How Nashville became a music center

Nashville wasn’t always a thriving place for music and a sociologist examined what led to the transformation:

Since 2005, he has conducted over 300 hours of in-depth interviews with over 75 music professionals in Nashville. He compiled the findings in his new book, “Beyond the Beat: Musician Building Community in Nashville,” released in September 2015…

In order to track the rapid evolution of Nashville, Cornfield examined the city before recording labels arrived. Regional artists — from across the state of Tennessee — had been gathering in Nashville to showcase their musical skills. This large amalgamation of talented local voices allowed Nashville to stand out amongst other Southern music cities.

When record labels sought opportunities in the south in the 1970s, they were pleased to stumble upon the world-class musical production talent harbored in this small city. Cornfield discovered that Nashville mixed opportunity with a rich history, making it attractive to hopeful musicians…

Music City exploded in the 1980s, becoming the country music metropolis that it is now famed to be. As the music industry both expanded and diversified throughout the decade, musicians sought smaller, more intimate audiences, rather than performing for an anonymous mass of a crowd. This way, they no longer had to rely on record labels and could manage the entire music production process themselves.

While such diversification presents opportunities for music professionals, it also made it more difficult for them to establish an occupational community and build a mutual support network. Cornfield makes a point to study this social trend.

Cultural centers and communities don’t just happen: they develop over time (and can also decline over time). Here, it sounds like Nashville was a regional music center that later attracted large actors in the music industry.

I would guess one thing other cities would want to know is how to replicate Nashville’s success in this area. Developing such a niche in a culture industry – whether music, movies, fashion, publishing, or something else – not only provides jobs and tax revenues but leads to visitors, tourists, and a reputation as a happening place. Yet, not every city can be a major player in a culture industry and even the best laid plans don’t necessarily come to fruition.

Could a new Chicago casino be a cultural hub?

Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones argues that the inevitable Chicago casino should be more of a cultural hub than a gaming paradise:

Instead, it should be viewed as a major new cultural hub, which happens to have a little gambling going on alongside its many other attractions.

And that won’t happen unless Chicago’s creative professionals — its architects, entertainment executives, chefs, artists, actors, music promoters, cultural officials — hold their noses and overcome, as did the former street performers of the Cirque du Soleil more than two decades ago, whatever qualms they may have about becoming involved with gambling, which will arrive with or without them. They must grab hold of this civic debate right now, before the chance is lost for good.

The main energy of a Chicago casino should have everything to do with experiencing architecture, watching spectacular shows, eating at world-class restaurants, interacting with thrilling technological art and the like, and as little as possible to do with gambling. When winners are few, the core activity, experience elsewhere has shown, is more frequently depressive than ecstatic. The casinos’ commercials showing constant excitement at the slots are, as anyone who has spent time in a casino late at night will attest, illusions.

The only thing the actual gambling would bring to the table is the revenue that will make other great things possible in what could be an intensely creative building, one of the few big-ticket cultural developments that actually could pay for itself and get built in a barely recovering economy, rather than languishing as a costly, unfunded dream.

This is an intriguing idea – and one that might be too aspirational. The conversation about casinos in Illinois has been primarily about money as state and local governments are in desperate need of cash. My primary question to Jones would be whether there are actual models to follow here – are there urban casinos, outside of Las Vegas, that meet the goals he suggests or would Chicago be doing a whole new thing here? What would it take to have both a profitable casino as well as one that could be a cultural center? Where would such a cultural casino be located that could build upon existing tourist flows while also attracting new crowds that would be drawn to a casino? Historically, casinos tend not to have the best reputation as they attract certain kinds of crowds so building a world-class casino and cultural hub would be a big coup if done well in Chicago.