Friday, November 30, 2012

A Tale of Two Music Cities

This was pitched as an op/ed for the New York Times and (apparently) they considered it. So forgive the explanations of things usually assumed understood by long-time readers here.

 (painting by Jen Uman)

Having lived the first twenty-six years of my life in the same house in Detroit, I wasn't too concerned about how I would adjust when I moved to Nashville three-and-a-half years ago. I wasn't pre-occupied with making friends or finding a place to live. I wasn't even really concerned about exploring the town or discovering what particular neighborhoods had to offer.

My main concern was…where would I order my pizza?

You see, Detroit is the sleeper pizza town in America. Sure Chicago and New York get all the praise and the hyphenated "style" after their names, but Detroit, as the hometown to Little Ceasar's, Hungry Howie's, Domino's, Jet's, Buddy's, Cottage Inn and quite a few other established franchises, offers a variety and selection that cannot be contained within the confining context of something as narrow as "Detroit-style."

Without knowing any better, I was stuck for an inordinate amount of time, eating pizza from (yuck) Papa John's.

I moved to Nashville in 2009 for work. I'd been offered a job at Third Man Records to oversee their vinyl record production and distribution. While at that point in my life it felt like my entire reason for being was tied into Detroit and my residency there, it was hardly a difficult decision to leave. Being the height of the economic downturn, jobs were scarce in town. I had a handful of immediate family members who were recently unemployed. NO ONE held it against me that I was leaving…it was as if they knew only good could come from leaving Detroit for employment purposes.

Nashville's allure for decades has been the chance of "making it" in the country music business. Housing offices for all the "Big Four" record labels (Sony, Universal, Warner and EMI) not to mention the three performance rights organizations in the US (BMI, ASCAP and SESAC) and it's no secret why the town is nicknamed Music City. You can't spit in this town without hitting a singer, songwriter, soundman and a publicist…oftentimes all-in-one.

While Detroit may give off a reputation of a more "real" or "organic" music scene, Nashville gives off way more examples of careers in music.

Detroit has just as rich a musical history as Nashville, it just does not have a music industry. There are no major labels, no performance rights organizations, no significant music publishers and subsequently, up-and-coming writers or bands don't dream about moving to Detroit. They dream about moving OUT of Detroit.

Amongst my own personal acquaintances, I know of 4 people who've left southeastern Michigan in the past two years specifically for music business jobs in Nashville.

In July of 1999 a rock band called the Starlite Desperation moved from their hometown of Salinas, California to Detroit. This was, by all accounts, completely unheard of. Bands had made their way to Detroit in the past, but most of the time they were moving from Lansing, or if you want to get really exotic, Toledo.

To quote Dan Kroha (of seminal garage punk band the Gories) on Starlite's move, "I wanted to give them the key to the city."

Unfortunately, Starlite Desperation imploded and just over a year later the principles had moved back to the West Coast, tails between their legs. They'd just missed out on the press boon behind the White Stripes, Electric 6, Detroit Cobras and (my band) the Dirtbombs that would kick up in England and propel many Detroit bands on to unqualified success (the Stripes), fluke-y top ten hits (Electric 6) or sustenance touring/recording (basically everybody else). Even at the height of Detroit's center-of-the-rock-and-roll-world reputation (roughly the summer of 2003), there failed to be any noticeable bands picking up their stakes and setting up camp in town.

There are two things recently drawing folks in to relocate to Detroit. One is best exemplified by a quote from Patti Smith. When asked if it was still possible for young artists to move to NYC and find their way to fame, Smith replied, "New York has closed itself off to the young and struggling. But there are other cities." Her first suggestion? "Detroit."

One of the few (only?) upsides of the absolute hit Detroit took in the economic downturn is the fact that its extremely low cost of living became a selling point. Artists did start to show up, even if only in drips and drabs, to set up studios, reclaim empty buildings, to work on their own terms in a city where space and privacy are plentiful and oversight or bureaucratic interference is rarely a concern.

At the same time, Nashville is experiencing an unprecedented up-tick in young, creative transplants. The city claims among its residents international rock stars like Jack White (my boss/uncle), the Black Keys, Ke$ha, Kid Rock and all the Kings of Leon. For a town famously known for country music, the populace is undeniably diversifying. Hell, neighbors I've had at two different houses I've lived in here include a touring member of the B-52's and the tour manager that famously set Graham Parsons' body on fire at Joshua Tree in 1973.

The main difference I've noticed between Nashville and Detroit is an issue of birthright versus selection. Detroit is, for the most part, a locale that befalls people. Very few of its residents made a conscious effort to relocate there. What this charges the population with is a shared "we're all in this together" attitude.

In Nashville, it seems 1 in 10 people I meet are "from here" (where "here" is considered the metropolitan area) and a scant 1 in 20 are actually from the city. As a magnet, a destination, the folks I meet have all come to this town with an agenda. Whether it's to make it as a country singer, to get the hell out of Alabama, or to attend one of the city's many respectable universities.

While the idea of folks coming from all over to make this city their home is a nice idea, it also has a downside. A lot of people, myself included, don't plan on staying here. It's a stopping off point, a means to an end, a place where few have a solid connection to their neighborhood

I'm surprised when people here tell me to be careful in East Nashville…that it can be dangerous. When I inform them I'm from Detroit, their response is usually along the lines of "Oh, you'll be fine. You might get your lawn mower stolen once in ten years." And while the inherent racism in a city with a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest and a history of slave trading can seem as mere remnants of history, to have someone use the word "nigger" to me in the middle of a business transaction was absolutely dumbfounding.

To hear the phrase "I'm not racist…" immediately followed by "I love Charley Pride" is all one needs to know that things in this town can be uncomfortably white.

I've been told that at one point, in the 1990's, EVERY house in East Nashville was selling crack. To now, where it seems like every house actively donates to the local NPR station, that's a pretty impressive turnaround.

When I drive around East Nashville now, from its organic butcher, record store located inside a house, mixologist bars and plethora of food trucks, I can't help but think this is what Williamsburg in Brooklyn looked like in 2001…like a hipster bomb ready to explode at any moment. Far too many neighborhoods in Detroit look like actual bombs have exploded there and the majority of entrepreneurship I encounter there is usually limited to folks silk-screening t-shirts (almost always incorporating the idea of and/or word "Detroit") or setting up Kickstarter campaigns.

These observations of change in East Nashville stirred up thoughts of Detroit and my false sense of propriety.  "Who do these people think they are? White-washing the neighborhood, gentrifying it block-by-block. I hope they rot."

But then I realize, wait, I'm not from here. I'M the one who moved in here. I'M the one who people who were born and raised here should be pissed about. In the meantime, I welcome these new businesses and residents with open arms.

More than anything, I'm happy to have found two wonderfully warm establishments. The first, Italia, is a classic, old-style pizzeria has been around for awhile and is on a nice, sleepy stretch of Woodland Street. While the pizza is greasy and definitely unhealthy, I prefer it. Italia feels familiar and inviting. It feels like home.

Five Points Pizza is brand new and on the same street a few blocks down in the happening Five Points district, surrounded by bars, artisan eateries and other indicators of hipness. The thin crust, New York-style of Five Points is deceptively tasty, the fresh sliced (not shredded) mozzarella and basil on their Old World pie is an unexpectedly delightful treat. Five Points is an establishment that I should, by all means, abhor, but once I managed to put my preconceptions out of the way and just give the place a chance, it was clear how much I enjoyed it.