Artists being pushed out by gentrification is a familiar tune

Friday, January 13, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 2
By Colleen Creamer

Local music industry producers and engineers have a front-row seat to the efforts of up-and-coming musicians and songwriters arriving in Nashville, as well as established talent.

Their take: Artists are going to have to work hard to make ends meet until their careers take off. If they take off.

Ryan Hewitt, a Nashville-based music engineer and producer who has worked with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Dixie Chicks, the Avett Brothers and others, has a career that spans, geographically, from New York to Los Angeles before he arrived in Nashville last year.

Hewitt has seen the trajectory of housing in a number of “creative” cities.

“This is an epidemic that is as old as creative people,” Hewitt says. “Artists used to live downtown in the Bowery in New York. Then they got pushed out to Brooklyn. Then they got pushed down to Philadelphia, and now Philadelphia is getting too expensive, so they are leaving there. It’s crazy.”

A Wall Street Journal’s article about Nashville’s rental market ran with this headline: “Nashville Rent Increases Have Residents Singing the Blues.”

The story tracked rents in a number of Southern and Midwestern mid-sized cities, finding wide swaths of disparities between income and rent prices based on high demand continuing from the housing crash of 2008.

Hewitt says he is seeing multitudes in the creative class still coming from Los Angeles because Nashville is not yet as expensive.

“Renting an apartment or a house in East Nashville is still a fraction of what it costs to rent that apartment or house in Silver Lake. East Nashville, to me, is a lot like Silver Lake or Echo Park,” Hewitt says referring to the two side-by-side communities in LA that were once considered affordable but now are huge draws for artists and musicians.

“Musicians and songwriters are working part-time jobs that have almost full-time hours to make enough money to live on,” Hewitt says. “But there are actual paying gigs in this city unlike in LA … the idea of subsidizing housing for those in the arts is great; I hope the city continues to do that.”

Engineer and producer Jeff Balding, who serves on the advisory board of the Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business at Belmont University, also is a former president of The Recording Academy Nashville Chapter.

He says getting a degree in the music industry and then coming out on the creative side of the business can be financially daunting at best.

“Kids coming out of the universities here, are coming into a world with school loan debt and trying to figure out how to live here; that compiles the cost even more,” Balding says.

“They have got to have flexibility to do what they need to do creatively, so whatever those income streams are, they have to have some control over them.”

A raw desire to succeed is required, Hewitt adds.

“I think it comes down to wanting it enough,” Hewitt says. “I wanted my career really bad. I worked 80 and 90 hours weeks just to make enough money to survive and have some spending cash and a car that comes along with having to live in LA.”

Balding says he is also seeing those plumb jobs associated with making records continue to dwindle as the business model now requires fewer and fewer people.

“No doubt in the last few years, things have changed drastically as far as how records are made, and the jobs associated are disappearing,” Balding adds. “There are a lot of small circles now where it’s one or two or three people within their private studio doing the work. That changes the landscape a lot for people coming in to the industry, and it changes it a lot for the people who are already in the industry.”

The main thing, Hewitt adds, is to keep a pathway open for talented people to come here.

“We need to be able to make sure the people who are really good are coming here and not somewhere else.’’