Adam LivingstonElijah ‘Lij’ Shaw came to Nashville in the 1990s to study music. At first, that meant spending a lot of time on the road. “The first decade of my career, [I was] traveling all over the place and interacting with major record labels and sort of going where ever work would take me,” he says.
Eventually, Shaw built The Toy Box, a soundproofed home studio located in his detached garage. Being able to work at home, he says, allowed him the opportunity to raise his daughter while still tapping into one of the world’s best music scenes, bringing stability to an unpredictable business.
“Nashville is one of the few places remaining in the world where some of the very best musicians get together face to face to make music,” says Shaw, who has worked with recording artists ranging from Jack White to Wilco to Adele. “That’s why I wanted to be here and why I wanted to create a home studio.”
But for the last four years, the city of Nashville has been trying to shut that studio down.
In August 2015, Shaw received a letter from the Department of Codes and Building Inspection informing him that his studio was an unpermitted home business and was therefore illegal. Shaw was given two weeks to cease and desist his recording operations or else face daily fines of $50 and potentially be taken to court.
“My heart just dropped completely,” Shaw says. “For the next week I couldn’t even sleep, like what am I going to do? This is my entire life, this is my everything.”
After the letter came a phone call from a code enforcement officer, followed by a home inspection, and then a mounting series of demands from officials. Shaw was told to remove recording equipment from his house, strip his prices and address off his business’ website, and take videos of his studio recordings off his YouTube channel. Failure to comply would mean fines and possibly even jail time.
Shaw had violated an obscure provision in Nashville’s zoning code that bans home businesses from serving clients on site. The code effectively outlaws his studio and thousands of others like it in a city made famous for its music. As written, it may even prevent home studio owners from inviting fellow musicians into their homes.
He and another local entrepreneur are now suing the city with the help of a libertarian law firm, the Institute for Justice. Their suit claims that Nashville’s home business ban is an unconstitutional restriction on the right to earn a living. More than that, the suit is an attempt to protect Nashville’s storied music scene from outdated zoning codes that segregate cities into commercial and residential categories while criminalizing the sort of creative spontaneity from which great music is born.
Making Music in Music City
Nashville is home to one of the world’s biggest, most successful music scenes. One study found the music industry contributes some $5.5 billion a year to the local economy. The place has played a crucial role in the development of country music, and artists from Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan to Taylor Swift have recorded there, helping give Nashville its famous nickname: Music City.
Over the years, home studios have become increasingly central to this thriving scene. Dave Pomeroy of the Nashville Musicians Association estimates that there are thousands in the city.
“The evolution of technology over the last 20, 30 years has made many things possible that were unthinkable,” he says. “So in any music center, home studios are playing an increasing role. In Nashville, I think it’s heightened because there is such a high per capita of musicians—perhaps higher than anywhere else in the world.”
Yet thanks to local zoning rules, what Shaw and so many others have been doing in their homes is against the law.
Nashville, like almost every city in the country, has what’s known as Euclidean zoning, which tries to separate cities into discrete blocks of what activity is allowed to happen there: residential, commercial, industrial, etc.
Most local governments will make some exceptions, so that telecommuters or after-school tutors are able to work from home. This includes Nashville, whose code allows some “home occupations.” But the code does not allow paying clients or patrons to visit a home business.
This rule was passed in 1998 as part of a comprehensive overhaul of the city’s zoning code. It’s also a provision that appears to be unique to Nashville.
“I’ve seen cities that will allow a certain number of customers per day, but I’ve not seen anything that makes it illegal to even have a student over for a piano lesson,” says Keith Diggs, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. “In that sense it is pretty much the most extreme version of the home business ban that I could imagine.”