Did I Miss The Collapse of Nashville’s Musical Middle Class?
Guest Post by Josh Collum
I’m going to get this out of the way… I might ruffle some feathers with this post. Maybe even yours. I’ve gone back and forth on whether I should write it or not. I know, work with, and respect quite a few of the people involved with the project that I’m going to reference, including the lead writer, Nate Rau of The Tennessean.
Nate is a top tier journalist, and we Nashvillians are lucky to have him reporting on our industry. I have first-hand knowledge of this because he did a piece on my company, Sorted Noise, last year. My hope is that no one wants to beat me up after reading this post, and that it actually adds to the conversation that Nate, and everyone involved with the project, has started.
First, some context… recently, there’s been some buzz building in Nashville (and beyond) around a month-long blog series that ran in December 2014 in our hometown newspaper, The Tennessean, and an accompanying documentary produced by the paper that’s set to premiere on January 27th here in town. The blog series and doc, entitled “Band on The Brink: The New Dylans,” tell the story of a band that’s had varying degrees of success over the last few decades, and has decided to make their first record in 18 years. But, the band isn’t really what the newspaper’s project is about. The opening sentence clarifies what The New Dylans truly represent…
“There are countless similar bands in Nashville.”
And really, the band is just the vehicle for the true headline…
“This is a story about the shrinking sector of the music industry – the middle class.”
So you see, the message is clear and precise right out of the box. This isn’t about one band or even one genre (see: references to Jack White and The Black Keys). This story is normal and common and represents all of us non-Taylor Swifts.
And so It’s around this message that the conversation has begun to stir. I think it’s a conversation that’s going to continue to grow as our city and music industry community move towards the release of the documentary and the events that surround the occasion, which include a panel discussion on the topic.
And that’s why I needed to write this post. Because the story that The Tennessean tells isn’t the whole story, and it’s important to get it right. You see, this is not a story about “the collapse of Nashville’s musical middle class,” as the piece broadly frames it. This is a story about the collapse of Music Row’s musical middle class. Which is an incredibly important topic, and a topic that needs discussion. Those struggles are real. But Music Row is just one character in the story of Nashville’s musical middle class as a whole. There are thousands of artists, songwriters, musicians, and producers that consider themselves part of the musical middle class in our city that will read this blog series and watch this documentary, and have the same reaction I did… “That’s not my story.” The project, simply, and quite amazingly, acts as if they don’t exist. The result, whether intentional or not, is an incredibly misleading and hyperbolically depressing piece.
"Hyperbolically depressing" Exhibit A: It’s argued in the piece that the musical middle class has not only declined, but it actually doesn’t even exist anymore. Huh? On Music Row, I see some truth in that. And if that’s how it was framed, all good. I’m listening. But that’s not how it was framed. The intentional implication is that there has been an extinction of the musical middle class as a whole. Remarkable, right?
I would argue the exact opposite. I would argue there has never been more opportunity to make middle class levels of money, and there’s never been a lower barrier of entry into that middle class. Ever. Yes, the money is more spread out. And yes, you have to think differently to get it. Like an entrepreneur, even. But it’s there. It’s just moved. The middle classers that are talented enough, forward thinking enough, and brave enough to adapt, are finding it. Especially, in Nashville.
Just ask Holley Maher, an unsigned, completely independent singer/songwriter who grossed over a quarter of a million dollars last year in synch licensing. She’s buying a house this year.
Or, Belmont senior, and electro pop artist in her spare time, EZA, who’s already making thousands of dollars in streaming revenue from one of her songs on Spotify. I don’t know about you, but when I was in college and trying to start my musical career, I had to work at Papa John’s.
Speaking of Spotify, what about veteran Nashville singer/songwriter Perrin Lamb, who had two songs featured on popular playlists last year. His streaming revenues added up to over $30,000. He’s been at it for a decade, and 2014 was the best year he’s ever had financially in Nashville. And most of that money was made while he slept.
Trent Dabbs didn’t wait for a publisher to deem him worthy to sign. He and his wife created their own, well branded, well executed publishing company (and label) and he signed himself. He bet on himself, did the work, and got into some pretty great writing rooms. Last year, he co-wrote one of the biggest songs of the year, Ingrid Michaelson’s “Girls Chase Boys.”
Jessica Frech has built a tribe of over 80,000 subscribers to her Youtube channel, collecting over 18 million video views. She makes money on every single view, and she’s built an engaged fan base that buys her music, merch, and tickets to her shows.
My band, Secrets in Stereo, hasn’t made a record in 4 years. But this year alone, the band brought in over $80,000 in revenue just from our songs being used in other people’s Youtube videos.
Or, how about Phil Madeira’s Mercyland projects. Talk about evolving and adapting to the new music business. He didn’t wait to win the songwriter lottery and find a slot on some artist’s record. He built his own slot machine. And used Kickstarter, to boot.
Or what about the hundred or so Nashville artists that each make thousands of dollars a month through licensing their songs to indie documentary film makers and wedding videographers through Music Bed? The company had their first Nashville mixer last year, and they had to change venues at the last minute to accommodate the over 250 artists, songwriters, musicians, and producers that filled the room. The folks at Music Bed told me Nashville artists make up 60% of their total revenue. I promise you, they see a Nashville musical middle class that’s alive and well. They’ve built a business on its shoulders.
Why aren’t these Nashville middle classers included in the Tennessean piece? Shouldn’t we be highlighting, and hopefully learning from, success stories? And these are just the ones that came off the top of my head. There are plenty more stories out there in our city limits like these. They’re actually incredibly easy to find.
The reality is we’re in the most interesting, evolving, challenging, difficult, and historic time in our industry’s history. Hands down. Undeniable. And yes, as The Tennessean piece highlights, we’ve got some fights to wage as we evolve into the digital age. I’m not denying that. What I am denying is the notion that the sky is falling. For some reason that I can’t figure out, that’s the story The Tennessean decided to tell. It’s disappointing, discouraging to prospective artists, music biz professionals, and investors, horribly un-helpful to those of us trying to tell the complete story of Nashville beyond its city limits, and most of all, simply false. The truth is, making a living in the music business has always been “a gritty chore” and hardly unique to 2014. The New Dylans were broke in 1996 too!
So, I have two hopes as the conversation builds around The Tennessean project. One, is that we tell the true story of Nashville’s musical middle class, acknowledging the artists, songwriters, producers, and musicians that are currently thriving, as much as we eagerly spotlight the ones that are struggling. And two, we elevate the conversation beyond the bitter old music business vs. the naive new music business. That’s tired, played out, and frankly, embarrassing at this point. There’s only one music business now. And it’s different than the one you grew up in, whether you’re 75 or 25. So, let’s have an educated conversation about who’s having success now and how they are doing it. That’s the real headline.