Tuesday, September 02, 2008


nashville3 I spent last week in Nashville setting up a pilot that promises to be not only fresh and exciting but will, of course, change the face of television.

I've been in a lot of American cities this summer as we get that project rolling and many of them aren't doing very well economically. Plants are closing. Jobs are exported overseas. Homes are being foreclosed. But Nashville is thriving.

There are line-ups outside the Belcourt and Cadillac Ranch. The Broadway patios are packed. And, as always, music flows from every open window on 2nd Avenue.

Nashville long ago earned the "Music City, USA" moniker and while the massive Bell South tower lets you know its no longer a one industry town, it used to be and the people who built it into the vibrant, bustling place it is today were writers.

The heart of that industry, "Music Row" stretches a good mile on both sides of 16th and 17th Avenues and down every cross street along the way. Office tower upon office tower is stamped with the names of the writers who wrote the songs that made Nashville famous -- and rich.

Roy Acuff. Chet Atkins. Mike Curb. Names of writers now inscribed on brass plaques or stainless steel signature script to let you know this is a place that writing built and because of publishing and royalty and licensing deals that resulted from that writing, the place will continue to prosper long after the men who owned those names are forgotten.

As I left one of those offices on Friday evening with a couple of well-known Country songwriters, we noticed the hundreds of lawyers, literary agents, artist managers and assistants bailing at the end of their day and the start of a long weekend.

"Look at that," one said, "All those people getting in cars and going to homes paid for because people like us write songs."

It was a moment I wished some other Canadians had been around to witness. Most notably those who argue against the importance of funding the arts.

Despite the massive contribution that the Arts make to our economy, few of our movers and shakers (both in the public and private sectors) seem capable of grasping just how that works and why it's essential to a prosperous future.

I'd recommend all of them stop off in Nashville and take a look around.

Country music started to get popular in the 1920's with the likes of Jimmie Rogers and the Carter Family, all of whom  wrote their own songs. The form was popularized by singing cowboys like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry in 1930's Westerns and through the weekly live concerts broadcast from the Ryman Auditorium by Nashville's WSM Radio as "The Grand Ole Opry".

And while that drew more and more musicians to Nashville, it also drew hundreds of men and women with song lyrics scrawled on napkins, envelopes and the lingerie page of the winter Sears-Roebuck catalogue.

Those writers soon begat publishing houses and recording studios and nightclubs, followed closely by artist management, literary agents and guys who printed sheet music and "One Night Only" flyers.

In a country still struggling to overcome the Great Depression, it wasn't unusual for a single song to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars and that money was pumped right back into the Nashville economy.

Ernest Tubb's record store is still in operation. There are car dealerships and hotels and hardware stores that still bear the names of the country stars and songwriters who bankrolled their establishment.

Most artists I know are of the belief that you share your good fortune, that the purpose of money is to get something new started or help a friend realize their dream, whether that dream is producing a low budget feature or operating a day care center.

In less than two generations, this writer generated largess built not only a multi-Billion dollar music industry, but a thriving community that just keeps growing, attracting new businesses and spawning new ventures.

In addition to being "Music City", Nashville is now home to high-tech giants like Dell and rides the cutting edge of Medical research, telecommunications and bio-tech.

All because some writer scrawled a few words on the back of a napkin. What a shame that Canadian politicians and venture capitalists just can't see how simple it all really is.


Marty said...

Thanks, you have provided me with an interesting (and intellectual) observation on Nashville, music and the arts industry in general.

Win said...

Good article Jim.

How many of those Nashville writers/musicians were directly funded by the government or its agencies (NPR, NEA, etc)?
Show a venture capitalist that an idea makes money and he/she will jump on it.
Unfortunately, very little Canadian "art" is self sufficient.
As a Canadian artist, I find very few Canadians are willing to take risks on homegrown talent. I had to go to the US to get MY TV pilot made.

Anonymous said...

Jim: again, a nice slice of brain pie, as they say. Actually, I just made that up (ignore the Google hits)...

The idea of a creative "hot house" is a good one, but as win points out, a government-funded one, maybe no. I think this is pretty much the best example of the American self-sufficiency ideal vs. the Canadian "we're all in this together" bit.

Every time I see Robert Lantos' island up in Muskoka, I wonder just why his productions need all that tax money. And if, as a taxpayer, I can come swim off one of his docks some day.

Clint Johnson said...

And it isn't like the money that is invested in the arts would just be burned to light cigars if it wasn't spent on music, movies or TV. What would have been created if the money had been invested in another field? Have we lost out on a cure for malaria because of money spent on arts rather than medicine?

Of course it isn't a zero sum game and as a writer I want money spent on the arts- but if it isn't spent on entertainment, that money would go to work somewhere else and who is to say that it wouldn't return far more economically or socially if it was in another field?