It’s round three for Next*Big*Nashville this year. The strictly non-country conference and festival has been bringing the latest and greatest in Nashville rock to the masses since 2006, and this year they’ve spared no expense packing venues across town and educating industry professionals with in-depth panels featuring some of the biggest names on the scene today. The much-anticipated festival and conference began Thursday, Sept. 11th and will culminate with a live broadcast of shows on Nashville’s own Lightning 100—that’s 100.1 on your FM dial—this Sunday night. Although it began as a small showcase for what many considered the crème de la crop of Nashville rock, N*B*N has grown into a phenomenon that cannot be ignored. This year, over 200 bands fill the bill at over 15 venues for five straight days showcasing everything from metal to punk to the roots of southern rock. And we’re all invited to the party!
I began my Next*Big*Nashville experience with a panel Thursday morning about the psychology of Artist Management featuring Kent Marcus Esq., Carl Stubner (Fleetwood Mac/Velvet Revolver), Ken Levitan of Vector Management (Ben Folds/Kings of Leon), Doc McGhee of McGhee Artist Management (KISS/Ted Nugent), and Steve Smith of Aware Records (Brandie Carlile/Matt Kearny). The hour-long panel overviewed the various pains associated with the business of artist management and how individual panelists had dealt with certain situations throughout their careers. Questions were minimal and the overall content discussed was more eye opening than life changing. It was a great way to start the day though, and actually being allowed to sit in on a discussion like that, especially as a student, was pretty rad.
The second stop on the tour came about two hours later when a friend and I sat in on a panel devoted solely to the idea of the “Nashville Curse,” which I found to be the most rewarding. Panelist included Kent M. Marcus, Esq., Steve Robertson (VP A&R Atlantic Records), legendary artist Bobby Bare Jr., Matt Friction of the Pink Spiders, Kim Stephens (President Forward Ent./Capitol Music Group), Kim Buie, VP (A&R Lost Highway), and Jason Moon Wilkins, Next BIG Nashville founder.
At first everyone was on the same page with this whole “Nashville Curse” thing. Jason explained how the curse began—supposedly—when Jason and the Nashville Scorchers were forced to drop the “Nashville” from their name because it was “too country”. As panelists began to delve deeper and deeper beneath the surface of the issue, however, it was realized that the whole thing is completely internal. Nashville is absolutely swimming in new artists just ready for their five minutes of fame. (that’s right I said five…not fifteen) And, because of it, there’s an overwhelming amount of animosity, jealousy, and resentment among acts that grow and evolve into the idea that “we” as a city can’t or won’t ever amount to anything. The problem is that it’s just not true. On July 22, 2008 sales of Franklin, Tenn. native Paramore’s sophmore effort RIOT! exceeded 1 million units in the U.S alone completely debunking the curse.
So why is it Nashville still has this awful country stigma? Because things are still changing and change takes a few minutes. I say wait a few years. Country music is more popular than ever but Nashville as a cultural hub is the new kid on the block. People need time to discover Nashville and all it’s non-country attractions, and instead of concentrating on the fact that people stereotype Nashville we should be discussing ways to break that stereotype and brand Nashville as Music City not Country Music City.
Also , as an industry, and as a city we don’t think like the rest of the industry. We’re a very educated music city and it gets us in trouble. Artists are more familiar with the particulars of their contracts, songwriters want to be involved in the negotiations from start to finish, and everyone knows the dirty little tricks labels try to pull. It’s the perfect example of the saying, “knowledge is power,” only in our case it’s backfiring on us. When a new artists demand a reasonable share of their publishing or stand up to a producer to make their music their way we cut the chord immediately and slam the door in their face, thus denying ourselves any return on the investment we’ve already begun to make AND denying Nashville the opportunity to be recognized for something spectacular that doesn’t twang.
Ultimately, we need to stop running around with our noses in the air like we’re the great and powerful Oz our artists would be lost without. The truth is it’s a two-way street people! Yes, there are those rare artists who are discovered in a smoky bar singing old standards and showing a little skin for tips. Those people need us to discover, develop and nurture them because they can’t do it on their own. But when was the last time you heard a story like that by the water cooler? Artists are savvy these days and they want to be involved in their success. The best part-for them- is that DIY is cheaper and easier than ever and I truly believe it’s one of the best ways for a band/artist to really understand the amount of effort even minimal success demands. As industry professionals it’s our responsibility to fix the problems with which we are faced, and assessing our own practices should be the first step to doing so.
From an artist standpoint, the problem with Nashville rock is not really a problem at all. Our situation is that Nashville artists are focused more on putting out the strongest record artistically, than being number one with a bullet, which often leaves us sitting on the shelf when the suits come searching for the next commercial smash. Matt Friction of The Pink Spiders commented, “The Nashville curse is not that ghost that trips you up and unplugs your cable onstage…it’s finding a way to make a living without relying on the man.” And because we’re not interested in the kiss-ass machine run by the giant cowboy hat in the sky, we focus on the more important things. That goes for post-production as well. Nashville understands the importance of building a solid fan-base and creating actual artistic representations of our lives and ourselves. When it comes down to it, we use a completely different side of our brains when we approach music and business in the same sentence.
The mother of all obstacles, however, lies in popularity of country music and the shear fact that Nashville is home base for everything country. As legendary artist and songwriter Bobby Bare Jr. mentioned at the panel, “If there is a curse, it’s that people in Austin, TX, [New York, and L.A.] don’t have to answer to folks like Shedaisy and Brooks & Dunn. You’re associated with all this music that you don’t relate to in any way.” Especially since country music has blown up so much in the last ten years, bands with clearly un-country roots are being compared to the twangy-est of them all.
Is that why we think there’s a curse…no one wants to be associated with Nashville? Well I say WRONG! Nashville’s an awesome city filled with awesome people that really do love what they do and are trying to change things. The problems comes in when we forget that the other 99 percent of Americans don’t know or care about half the shit that gets us up.
If you’re not in the music industry and you’re reading this when was the last time you picked up a new record and knew—without looking—what label was behind it? When was the last time you thought about who paid for your favorite song to appear in your now-favorite commercial? When was the last time you Googled record sales? If you can truthfully answer any of these questions within the last few months, even years, you’re special. If you can’t, you’re completely normal. There’s nothing wrong with you, and I promise I’m not trying to sounds like a frigid bitch when I say this but you are the drones that have ruined popular music. (Don’t feel bad you didn’t know what you were doing.) You’ve been spoon fed shitty soulless “pop” music for the last ten or so years, and your pallet has disintegrated. The suits have convinced you that 12 yr. old girls with a serious lack of talent pass as acceptable top ten artists, and turned ridiculous lyrics about shakin’ it like a salt-shaker into poetry that outshines the greats in the minds of our youth. We’ve lost the magic of popular music that was so present in the 60’s and 70’s. Even 90’s grunge was more magical that the Jonas Brothers or Miley Cyrus.
Don’ get me wrong the problem is not that this music doesn’t exist. It’s out there it’s just not making it across our car stereos. It’s hiding in little bars and obscure venues in cities just like Nashville, and it’s being smothered by the machine it’s struggling so hard to be a part of.
When it comes right down to it Thursday was a day realization. I learned that there are people working to change the way things are done. They’re fighting the good fight and expanding their own horizons so newbies like me can jump on board when we’re ready. Hopefully we’ll all be on the same page by the time that day comes. As for me, I don’t believe there is a curse, and I certainly don’t believe it has anything to do with being in Nashville. I do believe, however, that if Nashville wants to be associated with anything other than country music, we’re going to have to support something that’s not country music. Get behind Paramore. Spread the word about Kings of Leon. Tell everyone you know that Nashville has more to offer. People’s minds aren’t going to change by themselves…after all, “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.” (Mahatma Gandhi)