Music city Nashville has hopes of becoming technology town
- 23 January 2014
- From the section Business
Music city might need a new nickname now that it has started playing a new tune - technology town.
Nashville, Tennessee, the home of country music, has become a haven for small and medium-sized technology companies.
Now entrepreneurs in the sector just need to convince more locals to stay and coax talent from elsewhere in the US to relocate to help fill hundreds of job vacancies.
For while the US unemployment rate currently stands at 6.7%, Nashville's technology sector has as many as 1,000 jobs unfilled at any given time, according to the city's chamber of commerce.
It means Nashville is increasingly grabbing the attention of the US tech community, with internet giant Google choosing Nashville as the location for one of its seven new regional tech hubs last autumn.
Musical lunch breaks
Although it may seem incongruous to some that Nashville has quietly become a notable centre for technology firms, the city has long had a highly creative and educated workforce.
In addition to all the record companies and other businesses connected to the country music industry, the capital of Tennessee is also home to some of the US's largest healthcare firms, such as Hospital Corporation of America.
And Nashville has two large universities - Tennessee State and Vanderbilt.
Add tax incentives for technology firms from the Metro Government of Nashville, and promotional work by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, and the city's technology start-up sector has grown strongly in recent years.
"In New York, Nashville is cool now," says Traylor Woodall, a born-and-bred Nashvillian, who founded film and animation production and design company, Fivestone Studios, in his home city.
"What's been neat is to see that we are successfully starting to recruit people here, and they're choosing us instead of going to a big animation shop in Los Angeles, or New York, or even Atlanta," he says.
Kyle Jones, Fivestone's creative director, is another Nashville native, who returned to his hometown after a stint working in New York.
Mr Jones appreciated the opportunity to be closer to his family, while boosting his spending power, and living in less crowded surroundings.
"I was getting tired of the no personal space up in New York," says Mr Jones.
Even within Nashville's technology companies, the city's music culture is deeply embedded in the locals' DNA.
Musical instruments are common sights in Nashville offices, whatever the company's industry.
On a Thursday lunchtime Mr Woodall plays a keyboard - not the PC kind - while Mr Jones and another member of staff strum guitars at Fivestone's loft-style base in Marathon Village, a red-brick former car factory that now houses a range of creative companies.
Fivestone's company's clients include computer firm Dell, carmaker Honda, and country-music television station CMT.
'More than music'
A short drive away from Marathon Village are the bars, restaurants and clubs that help Nashville earn its Music City soubriquet.
But locals say that the city's history co-exists happily alongside its present - and future.
"When you actually live in it, it's really cohesive," says Hannah Paramore, president of website design and advertising company Paramore. "It's not just country music."
Her company's new office space in the centre of Nashville overlooks a church that served as a hospital during the American Civil War. Ms Paramore says she would never consider moving away from the city she has lived in all her life.
When she recruits for her company, she tries to hire local talent. About 30 people work for Paramore, whose clients include the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.
But here's the main challenge for Nashville's tech companies - retaining talent.
Ms Paramore says she has a hard time hiring people who have worked in bigger places, such as New York or Silicon Valley.
"Their salary expectations are not right for this market," she says. "And even if they tell you that they will work for less money because they understand the cost of living is different, that lasts for two pay checks."
Ms Paramore says several of her employees have left to work for the likes of Amazon and Apple.
"There's this big sucking sound coming from the West Coast," she says. "I wish we had a deeper talent pool."
More disposable income
For tech workers who do stay, its affordability is one of Nashville's key selling points.
"If you live in Nashville, you're going to enjoy more disposable income," says Ralph Schulz, president and chief executive of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.
Compared with bigger cities in the US, he says people in Nashville have a financial edge. "You're going to have a 27% [disposal income] advantage, on average," he says.
Nashville also offers the thrill of living in a small creative community, he says.
"You can't really overstate the pleasure of being in the presence of creative people that are taking risks. It kind of bleeds off on you."
With a population of fewer than one million, the city is a fraction of the size of others with thriving tech communities. But locals say that's part of Nashville's appeal.
"It has a lot of the aspects of a big town, but with small-town ideals," Mr Woodall says. "There is an intimacy to it. The people are amazing."