads off bats. It’s at the Ryman or it’s at the GEC or it doesn’t happen.”