Nashville’s New Music Middle Class Is On The Rise

Nashville-nyeGuest Post by Charles Alexander, CEO and founder of Outside The Box Music
Recently my favorite reporter at The Tennessean, Nate Rau, wrote a brilliant piece on the collapse of the musical middle class in Nashville. It seemed to be a report that resonated with a lot of Nashville based artists, songwriters, musicians and music business professionals alike. Not too long after that Josh Collum of Sorted Noise, a Nashville music for film/tv and artist services agency painted a more complete picture of the Nashville musical landscape in his Tumblog. I mostly agree with Josh. The future looks exciting. Some of the artists mentioned in Josh’s piece also work for or are part of the Sorted Noise family (Perrin LambHolly Maher ). Sorted Noise is a great example of a company that is built for the new music business. But there are still some interesting waters to navigate.


Jessica Frech is a YouTube superstar who cuts her own ad & licensing deals

About a week before Josh published his blog article, I sat down with two young, progressive thinking musicians about how they’ve managed to build a career. Incidentally both these artists were also mentioned in Josh’s post.

Jessica Frech

Jessica Frech is a YouTube Music superstar. Her "People of Wal-Mart" music video was a first time, out of the ball park online hit. The video currently has more than 10 million views. Her entire channel as of this writing has a cumulative view count of close to 19 million.

The social media analytics site Social Blade estimates that her channel generates anywhere between just under $800 to over $6000 a year annually. However Jessica is able to generate well over that by negotiating her own ad placement deals, as well as, other revenue opportunities such as endorsements and licensing.

In 2011 she had a national Hyundai commercial for which the automaker paid her a sufficient sum for her to produce subsequent albums and sustain her music career. Yet, back when she was a freshman at one of Nashville’s most prestigious music colleges she didn’t know how she would fit into the existing music business paradigm.

Frech realized that "As much as I appreciated the knowledge I was gaining from learning about the business of music in copyright and music publishing, I didn’t know how it was going to translate to having a sustainable career."

She then found inspiration from fellow online superstars – Pomplamoose. She began learning music video production techniques such as shooting, editing and green screening from her father in order to efficiently create her own video assets.

"I didn’t know if this whole YouTube thing was going to take off, but I figured it was worth a shot. We got lucky. And then I just continued to feed the beast." she decided, "I can now just cut my own deals instead of waiting for my PRO money to show up which it rarely does compared to my SoundExchange payments…"

Ellery Bonham aka EZA

Similarly – a year ago no one knew about Ellery Bonham. I only heard about her because of a friend in my online social circle posted a short video of EZA performing a cover song a cappella with a TC Helicon VoiceLive looping unit. But she waited a long time before releasing an actual recording.

"That was just because I was being extremely cautious. I didn’t want to put anything out that I wasn’t going to be proud of. Especially as a first time artist." says Bonham.

But with careful planning and strategic thinking – her debut EP has garnered rave reviews. Her single "High & Low" has over 600,000 spins on Spotify. The 5 tracks on her debut have almost 800,000 plays on the streaming music platform. That’s almost $5000 in royalties from Spotify alone. Most of which she gets to keep.

"Spotify has allowed me to have a substantial part time job in music as opposed to just a hobby." Bonham explains, "But I took my time and observed the folks with whom I wanted to work. The same names kept coming up over and over. I was patient with my learning curve and became very aware of how I wanted to brand myself. I just kept focussing on the quality of my work and eventually it all worked out."

Both Frech and Bonham emphasize the importance of building a good team. But also made sure that those involved in their project were passionate about the music and were in it for the right reasons.

Neither of them are looking for a label or publishing deal. Nor do they know any peers from their circle who think pursuing those arrangements might be advantageous.

Old Models, New Opportunities

fig. 1 Nashville’s Traditional Music Exploitation Model

Nashville’s mainstream music industry complex is built to do one thing really well and that is create superstars.

The commercial songwriter/publisher industrial pipeline was built to leverage that model. The same for the Nashville major label infrastructure. Fortunes used to be based not only on hit singles. But album cuts on records that contained those hit songs. Digital disruption has disentangled hit songs from albums in the current downloads & streaming environment. This has had a profound effect on the music ecosystem. This has been great for consumer choice but not necessarily ideal for businesses built on album cuts.

But yet enough independents outside of the Music Row infrastructure are doing just fine. The highly visible stories of Jason Isbell, Brandy Clark and Sturgill Simpson have helped the credibility of such artists. And of course, the fact that The Civil Wars and their label Sensibility Music were phenomenally successful as independent musicians before becoming defunct (and eventually signed to Sony/Columbia in New York) has made the dream of indie musicians becoming superstars on their own terms – a reality.

It’s certainly not easy, It’s musical guerrilla warfare. But thanks to artist services companies such as David Macias’ Thirty Tigers these artists are very viable.

Jason Isbell is still releasing records on his own Southeastern Records via Thirty Tigers. Sturgill Simpson just got signed to Atlantic Records in New York City after using Thirty Tigers as a distribution channel and Brandy Clark has also been signed to Warner Records in Los Angeles after brief stints on indie Nashville labels.

The fact that none of the above are or were signed to a Nashville major label is telling. Majors in Nashville know how to push a record through the narrow highly formatted pinhole of country hit radio. The acts above don’t fit that format. But they have found a way to not only survive but thrive. It also represents a lost opportunity for the mainstream commercial country music industry. Even though next to EDM, Americana/Roots music is the industry’s largest growth genre.

In 2013, the Nashville Chamber of Commerce’s Research Center released a comprehensive study that determined that the music business has an almost 10 billion dollar impact on the local economy. $5.7 B of that revenue is directly attributed to jobs in the music industry (Most of the data obtained was from 2012).

A prior study conducted by Belmont University in 2006 based on data from 2002, showed that revenue directly derived from music industry businesses totaled $ 2.6B.

In almost every category, in spite of label consolidation and overall mainstream industry shrinkage – the 2012/2013 study showed growth in revenue and economic impact in the Nashville market. There is no data to show direct economic effects on songwriters. But positions at music publishers grew from 700 to 1445 jobs. A plus 7600 differential. Likewise there were 593 artists & groups in Nashville in 2002 as compared to 2889 in 2012. That’s almost 5x the number of music creators in 10 years.

One might intuitively infer then that the number of songwriters in Nashville must have also grown at a healthy rate. A songwriter & publisher specific study would be a great addition to the portfolio of research efforts in Music City.

Next Big Sound, a music data analytics company, just released their 2014 Industry report. Streaming has grown 54.5% in the last year. In contrast, physical sales have dropped with the exception of vinyl. Both streaming and vinyl set record growth rates. (source: Nielsen Media)

The New Nashville Music Middle Class

fig 2. How Music Is Exploited In The Current Music Business

For a long time, the mainstream music industry lived in a golden age of unlimited budgets and "captured market" economics. The trickle down effect enabled countless associated music professionals and companies to reap rewards. Eventhough the majors still have the upper hand through their reach in distribution, marketing dollars and terrestrial radio – the stream is slowly drying up. This has necessitated current artists, musicians, publishers, songwriters and labels to be more entrepreneurial and self sufficient. Unsurprisingly, it has been the younger generation and some newer innovative companies that have had an easier time with the new realities of the business. In some ways it’s the only music business they’ve ever known.

It’s no big secret that we believe music streaming is well positioned to grow the industry. David Maciaswrote an article for Billboard that supports this thesis. I recommend you read it.

We believe all this bodes well for the industry as a whole – and middle class musicians in general. But the key point here is that we have to adapt and evolve. Musicians need to be prepared to build a business that’s built on multiple revenue streams not just mainstream music hits. This requires that those who want to remain in the business educate themselves as to new opportunities and novel platforms that facilitate fan discovery, engagement and conversion. It will pay to be innovative, as well as, creative in the new world music business going forward.

Tonight I’m part of an event at The Belcourt Theatre here in Nashville that will celebrate my friend Jim Reilley and his band The New Dylans. The Tennessean ran a series called Band on the Brink the entire month of December discussing Jim’s and the band’s career. After the documentary premiere tonight we’ll discuss some of the successes and challenges facing the new musical middle class in Nashville. My fervent hope is that we spend far more time exploring a promising future than looking regretfully in the rear view mirror.

Charles Alexander is the CEO and founder of Outside The Box Music, a Nashville based digital services and artist management agency.  He helps artists, labels and brands navigate the new music business, as well as, amplify their online presence.

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  1. To me the big question that has not been answered in any article I have read to date is: How many music creators who set out to make a living in that field succeed? I would like to know if the number of “middle class” creators has varied at all since the 1950’s. The fact that there are 5x as many artists in Nashville today as there were ten years ago does not necessarily mean that 5x as many artists are making a living.

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