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Geography of Innovation: Why Nashville Is Music City

• January 17, 2014 • 3:42 PM

Kirk Whalum visiting the audience at a riverfront concert in 2007. (Photo: Terryballard/Wikimedia Commons)

Quality of interaction trumps density of interaction any day, and the Tennessee capital has a critical mass of talent from all over the world.

Nashville is a great place to work as a musician. It’s an ironic talent refinery, a designation usually reserved for alpha global cities such as New York or London. Why? Nashville-based singer-songwriter and author Tommy Womack provides the ethnographic answer:

Nashville has two kinds of folks: music industry people and civilians. Many of the civilians are so inundated with all the music thrown at them that they don’t pay attention anymore; some are churchgoers who don’t go to bars anyway, no matter who is playing. So bands will often find themselves playing for other musicians, songwriters, and industry people, most of whom are broke. Bands will almost always play for door money or tips, and if they get thirty dollars apiece at the end of the night, they’re in high cotton. As Mike Grimes—he of the successful record store Grimey’s—points out, a low-paying or free gig in Nashville, in front of the right person, can translate into paying gigs out of town down the road.

Nashville is a songwriter’s town. You would be forgiven for thinking of us as a bloodless exporter of songs about cowboys—written by people who aren’t cowboys, sung by people who aren’t cowboys, for an audience of people who aren’t cowboys. There is some truth in that. But Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton have knocked on our door for hits before, and some of our most successful songs bypass the Music Row production line entirely. “We’ve been banging our heads against a wall for forty years, trying to get the world to see that we do more than country music here,” says my friend Bill Lloyd of the Long Players. “People from all over the world come here to record.” …

For an industry town, Nashville is remarkably bereft of cliquishness. Maybe that’s because it’s full of expats. If you feel like an outsider, you’ll likely find someone at a party or over a barstool to talk to anyway—someone who just moved here as well. Take Paul Griffith, from Algiers, Louisiana. I’m from Madisonville, Kentucky, but I met Paul over a late breakfast at the Nashville Biscuit House, and Paul has brought his drumming to bear on hundreds of recording sessions and thousands of gigs. He can adapt and play whatever is required of him, but he’s most at home whacking out a loose and swinging Big Easy feel. He just got back from playing a Todd Snider tour of amphitheaters in zoos (yes, zoos). Paul’s been on the road with Todd for most of the last two years. “If you embrace the chaos, it’s the best gig in the world,” he says. In more than twenty years of living in Nashville, he’s done tours with Lee Roy Parnell, Carlene Carter, Jo-El Sonnier, and many, many others.

Emphasis added. To be Music City, Nashville doesn’t need great density or a large population. It requires a critical mass of talent from all over the world. Nashville is the Horta of wayward musicians.

The Nashville of Canada might be Halifax. More humbly, it is a better Toronto. The creative magic of Atlantic Canada:

Halifax proved highly attractive to the musicians we interviewed because of its supportive and collaborative social dynamics. Traditional explanations of economic development emphasized the role of natural endowments, geographic position and access to markets in affecting growth trajectories. In light of Richard Florida’s and others’ interest in understanding the factors that motivate talented and creative workers to locate where they do, we find attention increasingly focussed on how the social dynamics of city-regions may influence migration outcomes. While it would be premature to signal the end of the dominance of Toronto in the Canadian music industry, our research identifies the significant challenges that Canada’s largest city has in retaining talented and creative workers in light of the competition from smaller, more socially cohesive scenes like Halifax.

Toronto is a place of outsiders without trying. Halifax proves that a city, or any sized community, doesn’t have to be Toronto-big in order to be world class for innovation. Quality of interaction trumps density of interaction.

Making a community denser and more diverse doesn’t prime the pump of creativity and innovation. Furthermore, greater social capital is a death sentence for new ideas. Stick a fork in Jane Jacobs. Nashville is Music City.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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