Nashville Producer Fights for Backyard Studio as Home-Studio Owners Nationwide Hope Neighbors Don't Squeal

Lij Shaw
Courtesy of Institute for Justice

Lij Shaw

"Let's not make it impossible to make music in Music City," says Lij Shaw, who is suing the city of Nashville.

Home recording studios have boomed over the past couple decades with software's increasing sophistication, but in most major cities they continue to operate in a legal grey area between commercial and private use. Now, a Nashville man is suing the city over his right to run a commercial recording studio out of his house. 

"I invested 25 years and all of my income and all of my savings went into creating my home studio and being able to do this," says Lij Shaw, a producer and engineer whose clients have included Mumford & Sons, Death Cab for Cutie, Zac Brown Band, Old Crow Medicine Show, Tegan and Sara -- and who won a best roots gospel album Grammy award in 2015 for mixing Mike Farris' album Shine for All the People. "To be told by the city, ‘Yeah, sorry, tough luck, you know some random person filed a complaint, so therefore we're just going to shut you down,' entirely is just not fair."

Shaw’s lawsuit -- which cleared a hurdle last month when a state judge denied the city’s motion to dismiss it -- highlights the increasingly blurry lines between professional and personal recording studios. While Nashville home studios such as Shaw's are permissible on their own, commercial use that involves “client” visits is not. In Los Angeles, a home recording studio in a residential zone is allowed as long as it is incidental to the residential use or an approved "home occupation" as defined by municipal code. If a studio is deemed in violation, the city will take all enforcement actions necessary, including filing a criminal misdemeanor to gain compliance. In New York, home recording studios are permitted but can only take up 25 percent of the size of the home or 500 square feet, whichever is less; can only include one non-resident employee; and cannot impact the character of the residential area. 

Still, many musicians are willing to gamble against their cities enforcing those policies. Los Angeles-based Grammy-winning producer Ariel Rechtshaid says home studios are the norm among his friends in the industry: like many other current producers, Rechtshaid started out working on music in his bedroom, and as his career advanced, his operation grew more and more sophisticated. He'll still track live bands in commercial studios around town, but most his work is done at home where he has more flexibility and feels most comfortable. 

Even when “there started being budgets, still the place where my mind was most creative was in some form of a bedroom studio -- even if that is now in the downstairs of my house or a studio in the backyard,” Rechtshaid says.

Shaw, who has lived in Nashville since 1991, decided to build his own backyard studio after the birth of his daughter in 2005 --  naming it The Toy Box Studio -- investing about $100,000 into it so that he could work more closely to his family. When Shaw and his wife separated in 2009 and he became his daughter’s sole caretaker, the studio allowed him to continue working a full time job. 

But two years ago an anonymous complaint prompted the Nashville Metro government to send Shaw a cease-and-desist notice for bringing clients into his fully soundproofed shop. 

Shaw responded first by applying for rezoning into "specific plan" districts that would make it legal for his home business to serve a limited number of clients each day. But that effort failed in 2017, despite a petition signed by almost 40 of his neighbors voicing support for him to keep his studio. From there, he says he was left with "no other choice" but to file a lawsuit in December, with help from the non-profit libertarian public interest law firm Institute for Justice, and non-profit free-market think tank The Beacon Center of Tennessee. Last month, he and his co-plaintiff, retired hair-stylist Pat Raynor -- a 66-year-old widow, who had her part-time home salon shut down by Metro Codes -- defeated the city's motion to dismiss. 

Their lawsuit challenges a specific line in the metro code that states "no clients or patrons may be served on the property," not some of the other restrictions that more directly affect neighbors' quality of life. While local zoning in Nashville explicitly allows day cares and short-term rentals such as Airbnb to operate in residential dwellings, other businesses in these zones roll the dice and hope no one complains. 

Shaw's legal team argues this violates his right under Tennessee law to earn an honest living and use his private property for any lawful use. They are seeking judgment declaring the client prohibition be deemed unconstitutional and a permanent injunction against its enforcement against, as well as legal and equitable relief the court deems just. 

"Home studios are the lifeblood of the music industry and especially in Nashville," says Shaw, who followed city instructions to remove recording rates and welcome videos from his Toy Box website, erased the studio's address from Google Maps and took down videos of bands performing in the space from YouTube in order continue operating in the meantime, though his business has suffered as a result. "I strongly believe that if you prevent people from being able to affordably make music and home studios, you're essentially pulling the plug and killing the music industry as a whole."

While Shaw has had plenty of mainstream clients, he says he prefers focusing on independent and local musicians, including the now-defunct rock band Living Things and MusicRow-charting act Jared Daniels Band -- both of whom he has recorded at The Toy Box -- noting the pride and sense of community he feels in working with developing acts that have gone on to find success. He could work in commercial studios around town, but that would take him away from his home and daughter and also limit the type of projects he gets to work on; renting other studios can be cost-prohibitive. 

"It's hard enough as it is to make a living making music as a musician, a producer or engineer or a home studio,” Shaw says. “Let's not make it impossible to make music in Music City."