Nashville calls itself “Music City” for good reason. For many years, our town has been the destination of many an aspiring songwriter, climbing down from a Greyhound bus with a guitar in hand, a couple of dollars in his pocket and a head full of dreams. If a writer had talent, persistence, and some luck, he or she could get signed to a music publishing deal and get paid a small “draw,” or advance on future royalties. This would allow them the freedom to just write songs, until one day they would get that first cut and start earning enough to start living a middle class life here in Nashville.
But that tried and true path to success for songwriters is no longer an option for most. For years, music publishers depended on income from the sales of record albums or CDs containing about 10 songs. Even if the song they had placed on an album was not released as a single, if that album contained other hits and became a best seller, all the publishers would split what are called the “mechanical royalties.” This money gave successful publishers a steady income that they could use to sign promising new songwriters. However, those dollars have fallen sharply over the last decade as consumers have stopped buying albums and started buying digital downloads of single songs, or getting music for free from file sharing websites. As a result, Nashville’s music publishers have had to slash the number of staff writers they can employ, and many have had to consolidate or close their operations. Bart Herbison of the Nashville Songwriter’s Association International (NSAI) estimates that 75% of songwriters that could make a living from their craft five years ago can no longer do so.
It remains to be seen what consequences this will have for Nashville’s music business. What has made our city a country music mecca is the synergy of songwriters, publishers, record companies, and recording studios, all grouped together in the Music Row area, feeding off of each other’s energy and success. But now, record companies are shrinking, struggling to cope with the new digital business models. With reduced money flowing to publishers and songwriters, there is less work for recording studios, engineers and musicians. As time goes on, there is a real danger that many Music Row businesses will close or move somewhere else.
Nashville’s Music City reputation is built on the power of songs. But as songwriters lose the community of other writers, income, and the editing and sales expertise of music publishers, our reputation may begin to get tarnished as the quality of songs we offer diminishes. Unfortunately, it may be that Sixteenth Avenue is in danger of becoming a fading memory of what it once was: a vibrant, creative place that spawned some of the best songs ever heard on this planet. And that is a sad thing for Nashville, and for everyone who loves music.