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Coalition works to preserve culture of Nashville's famous Music Row from development squeeze

A doll modeled after recording artist Ben Folds sits on one of his pianos in RCA Studio A on Aug. 8, 2014 in Nashville, Tenn. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Mark Humphrey

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A doll modeled after recording artist Ben Folds sits on one of his pianos in RCA Studio A on Aug. 8, 2014 in Nashville, Tenn. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Mark Humphrey

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - With development squeezing Nashville's famous Music Row, some in the music industry say time is running out to preserve the district's character and the studios where the Music City's iconic sounds were born.

Just southeast of downtown, Music Row has long been home to an eclectic mix of recording studios, record label buildings, publishing houses and music industry office space. If country music had an epicenter, this is a neighbourhood where it might be found. But recent demolitions to make room for new development have struck a nerve in the city's musical community.

At least two studios have been torn down in the last year, and the district is shrinking.

"There's a squeeze going on," said Mike Kopp, president of the Music Industry Coalition, which includes hundreds of music executives, songwriters, musicians and fans. "It's been squeezed down to about three or four streets ... and that continues to get squeezed."

Part of the pressure is from development, as more people seek to live near downtown. Two nearby universities, Vanderbilt and Belmont, are also expanding. Vanderbilt recently purchased the Sony Music building to use for administrative staff and academic purposes, though it's allowing Sony to continue leasing space in the building.

Some developers have allowed tenants to continue leasing, but they've jacked up the rent.

In response, some artists have publicly protested the development and rising rents. Pianist and rocker Ben Folds drew a crowd of about 200 during a Music Row rally a couple of months ago. Country star and American Idol judge Keith Urban pleaded for preservation of Music Row in a local newspaper opinion piece.

If nothing else, Urban told The Associated Press, he'd like to see a dialogue about preservation.

"What I am hoping we can do is start a conversation about the requirements of heritage listings and zoning and various things that we can do as a community to preserve aspects of the row ... and not just sort of wonder as bulldozers start knocking things down," Urban said.

The coalition says it's not anti-development, but just wants to preserve as much of Music Row's culture as possible.

"If there are condos being built, then why not have ... publishing houses that are incorporated into those developments," said Sharon Corbitt-House, a coalition member and artist manager. "I would think a lot of out-of-town songwriters would love to rent or purchase a piece of property that's built around businesses that they operate from, or they work from."

One property in jeopardy is RCA Studio A, which the legendary Chet Atkins developed in 1964. It's been used by a host of recording artists over the decades. Folds has rented the studio for 12 years.

Developer Tim Reynolds recently bought the building. He said in an open letter to the media that he has had independent inspectors assess the property and he will "consider all options" regarding the best use of it, including possible preservation.

Corbitt-House said Studio A, which has a unique acoustical recording room large enough to hold a full orchestra, is of particular concern because its room is the last of six that were made. Similar rooms in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Mexico and Rome no longer exist.

"I keep saying to people, when this one is gone, this is it," she said.

Other cities like Memphis, Detroit and New Orleans have taken steps to preserve their musical culture.

"Developers in general just don't care much about history. They ... see opportunity," said Raymond Winbush, director of the institute for urban research at Maryland's Morgan State University and a former Nashville resident.

Winbush said New Orleans is among the most successful at preserving musical landmarks and culture. The Preservation Resource Center in New Orleans and its partners managed to save the homes of several famous jazz musicians. The centre's director, Suzanne Blaum, said preservation efforts are more successful if multiple players are willing to negotiate.

"A lot of work has to go into this, from neighbourhood organizations participating to governmental organizations participating," Blaum said.

Kopp said his group has been meeting with Nashville planning officials and working on an inventory of businesses and music-related ventures on Music Row.

"Once we have that, then we kind of will have a better idea of what needs to be done," he said. "Are we looking at zoning changes? Are we looking at incentives to keep people on the Row? It's quite a challenge because no one has ever done anything like ... this before."

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Online:

http://www.musicindustrycoalition.com/

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Associated Press writer Kristin M. Hall in Nashville contributed to this report.

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