Photo: Daniel Meigs
One of my first interviews in preparation for our June 3 cover story on changes in the food and live-music industries as pandemic restrictions ease was with Eric Holt. He’s a co-founder of Lovenoise, an enterprise that began as an open-mic night and has grown into a long-running concert promotions group focused on Black music. One recent project you might recall is their partnership with Acme Feed and Seed to produce The Change Up, a concert series (formerly streaming-only) featuring standout R&B and hip-hop performers. Holt had some fascinating insights to share about the past and future of Black-owned ticketed music venues in the city, and — as so often happens — not all of them would fit into the story. Below is a longer excerpt from our conversation.
There are Black-owned businesses in Nashville that present live music, but they’re by and large lounge, nightclub or restaurant settings rather than ticketed venues. Is it important to have Black-owned ticketed venues?
As Nashville grows into all that it can be, it’s very important that all the cultures and all the talents have an equal share in this growth and this new positioning that Nashville is moving into, even beyond where we were a few years ago. I think that the current Black establishments that do live music are doing a great job, and they are continuing a long legacy of fellowship with food and drink, but having a live-music element. One of the challenges is that when you retrofit live music into a bar or a lounge, it’s not always going to be the best quality live-music experience.
But at the same time — when I look at Lovenoise and the way we started, we started in the basement of B.B. King’s, and that was great. But when people think about the legendary times and era of Lovenoise, we were in The Bar Car. It was an old bar in Cummins Station. I think that’s where Eventbrite has their offices now, in the back of the first floor there. The Bar Car was not a live-music space. It was a bar that we kind of retrofitted to be a live-music space on Sunday nights. We made it work. But that energy and that vibe there during those times were unmatched in Nashville when it came to Black culture and Black music. That’s a part of it.
What I envision, and what hasn’t been consistent in my lifetime, is a ticketed live music venue that’s Black-owned — that’s intentional, that’s, “This is all we do, live music.” Exit/In does Black music, but what if Exit/In was a Black-owned venue? Having that opportunity is something that will push Nashville up a notch, and will spread the experience. It’s not here. It used to be here — on Jefferson Street, [before the construction of I-40 in the 1960s]. But we need to bring it back.
Is that something that you want to pursue? Or do you know someone who would?
[Lovenoise is] in talks now with several situations where we could possibly do it. … The reality is that when you have national brands coming in with really deep pockets — international multi-level entertainment conglomerates coming in and doing 1,000-person-cap live music venues — the opportunity for the entrepreneur with funds that don’t reach those levels is a lot more challenging. For me, being in the live-music space for so long, it’s almost like I know too much. If I was a little more naive about the business, I might be a little more gung-ho and charge in headfirst. But I know how the industry works, or is supposed to work.
Knowing the challenges of something like booking — if it’s five venues and four of them are owned by huge conglomerates, they’re gonna get the coolest new artists first, just because they have more access and can charge more, and they can pay more money. The entrepreneur and the young local person, it’s going to be a challenge for them to beat that offer for someone who can lose $3,000 for the sake of securing a show. A music venue built on local music is doable, too, but it’s a different kind of structure. It could be viable. But even with that, I know for some of the venues that mostly do local music, it’s a struggle to stay afloat.
What are some actions you’d like to see taken — whether from city leaders, business leaders or at the grassroots level?
When we talk about some of the tax incentives that you give to the big businesses that are coming from out of town, being intentional about providing those for local entities — that’s from the city side, that could help support. …
I’m definitely a mix between a hippie and a capitalist. It has to be financially sustainable for it to work. You can’t just have an idea and say “You should support [this], because it’s not here.” It has to be financially sustainable, too. When I think about the possibility of opening a live music venue, some of that has to do with the legacy of Lovenoise. We can do a lot with that. But the other part is, how can we possibly partner with some of the larger entities? A lot of the entrepreneurial venues like Cannery Ballroom or Marathon Music Works partner with larger entities like AEG or Live Nation. That is something that possibly could work. It’s just figuring out where the footprint should be, or could be, that is realistic and sustainable. If I went downtown and got a lease for a commercial space and was out of it six months later, that’s not helping the culture.
The city has continued to change during the pandemic. It seems like there are some chances to make it work better for everyone as we get back to closer-to-normal public activities.
I’ve been having conversations with a lot of different people in the city. The reality about COVID and Nashville is that there has been a lot of development and growth physically during COVID. Now that COVID looks like it’s heading towards its end, not just tourists but local people are going to have to rediscover Nashville. Fifth + Broadway alone has changed the rhythm and the vibe of downtown Nashville. There’s other restaurants and hotels that opened up during the pandemic. When people get back outside, it’s going to be a different experience in the city. That is an opportunity too. When we talk about new spaces and new things, it might be a really good time in the next year or two to open up a venue that could excite — “the New Nashville” is an old term, but “the Newer Nashville,” because it has changed in the last five, six years, a lot.
When I mentioned what we used to have on Jefferson Street … there is a new consciousness in the country, but I see it in Nashville as well — about Black culture and experiencing Black culture. And a broader audience than just a show with Black artists for a Black audience. I think more people are tapping into experiencing diversity in their entertainment. I think that didn’t exist in the way it does now four or five years ago.
Before the pandemic, nationally touring hip-hop shows routinely sold out in Nashville. It makes sense that not only white business leaders should benefit from that. That success should belong to everyone.
When you listen to that comment you just made — why should it be a Black-owned venue? It’s music and culture for everybody, right? That’s a legitimate question. Why does it have to be a Black-owned business?
Last night I went to Monday Night Jazz at The Local Distro. That place is a Black-owned business. … It used to be a notorious market. … It wasn’t a good space. [In the face of gentrification, owner Will Radford] had the foresight to turn that space into something cool, something positive. He was able to do that. At the jazz thing last night, I was sitting there on the corner, talking to my friends, thinking about how that neighborhood had changed. It is important that that experience — which was diverse in race, diverse in age, diverse in taste, the audience is very broad, the jazz was led by two African American TSU graduates, the owner is a TSU graduate — that is part of the Nashville community. Having a Black-owned business serve that to the community is important for everybody to see and for everybody to experience.
It does feel different for me as an African American male to stand there on the corner, proud of my culture — jazz being played, real authentic jazz, by TSU graduates, the owner of the facility is a TSU graduate as well, an African American male. It sends the right message. It’s not, “They took this neighborhood from us.” It’s like, “OK, the neighborhood changed, and we participated in its success.”
Do you have any final thoughts to share looking forward?
The best future story to be told is that you have Black artists that are on the national level birthed out of Nashville. And Nashville itself, when tourists come, they can tap into all music — not just country or gospel, they can tap into R&B, they can tap into blues and they can tap into hip-hop at several different venues. It’s not cookie-cutter, and everybody’s not just booking the same kind of music. The National Museum of African American Music has a lot to do with that broader experience in Nashville. I think some of the venues that hopefully will be open in the future will participate in that as well.
We have venue partners like Acme, Brooklyn Bowl and Exit/In that are very intentional about making sure that the spaces are available for hip-hop and R&B as it is. But if I spoke to all of those owners, they all support the idea of a Lovenoise venue or a Black-owned venue in the future. We’re all working together, just trying to get it done. … Saying that there needs to be a Black-owned venue doesn’t mean that all the venues are racist or that they don’t let Black people play there. That’s not true. I can produce a show in any venue in the city, any time. That’s not the issue today. The issue today is broader representation and participating at a higher level in the success of Nashville through art.