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Corner Office: Nashville Mayor Karl Dean on Jack White, TV’s ‘Nashville’ Effect and Running the ‘It’ City

With the CMAs coming to town, Music City's chief executive talks tax incentives, TV's 'Nashville' effect and why Jack White matters.

Karl Dean, 59, can spit out music business stats like nobody’s business. He’ll tell you, for example, that the city he has governed since 2007 shows the highest concentration of music jobs in the country (7.8 per 1,000 working-age residents, compared with 2.8 for Los Angeles and 2.0 for New York), or that the show Nashville has been a boost to local tourism, to the tune of 23 percent more money spent per visitor who watches the ABC series.

Then there are the numbers attributable to Dean, a Democrat, directly: the $623 million convention center that transformed a previously barren patch of downtown; the 6,500-seat riverfront amphitheater that will open in 2015; and the 60-unit Ryman Lofts, providing subsidized housing and collaborative spaces for low-income songwriters and other artists. Few public officials have been as hands-on with their local music scenes.



Another point of pride for the former public defender is that Nashville has been transformed into a younger, hipper Southern outpost housing everyone from Taylor Swift to Kings of Leon, Jack White to The Black Keys. But, of course, country is Nashville’s bread and butter. Ahead of the Nov. 5 Country Music Association Awards, held at Bridgestone Arena, the married father of three gives a true insider’s view of Music City.

Mayor of Nashville, Karl Dean's Office
Mayor of Nashville, Karl Dean's office photographed on Oct. 7, 2014 in Nashville. Robby Klein

Nashville gets millions in tax incentives to film in the city. Is it worth the money?
Definitely. It’s seen by 8 million to 10 million people on a given night. The attention the city gets, we could never pay for. … Look at the Bluebird [Cafe’s] business, or what the Ryman [Auditorium] is seeing. People want to go the places that have been on the show. A survey by the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation found that of [tourists] who had seen the show, nearly one in five said it was the motivating factor for them to visit.

The city has a ­music council whose goal is to attract and ­retain music industry ­professionals. What results have you seen?
A lot, actually. We’ve worked to bring in different conventions. We brought the Grammy nominations show here [in 2012]. I would point to the work we’ve done with business recruitment — Sony/ATV Music Publishing, for example, is coming downtown, adding 80 jobs.

Has having Jack White and The Black Keys live in Nashville changed the city’s image?
I don’t know if the image has totally changed. Certainly having Jack and them here has been great in underscoring the fact that it’s a very diverse music scene. They’ve all been good ambassadors. And not only is there a rock scene and country music, but you’ve got a Grammy Award-winning symphony, gospel, Americana…

Mayor of Nashville, Karl Dean's Office
Mayor of Nashville, Karl Dean's office photographed on Oct. 7, 2014 in Nashville. Robby Klein

Yet a lot of companies are ­leaving Music Row for areas like the Gulch or downtown, which are ­adjacent neighborhoods. How important is it to the city to retain the buildings or the ­character of Music Row?
I was thrilled with what ­happened with Studio A when Aubrey [Preston and the Leiper’s Fork Foundation] bought the building. People want to come to Nashville and see the history. The issue then becomes how to preserve it and what’s the right way to do it. In this case, I’ve said this is a circumstance where the private sector, the philanthropic community, will need to step up. If we can preserve as much as we can of the character and tradition, that’s a good thing.

The CMA Awards are coming, which means lots of parties. What do people want to discuss when they run into you at an event?
The music industry.

Do you feel any pressure being the mayor of what The New York Times calls the “it” city?
I wake up every morning, walk to the end of my driveway, get the Times, open it up and make sure we’re still the “it” city. As far as I can tell, they haven’t given it to anybody else.

This article first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of Billboard.