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Music City's New Mayor: Can Megan Barry Keep the Momentum Going in Nashville?

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
Megan Barry speaks to supporters after she was declared the winner in the Nashville mayor's race on Sept. 10, 2015 in Nashville, Tenn.

Former mayor Karl Dean helped the city's music industry grow over two terms. Now it's Barry's turn: "We've got a lot to do."

Megan Barry has big shoes to fill. A two-term Metro councilwoman, Barry was sworn in as mayor of Nashville after winning a run-off election on September 10. She replaced Karl Dean, a two-term mayor that made the growth of Nashville's music industry a priority.

Barry beat Republican David Fox in a five-week runoff that turned unusually nasty. Most notably, Fox supporters ran advertisements suggesting Barry was an atheist — a potential liability in the home of the Southern Baptist Convention. But Nashville voters, more progressive than people in suburbs and rural areas, voted for Barry — a Democrat and Nashville's first female mayor — by a 55 to 45 margin.

The theme of Friday's inauguration's was "We Make Nashville," a slogan meant to acknowledge the city's increasing diversity — it was displayed in ten different languages — as well as a spirit of cooperation and the city's variety of businesses. The theme is also applicable to the local music industry. While health care is the city's largest industry by revenue, the music business and its related tourism makes Nashville a music hub and a destination for visitors. 

The music business appears to have got the candidate it wanted. Barry carries a good reputation and had widespread support from music industry executives including the likes of Universal Nashville chief Mike Dungan, manager Clarence Spaulding and legendary musician Emmylou Harris. Nancy Shapiro of The Recording Academy, another Barry supporter, calls her "a visionary and a coalition builder" who's been "an avid supporter of the music industry during her eight-year tenure on the Metro Council."

Nashville is indelibly linked to its music industry. With 7.8 music industry jobs per 1,000 working age people, Nashville ranks far ahead of Los Angeles at 2.8 and New York 2.0, according to a 2014 report by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. In all, Nashville's 56,000-plus music jobs have annual labor income of $3.2 billion while the music industry has a total economic impact of $9.7 billion each year. There's much outside of the country industry: a small but growing music tech scene; more artists, managers and agents that exist outside of country music; and the long-standing Christian and gospel industries.

Barry is not a newcomer to these issues. In eight years on the Metro Council, she supported many of Dean's initiatives, from the $623 million Music City Center, a state-of-the-art convention center in the heart of the city's downtown, to grant money paid to the production company behind the Nashville television series, the inspiration for nearly one in five tourist's visit to the city, Dean told Billboard in 2014.

Barry is also a member of the 2014 Leadership Music, the Nashville-based program for music industry professionals, and part of its vast network of music industry professionals. (Dean is a member of Leadership Music's class of 2010.) "I give her a lot of credit for making it her business to understand our business," says Debbie Lynn, Leadership Music's executive director.

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The new mayor says she will continue to operate the Music City Music Council, a partnership between the mayor's office, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation. The Council brought together a host of leading executives (Ken Levitan, managing partner at Vector Management and Scott Clayton, senior partner at CAA are just two names) to create new live music, improve schools' music education and convince music companies to relocate jobs to the city.

Before Deans arrival in 2007, the city lacked a no bridge between the Chamber of Commerce and the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation, says Mary Ann McCready, a past co-chair of Dean's Music City Music Council and president of business management firm Flood, Bumstead, McCready & McCarthy. Previous mayors had tried but mostly failed to coordinate the different parties. Dean succeeded because "he really understood the enormous influence it has on the city," she says.

Mayor Barry agrees. "I think one of the most insightful things Karl did when he first came in was to say, 'We need to marry the economy of our music industry with the actual music industry,'" she tells Billboard.

Nashville is already a magnet for songwriters, musicians and singers, but Dean wanted an even larger creative community. He has been known to reference Richard Florida, an economist that studies the how creative professionals help cities' development. Accordingly, Dean threw his support behind The Ryman Lofts, a city-created, affordable housing complex that provides work and living spaces to people pursuing careers in the arts. The project fits nicely with Barry's goal of providing more affordable housing in the city.

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Barry says she plans to address other topics considered important by the music industry. One important issue for Nashville's tourism business is the preservation of Music Row, an area that now faces the encroachment of developers and increasing office space needs of Vanderbilt University. The changing landscape of Music Row gained national attention last year when musician Ben Folds began campaigning to save RCA Studio A, where Folds was a tenant and many classic songs were recorded, from development. A local philanthropist saved the property and a coalition — including Dean's office — helped get Studio A added to the National Trust for Historical Preservation's "National Treasure" list.

Other Dean initiatives will be continued, such as attracting businesses to Nashville and grow the convention business, a key driver of tourism and a necessity for the financial success of the new convention center. "We've got a lot to do," says Berry.