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Butch Spyridon, Nashville’s Primary Pitchman, Explains Music City’s Tourism Boom

It’s peak tourist season in Middle Tennessee. The CMA Music Festival is underway in downtown Nashville. The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival started Thursday evening about 60 miles down the road in Manchester, Tennessee. Nashville’s hotels are bursting at the seams. Its airport will be strained come Monday morning.

As president and CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation, Spyridon oversees the 85-employee organization that brands and sells the city. Music — mainly country — is the main draw: the Grand Ole Opry, Country Music Hall of Fame and downtown’s two-block strip of honky-tonks are all standard stops on tourists’ itineraries. Nashville also does brisk convention business by leveraging its music heritage, downtown entertainment and occasionally using songwriters to help pitch potential customers.

The city is on an upswing. Annual visitors to Nashville rose to 13.1 million last year from 11.6 million in 2012. Country music, both a driver and a beneficiary of economic activity, has arguably never been more popular. The Nashville television series has contributed incredible, and invaluable, publicity, offering viewers a realistic look at the music business and actual venues such as the Bluebird Cafe and Ryman Auditorium. Jack White and his Third Man Records have helped vitalize the city’s non-country music scene.

Through it all, Spyridon has earned a reputation for getting things done. “He was our secret weapon,” says Randy Goodman, a longtime music executive, of his time working with Spyridon on the Music City Music Council, a group of music business leaders tasked with strengthening Nashville’s standing in the music industry. “Butch is a big reason why Nashville is the “it” city.”

The whole country has heard of Bonnaroo. Much of the country has heard of the CMA Festival.

I agree with you. The whole world knows about Bonnaroo. It has that cool buzz. But the CMA Music Fest has a very highly rated prime time network TV special that follows it, and has ticket buyers from, I think, 26 countries. Bonnaroo, we love it, it’s a blast. We’ve built a great relationship with them. They get that Nashville has a role with Bonnaroo, and we certainly value the association in return. Single day tickets with shuttles out of here started two years ago. That was us sitting down with them and saying, “Let’s build this.”

With both festivals going on at the same time, 60 miles apart, I’m surprised there’s room in Nashville for all those visitors.

I think there barely is. It puts a great deal of pressure on the infrastructure, in particular the airport, the hotels and the crews, the staging, the lighting that’s in town. So when they fall on the same day, usually out-of-town companies do better. The primary reason we have been working to get them on separate dates. We had a couple years in a row we were able to do that. A couple years now they’re back together, and we have them separated again for a couple of years. The primary reason is we’d like to keep more of that [production and staging] business in the market.

This is the first CMA festival since Taylor Swift went pop. Are you expecting any drop-off in either attendance or national interest?

I haven’t seen any yet. Tickets sold out earlier than ever, without announcements. I haven’t heard anything about anybody complaining about refunds. I think the lineup across the board is so, so good. You have Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney. To me, one of the really great things about CMA is having seven free stages, which leads us to think there are a lot more people here for CMA Music Fest than the ticket sales. Some people can’t afford it. Some people can’t get them. But all of a sudden you’ve got six days of free music. If you can get here and pay for your room and meals, you’ve got a free vacation. You can’t do that anywhere. So there’s great value. And then the rising stars, the legendary acts, the collaborations. You get a nice mix of music. You get to say, “I heard them before they were big.” And you get your A-list over at LP Field.

How important is the tourism business to country music in Nashville?

I personally believe they’re synonymous and they’re equally important. Without a question I can tell you country music drives the lion’s share of leisure visitation. I would argue that our success of positioning Nashville has a similar benefit to country music. As we raise the profile, the awareness and even the acceptability of Nashville, country music goes right with that. We’ve both been on an incredible 5-year run. I’d say we’re in a mutual love-fest relationship right now. We can’t do enough for each other.

Bruce Spyridon
Rick Diamond/Getty Images for NPG

It’s not hard to find people in Nashville that think this city is too reliant on country. What are you doing to develop Nashville music business and creative side that’s not country music?

Great question. I would agree with you. The only thing I would add is I think it’s better today than it was ten years ago. Maybe 12 years ago we launched, as a part of strategic planning process, we launched a conscious, conscientious branding effort about all music and all genres. Country music was at the table with us. From a marketing position, we dropped the “U.S.A.” from Music City U.S.A. as we talk about the city. We want to be the global music destination. We also felt like the U.S.A. was very directly tied to the country brand. We didn’t want to get away from music, but we wanted to broaden it. We wrote the brand story: Fisk Jubilee Singers, Jimi Hendrix, the R&B scene, all of it. Who’s living here now? Who’s recording here? That’s a pretty compelling story when people know it.

The last big thing we did was a documentary called For The Love of Music. It was about the about 13-plus-year history. All genres, musicians, songwriters, artists. We interviewed 28 different folks. It’s won marketing awards in New York, London and Cannes. ABC has aired it. It’s aired in Australia, CMT, Palladia. It tells the story better than we can. That was a huge step for us outside of our comfort zone. Something we’ve never done. A risk. We didn’t have a place to air it. We just knew if we did it well enough, high quality, and honest enough, we felt like we could get it out there.

So you started this strategic plan 12 years ago. Roughly 10 years ago Jack White moved here. It seems to have shifted both the perception of and the activity in the city.

Yeah. People knew he was here, but they didn’t know what to do with it. He definitely helped cast a light on the creative talent that was here. Then obviously the Kings of Leon exploded worldwide. The Black Keys. Paramore. The other big thing we do is July 4th and New Year’s Eve. We make sure we showcase multiple genres. July 4th we had 280,000 people last year. We covered a lot of genres. New Year’s Eve we’ll typically have four bands and it can easily be four genres.

The New Year’s Eve concert is huge. How did you get ABC to get involved with that?

We had been pitching them for five years. Finally a guy moved from ABC over to Dick Clark Productions and opened the conversation. We offered to pay production but we would not pay for the time. For us, that’s cheating. That takes away the authenticity. We wanted to create an event with enough credibility they would want to include it.

How willing are artists in town to help promote Nashville?

I’d say very. You got to get to the right people at the right time. We’re working with Keith right now, he has a new record. Keith Urban, I should say.

Not Toby Keith.

No, not Toby Keith. Toby’s given his heart to Oklahoma and that’s okay. So we’re helping him launch his record. And he’s saying, “I want to help Nashville where I can.” So we’ll have those conversations. We don’t ask people to play for free. We don’t want to wear out our welcome and we don’t want them to run when we’re coming. But outside of that, the labels, management and artists I’d say remarkable cooperation.

Mayor Dean has been really supportive of the local music business and the creative community in general. Do you think the next mayor can pick up where he’s left off?

We certainly hope so. We have asked the question. We did some one-on-ones with our board last week, asked every single one of them about the music council and their support. They all gave us the right answer. All we can do is go on record. I think two things on that. The success has been undeniable for the music standpoint.

Coming up there’s the African American Museum. Why is that coming to Nashville instead of, say, Memphis?

It was an idea born in Nashville about 12 or 13 years ago. We think we’re the right city for it, going back to our heritage with gospel music and the R&B scene. There’s great history to the city that nobody expects. Memphis didn’t do it. Detroit didn’t do it. So we stepped up and we’re closer than we’ve ever been to the finish line.

How much has Nashville meant to tourism here?

Hard to quantify. Extremely valuable. I think it has helped us sustain some of our momentum. I think it has had an enormous value internationally. To me, the payoff worldwide was far greater than we ever expected and we could never have afforded that reach. The city is one of the stars of the show, in my opinion, with the way they’ve treated us — the glamour shots, the venues — they use real venues. That’s helped the 5 Spot. It’s helped and hurt the Bluebird [Cafe] — their demand is so high it’s created some pleasant problems. The [Schermerhorn] symphony hall. We put half a million dollars last year into the show, so we voted with our wallets.

That money came out of….

Hotel tax. Our budget. So we’ve been advocates from the beginning. Can’t say enough good things.