Two years ago entrepreneurs Chris Cobb and Josh Billue set out to fill a void in Nashville’s live music landscape. They knew the town needed a mid-size establishment to attract touring artists who often skipped Music City because there wasn’t a venue of the right size and style.
In November 2011, they opened Marathon Music Works, with a standing capacity of 1500, as well as permanently installed sound equipment, lighting, and two large bars.
“There was a hole in the Nashville market for a long time,” explained Cobb during a recent interview at Marathon. “Years back, 328 Performance Hall was a similar size and capacity, but after we lost that the market was without a mid-size venue for several years. Then City Hall opened, had a three year run, and then it was gone. [In the current market] The Cannery has a 1000 cap, and War Memorial can hold 1800, but it’s not a club-style facility.”
The owners’ lengthy hunt for the right space eventually led them to an empty warehouse in burgeoning Marathon Village. It was Cobb’s first foray into club ownership and the first time Billue—owner of Nashville’s Exit/In and Birmingham’s Zydeco—had built anything from the ground up.
Several months of remodeling transformed the space into a facility that hosts concerts, corporate events, wedding receptions, and video/TV shoots, such as GAC’s recent ACM New Artist of the Year taping.
Because the room is used for all types of events, no signage or branding is on display. Instead, the owners sold naming rights for the three artist dressing rooms, with Gibson Guitar claiming one and Blackbird Tattoo sponsoring another.
“We’re an open facility. That means any [outside promoter] can come in and do an event here,” Cobb explained. “In theory, the more shows we get, the more shows Nashville gets, particularly artists who might not have played the market otherwise.”
Cobb’s initial experience in live music came more than ten years ago when he was a Belmont University student, booking talent for a concert series in the parking lot of Jackson’s restaurant. “I built relationships with agents, and eventually went on to Windows On The Cumberland and Mercy Lounge,” he recalled. His career grew, including work as an independent promoter, talent buyer and production tech. With that background, he’s seen first-hand how the economic downturn of recent years has affected the live music industry, as fans have less discretionary income to spend on concert tickets.
“It’s getting harder and harder for independent promoters,” Cobb said. “Back when I started doing it, there were only about three independent promoters in Nashville, and we did a lot of the club-level shows. In the past five years, there has been a huge shift in the industry. There are a lot fewer artists who can sell the really big touring numbers. As a result, the [major] promoters have started doing more shows in the club world. It is pretty standard that a big promoter might do a show at a 1500 cap venue, but majors are also doing the 200-300 level now. Five years ago, that would have never happened. It has made it really hard for the independent promoters to survive.”
Cobb continues to promote shows at Marathon and other venues, but he also focuses on diversification. The Dallas native does production work for Luke Bryan’s Farm Tour and the CMA Music Festival. He buys talent for the Live On The Green concert series and the Nashville Earth Day Festival. A few years ago he also purchased casino tables which his company sets up and operates for private events.
Meanwhile, at Marathon Music Works, Cobb and his cohorts are grateful for the community’s support and want to reciprocate. They promote recycling, encourage fans to bring charitable donations to concerts, and let the community name the venue. Marathon also partnered with inner-city ministry Provision International, which staffs the event parking lots in exchange for the proceeds. “The local support has been so positive and overwhelming,” summed Cobb. “So thank you Nashville.”