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Outlaws No More: Home Studio Owners See New Roads Open After Their Metro Victory

Russell Carson
Ben Surratt's home recording studio produced award-winning records under the radar before Nashville's home studio ban was lifted last week. "We have neighbors and want to get along and respect them," he says.

In the end, most of the supporters of BL2019-48 were asleep when the historic ordinance passed the Metro Council about 1:30 am on July 8. Thousands of musicians or citizen allies who’d spoken at hearings or signed petitions on its behalf woke up to the news that Nashville had, after a decade-long campaign, legalized what they see as a vital part of the evolving music business in Music City, home-based recording studios.

The new code replaced a 1998 rule banning any commercial activity in residential zones that involve visits from clients or customers. Though the law sat there largely unenforced for more than twenty years, it officially put Nashville at odds with nearly every other city in the nation, according to civil liberties lawyers who worked on the issue. While important records were regularly made out of home studios, the owners had to keep a low profile, rarely advertising or hosting websites. The issue came to a head when East Nashville producer Elijah “Lij” Shaw was outed by a neighbor and shut down by the city, cutting off most of his livelihood. His activism, backed by a libertarian legal non-profit, is seen as the catalyst that led to the change.

Shaw was awake for the final vote, which was a resounding 25-14 in favor of the new ordinance. He quickly took to Facebook to say that he and his allies had “made history” at the end of an effort he’d been spearheading since 2015. “We have been pushing this bill up a long long hill through 2020 but have never quit,” he said. “Neither tornadoes, nor COVID, nor quarantine, nor home business haters have been able to stop us from fighting for our rights to work from home.”

“We’ve been working on this issue for a decade,” Dave Pomeroy, president of the American Federation of Musicians Local 257 in Nashville, told WMOT. The change, he says, is “really about acknowledging the reality that this has been happening for a long time.” Pomeroy himself has a studio in his basement where commercial records have been mixed. He has made his case across the years to an ever-changing Metro Council that the new digital-age music business simply has to have flexible cost structures and options to function. “We’re not trying to put commercial studios out of business,” he says. “It’s just acknowledging reality, that we’ve been here and we’re good neighbors already. And that’s why people didn’t know we were here.”

The neighborhood factor was the lodestar of the long-running opposition to liberalizing home-based studios and other personal service businesses. On the eve of the final Metro vote, Matthew Bond, representing the Nashville Coalition for Nashville Neighborhoods wrote an op-ed in the Tennessean comparing the future of home businesses to the unintended consequences of Nashville’s Air B&B explosion: “We have seen the ugliness created by short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods. Neighbors’ good will is exploited. People see their houses as simply places of revenue, rather than as domiciles where they form a community,” he wrote. “When these home-businesses flout the regulations, hold hours on Sundays or into the evening, or have an inordinate number of customers, there will be no practical way to stop it.”

The new ordinance does however outline rules and plans for their enforcement. Professions that would spill out of the house, such as auto repair or scrap metal dealing are forbidden. The businesses that are legalized, including private music lessons, tutoring, graphic design, accounting and hair styling, have to abide by rules. They include filing with the city for a permit, posting no signage, and limiting hours to 8 am to 7 pm, Monday to Saturday. Citizens can complain about alleged violations to the Zoning Administrator, and three such complaints will trigger a review and possible revocation of the permit.

As Pomeroy says, home studios have been operating in Nashville for years, with varying degrees of secrecy. Americana star Buddy Miller is widely known for his creative space on 20th Ave. South, where he co-hosts a radio show and where he’s made acclaimed and award-winning albums with Emmylou Harris, Jim Lauderdale and more. East Nashville’s Dave Coleman made albums in his tricked-out basement with Amelia White and Tim Carroll among others. Inglewood’s Ben Surratt engineered the 2018 album Royal Traveler by his wife bass player Missy Raines, which won several IBMA Awards and earned a Grammy nomination. “I’ve had a home studio since about 2004. I never advertised it,” he says. “The bulk of the work on Royal Traveler was done here. It did a lot for me and a lot for Missy.”

The studio ban was so obscure and arbitrarily enforced that numerous record producers and musicians invested in facilities without ever suspecting they were running afoul of the law. Producer/musician Jordan Brooke Hamlin and some business partners built MOXE studio in North Nashville around three years ago only to discover it couldn’t be zoned as a legal commercial space. But she and her business partners were past the point of no return, so they went ahead with a low profile, and the space has hosted music-making by Kacey Musgraves, Kathleen Edwards, The Roches and more. “I’ve definitely been nervous, once I heard that studios were illegal, I was like how can this be in this town? That’s crazy,” Hamlin said. “So I’ve been super grateful for Lij (Shaw) taking the charge and getting this passed.”

Across Nashville, recording engineers and producers could feel an immediate weight off their shoulders and in some cases even feel their property values go up. Bass player/producer/composer Viktor Krauss is mid-way through building a 900-square-foot outbuilding behind his home in the Belmont neighborhood. He was prepared to limit its use to being a personal project space or a studio for overdubbing via the internet. But now, with an easily obtained permit, he can host full band sessions and make recordings while staying within the law. “Especially right now, it’s more important that we can work from home,” says Krauss, noting that but for Covid-19, he’d be out on the road with his long-time employer Lyle Lovett playing shows. “So it’s great to be able to have people hire me to (record). With the restriction being lifted, it allows me to work on a more commercial level.”

Likewise for Brandon Bell, passage of BL2019-48 came a time of pressing economic need. Covid-19 led to the closure and sale of his former employer, Southern Ground near Music Row. Having his own studio at home is now critical to him maintaining a living. “Everybody’s super excited. It’s just really a relief,” he said. “And the city’s going to make a little bit of money off of it with the business permits. I think it’s a win for everybody. I think it’s important that we all maintain positive neighborly relations. That’s something we all need to push on each other, just to make sure. We want this to work out. I don’t want the council members to feel like we let them down. I really believe that this is a great thing for all of us.”

Ben Surratt gives a lot of credit to some newer and younger members of the Metro Council who understood how vital home studios and home music instruction are to the leaner, meaner 21st century music business. Bill sponsor Dave Rosenberg handled the politics of the issue well, he says. “He built consensus. He didn’t just bang it down on the table and said it’s this way or the highway. He worked with anyone who had a reasonable objection to say how can we address it in this bill.” At a time when democracy itself feels dysfunctional and under siege, Surratt says it was heartening to see the system be responsive. “They all listened to what we had to say. I want to think that took the day.”

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org