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Photo courtesy of Metro Nashville Archives.

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On a Mission to Preserve Nashville’s Music Row

The neighborhood hopes to register as a Historic District in the face of encroaching development.

Photo courtesy of Metro Nashville Archives.

In a town that bills itself as Music City USA, there’s no more important neighborhood than Music Row. One of the centers of music for both Nashville and the nation, this important cultural district, clustered just southwest of downtown, grew up organically over the decades to encompass scores of key recording studios, management offices, and publishing companies, and has had an outsize impact on the city’s economy. More than 56,000 jobs and $3.2 billion of labor income annually come from the music industry, in large part based on the activity in Music Row.

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"During our study, we looked, and couldn’t really find anything as unique as this neighborhood," says Tim Walker, Executive Director of the Metro Historical Commission. "It’s very walkable, and very one of a kind."

Preservationists and planners want to keep it that way. As past of a collaboration with New South Associates, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has prepared a nomination to earn Music Row recognition on the National Register of Historic Places, a move that would honor arguably one of the country’s most productive community centers for the arts. The more than 200 page National Register nomination, known as a Multiple Property Documentation Form (MPDF), will be reviewed Wednesday by the Tennessee Historical Commission’s State Review Board, and with their approval, will then be passed along to the National Park Service.

Inside RCA Studio A on Music Row, circa 1965. Photo courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

While it formed in the areas around 16th and 17th avenues south without any top-down direction or city intervention—at a time before terms like "arts incubators" were part of city planning—Music Row stands as a successful and unique example of a cultural district. The move to help protect and preserve it signals a recognition that action is needed in face of a development pressures from Nashville’s booming real estate market.

"We don’t want to price people out, because there are still so many music-related businesses that are homegrown," says Walker. "It’s a very complicated issue. It’s about what incentives we need to create, because it really is an economic issue. Music Row is so close to the center of the city and has so many development pressures on it."

According to Walker, Music Row grew organically, with local musicians and entrepreneurs taking advantage of a low-rent residential district near downtown to set up shop. Cheap rent, a proximity to the city’s already established music scene fueled by institutions such as the Grand Ole Opry, and commercial zoning allowed pioneers like brothers Owen and Harold Bradley, who set up the Quonset Hut studio in 1954 on what would soon become Music Row, to put in place the infrastructure for songwriting, publishing, and recording that would turn the area into a powerhouse of the creative economy.

This isn’t the first recent effort to protect the history and legacy of the area. RCA’s Studio A, which was founded by Chet Atkins, was added to the National Register last summer, averting a developer’s plans to convert it into condos and a music-themed restaurant, joining recent efforts to protect other famed sites such as Studio B, Columbia Studio A, and the Quonset Hut. According to Carolyn Brackett of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, nearly three dozen properties on or near Music Row have been demolished over the last few years.

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