What started as a small, one-off event in 2006 is working to change the perception of Music City. Next Big Nashville, holding its fourth annual event Oct. 7-10, offers a mix of music festival and business conference that spotlights our town’s thriving non-country constituency. NBN has grown and evolved at a staggering rate with attendance skyrocketing from 3000 in 2006, to 9000 in 2007, and 15000 last year. A conference was added along the way, with the 2009 event set to host about 140 performers and an expanded seminar.
In 2006, the first Next Big Nashville was held as a three-day concert that stemmed from an article focusing on the city’s rock scene by then Tennessean / Rage scribe Jason Moon Wilkins. “The article and party were really to capture the zeitgeist of what was happening at that time which was—and now has born even more fruit—the biggest explosion of non-country music in Nashville in its history, as far as number of signings, amount of interest and sales,” recalls Wilkins. “Between Kings of Leon, Paramore, Be Your Own Pet, and at the time Pink Spiders, it just seemed like time to do something that connected the dots.” Putting together 33 bands to play over three days at the Mercy Lounge and Cannery Ballroom, Wilkins and Movement Nashville’s Ethan Opelt co-founded what would become an annual event without even realizing it.
Wilkins had some festival experience, but his varied background was largely in writing including the now defunct Bone, as well as time in management, being a radio MD at Thunder 94, and as a musician signed to Arista/Dedicated, and on the road with Garrison Starr, Neilson Hubbard, and Josh Rouse.
“We did it with no real long-term aims the first year, there was no big plan. There was no business plan. We literally did it in three and a half weeks. For 2007, we sat down and start thinking, ‘Okay, what are we going to do?’ Because all these people had come out of the woodwork—business people, people in the community, bands—and they pointed the finger at us and said, ‘Your doing this [rock festival] now.’ All the encouragement from all the different sectors pushed us along.” He laughs, “In spite of intelligence pushing us the other way.”
Now, four years later, NBN is drawing an increasing number of attendees from outside of Nashville who enjoy the networking and engaging local scene. Helping entice visitors is glowing press from national outlets like Rolling Stone, Billboard, and Pitchfork, as well as many out-of-town bands on the bill.
Some of the 2009 conference highlights will be the What’s Next for Nashville panel, the return of the Nashville Music Awards, and Robert K. Oermann’s presentation on how Nashville became Music City. Day one and two will be right off the Row at the Martha Rivers Ingram Center for The Performing Arts At Vanderbilt University, while day three of the conference moves to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Ford Theater. The nighttime showcases will be at twelve different venues around town.
Lacking a central location is one of NBN’s shortcomings admits Wilkins. “I think long-term for something like this to succeed, on a bigger scale, you have to create an opportunity where people can walk,” he says. “Right now we’ve got shuttles that go between venues and get people from A to B, but it’s not the same as being able to walk down 6th St. in Austin.” While Music City’s Lower Broadway is foot-traffic friendly, the venues there cater to tourists with country cover bands, rarely offering a local indie act. But they are giving NBN a chance this year. As a trial run, on Friday, Oct. 9, from 7-10 PM, the NBN Honky-Tonk Takeover showcases will hit Tootsie’s, Paradise Park, The Wheel, and Full Moon.
“Even if you just focus on the major [rock acts] that are happening right now [in Nashville] it’s incredibly impressive. What Kings of Leon, Paramore and Jack White are doing on a worldwide basis—each of those things alone would be enough for a scene to hang its hat on,” exclaims Wilkins. “But, we still have a mountain to climb in terms of perception, where the name Nashville is so synonymous with country music that it is sometimes difficult for people to wrap their heads around the breadth and depth of everything else that goes on here, like the gospel, and soul, and incredible work the Symphony does. People like Mat Kearney and Safety Suit have mainstream Top 40 hits, and they’ve done it out of here, by working hard, and getting out there, and not relying on the Nashville system per se, but using this as their base of operations. I think that is the way forward for people who are interested in moving here. Those success stories prove that it can be done.” www.nextbignashville.net