Nashville City Branding: Beyond the Music of the Music City


Nashville city branding illustration by Matt van Leeuwen

The first stop in our new city branding series: Nashville

It’s the music city. It’s an acclaimed TV series. It’s one of the fastest-growing places in the United States. For years, it’s quietly taken a backseat to Southern cities like Atlanta, Charlotte and Austin. These days, Nashville is booming and its brand has never been stronger.

For the last 20 years, Nashville’s Convention and Visitors Corporation has played a key role in the strategic development of Nashville as the ultimate entertainment experience, where music is inspired, created, recorded and performed. And the NCVC has been wildly successful in promoting the brand idea of “Music City.” The best way to think of the Music City brand is how it transcends entertainment. It’s a common thread that has guided the city’s cultural commerce, entrepreneurship and community sensibilities for much longer.

Nashville’s rich music legacy is a cultural asset the city latched onto early and grew into a powerhouse industry. It outgrew and outpaced other music industry capitals like Detroit, New Orleans and Memphis because it had the support of the city and the backing of local businesses. The establishment of major radio stations by insurance companies in the 1920s ushered in a golden era of music broadcasting. Those same business-backed broadcasters began settling Music Row in the 1950s, establishing a tight concentration of songwriters, publishers and record labels. Today all kinds of businesses, from banking to construction, are linked to the everyday operations of the $9.7 billion music industry. A key strategy to Nashville’s growth was embracing its biggest cultural asset and ensuring it was not a standalone industry but one entrenched within the broader economy of the city.

Nashville Music City club

Music by nature is entrepreneurial, and while factors like location, affordability and music legacy may have naturally attracted talent to the city, much of that talent stayed because of the infrastructure that was developed around the industry. A songwriter can pen a hit song, have it published, recorded, produced, promoted and copyrighted because all those vertical businesses have been established in the city. By setting themselves up to attract and support music talent, the city laid a foundation for a startup culture of businesses. Since the 1960s Nashville has maintained a low cost of business, supported by subsidies, tax incentives and minimal bureaucracy. These factors created ideal conditions for local enterprises like the Hospital Corporation of America, Ingram Industries and Dollar General to flourish.

Warby Parker NashvilleThe same conditions that allowed a small hospital startup to become the cornerstone of Nashville’s $30 billion healthcare industry are attracting a new wave of startups today. Nashville is next in line to receive the benefits of Google’s Fiber network, called a “game-changer” for attracting creatives. Warby Parker is opening its second corporate office in the city. (“Nashville is such a vibrant city — we’re thrilled to put down roots there,” stated Neil Blumenthal, Warby Parker’s co-founder and co-CEO.) Both companies cited commitment from local leaders, as well as innovations within the city’s tech, music and health sectors, as reasons for coming to the city. While their businesses may not be related to music, the music industry culture is part of the reason why they’re here.

What makes Nashville different from other affordable cities in the middle of America with strong music legacies? A strong sense of community that spans businesses, government and citizens. When Edwin Craig launched WSM radio in the 1920s, he was motivated not just by a desire to market the National Life Insurance company, but by a desire provide a public service to the community. That radio station went on to produce Grand Ole Opry and became the driving force behind the entire music industry.

When suburbanization threatened the city core in the 1950s, the city moved to consolidate under a single metropolitan government that made decisions for a larger metropolitan region. That made urban renewal easier to prioritize especially during the economic boom of the 1990s. Successive governments have invested in major public works projects that benefited the community like the Country Music Hall of Fame, the downtown Nashville Public Library, Bridgestone Arena, Nissan Stadium, and most recently the Music City Convention Complex. Google recognized this commitment to community in selecting Nashville as a Google Fiber site. A senior official from the company commented that “It really requires that a community of interested stakeholders works together. We expect to be in Nashville for a very long time, and we hope to be an anchor in that community.”

Nashville Google Fiber

Nashville and Memphis, two cities with similar music legacies, economies and geographies began the late ’90s neck and neck, yet 20 years later Nashville is booming while Memphis busts. Political leadership and steady brand strategy was a key factor. Nashville’s metro government (in partnership with the NCVC) implemented a 20-year brand strategy, resulting in more than 13 million visitors each year and an unprecedented growth rate. Memphis, meanwhile, has struggled with a tarnished image, higher unemployment rates and population growth issues.

Nashville Music City logoThe future looks bright for the Music City brand strategy, which continues to be a success because it is continually supported at all levels of government, business and community. Some suggest the recent growth of tech means the dilution of music but it doesn’t need to be either/or with the right development plans. As the city attracts more high-tech industries, municipal leaders should continue to promote the music industry for the spillover effect it’s having on the local economy.

NCVC recognizes this, as it’s been expanding the definition of the brand to encompass not only music but also companies and talent that support the music culture. They’re building relationships with local makers and chefs to promote and host live music events. But in order for the music city brand to thrive, city planners and officials must continue to take steps to ensure that music is an infrastructural core of what makes the city authentic. This means providing additional incentives for independent local music companies to thrive on Music Row and encouraging high-tech startups to invest in music-related initiatives.

While a lot of credit can be given to NCVC’s brand strategy for the successes Nashville is experiencing today, the roots of these strategic efforts are grounded in a far deeper and longer-term organic strategy focusing on cultural assets, local industries and a community sensibility that have been a part of the city’s DNA for decades. Nashville’s long-term relationship with music not only attracted those with a passion for music, but has attracted those who are truly passionate for what they do in life as well.

Cavan Huang is a graphic designer, creative director and design educator whose work includes creating brand experiences in urban environments. Illustrations by Matt van Leeuwen.


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