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The Exit/In Cashes in on Nashville's Identity Crisis

The Exit/In Cashes in on Nashville's Identity Crisis

One of the city’s oldest indie music venues comes to terms with its role in New Nashville and the self-styled martyrdom that has defined it over the past year.

Exit/In owner Chris Cobb has carefully crafted a mythic image of himself as the activist counterculture native Speaking Truth To Power, the owner of one of the last vestiges of local purity. He effortlessly taps into Nashvillians’ anxieties about their city becoming a homogeneous strip mall bereft of the qualities that made it a destination in the first place. His emotional pull has reached such a fever pitch that it has obscured the many flaws in Cobb’s rhetoric and record-keeping as well as his history in the live-music industry.

With the mantra, “We love music. We believe in science,” as the opening salvo of its Covid policy, the Exit/In became a local pioneer of requiring vaccine passports for show attendance when it reopened last year. But that didn’t stop the venue’s safety-first-spouting owner from holding a rally that attracted hundreds before the jab was fully accessible to the general public. Cobb’s April 2021 event was the latest front in—as the Exit/In’s marquee read during the event—the battle for “Nashville’s Soul” and its selling to the highest bidder. The transgression in question that initiated such resistance was the sort of rote real-estate deal local property owners have steadfastly considered over the past decade amid the city’s onslaught of development. It included no stated intent to harm the Exit/In, no warning that the venue’s future was in jeopardy, no scorched-earth clause that would prevent Cobb from packing his bags and reopening elsewhere should the new owners decide to develop in a different direction.

But for Cobb, the above-board business decision was an existential threat to Nashville’s music ecosystem, not to mention his own elevation of the Exit/In as its linchpin. “We must not displace our creative working class,” Cobb told the audience, anointing his venue as the primary incubator for those on the music scene’s blue-collar margins. The rally was a success; that is if coverage in the Tennessean and social media amplification from the “You’re so Nashville if…” set serves as any kind of barometer. It was a slam dunk, if the $271,506 Cobb has thus far raised via GoFundMe to buy the venue himself is any indication. Yet, despite all the hoopla about how the Exit/In shouldn’t be for sale, the rally came at a curious time: the property had gone under contract to AJ Capital Partners five days before.

As the president of the Music Venue Alliance Nashville (MVAN), which he revived during the early days of Covid to combat the pandemic’s effects on the local independent music scene, Cobb was destined for press attention in 2021–even before the sudden announcement that his venue’s location on Elliston Place’s Rock Block was up for sale. But in the aftermath of the fallout from the property’s purchase, he has become the sage of the small venue, embarking on a media blitz that culminated in the Nashville Scene naming him and his wife, Telisha, “Best Champions of the Local Music Industry” in its annual “Best Of” issue last October. As Cobb states on the website for his company, Bonafide Live, Incorporated, “I carry the independent torch proudly, in a marketplace where corporations and globalization currently rule,” — a ripped-from-an-undergrad-sociology-paper statement that willfully ignores the last word of his business endeavor’s name. Cobb’s paeans to independence have certainly riled up the music community, leading him to raise an influx of cash beyond the more-than-quarter million his GoFundMe collected. “The Nashville Helping Nashville” benefit concert in May 2021 featuring tribute bands playing the music of The Allman Brothers and alt-country legends Uncle Tupelo raised $27,500 to save the Exit/In six weeks after the site was under contract. Franklin’s own Hayley Williams parlayed her stint as pop-emo band Paramore’s frontwoman to raise $45,000 for the venue, selling shirts featuring the phrase “Tiny Hot Topic Bitch” at the national mallrat retailer that clearly shares Cobb’s anti-corporate values and independent spirit. This in addition to Bonafide’s more than $240,000 in PPE loans and $50,000 of CARES funds that Metro distributed. Yet, amid this firestorm of newsworthiness and the windfall it generated, what exactly the Exit/In needs saving from remains unclear.  

Since Brugh Reynolds established the venue in 1971 as an alternative to the city’s honky-tonk culture, the Exit/In has built its reputation on surviving tumult. Before Cobb took over seventeen years ago, the venue had over two dozen owners, eking out an iconic existence partially forged through its fly-by-night, could-collapse-at-any-moment reputation. Along the way, it has more than pulled its weight as a source of Music City trivia. Robert Altman featured it in his 1975 film Nashville. Jimmy Buffett played his first show there, which Cobb told The Pamphleteer is one of the venue’s most important moments along with early appearances from Margo Price, Cage the Elephant, Tyler Childers, and Sharon Jones. Steve Martin gives a shout-out to his time on the Exit/In stage in his book Born Standing Up. Sting sports one of the venue’s T-shirts on the album art for The Police’s Zenyatta Mondatta. The space’s endurance and trailblazing role in cultivating the hub of clubs that became known as the Rock Block even earned the neighborhood a historical marker in 2020.

Given its spit-shine history and frequent appearance on the “most endangered” lists of various local preservation organizations, the Exit/In’s property changing hands should have gone down as another this-too-shall-pass moment, not the apocalyptic assault on Nashville authenticity it became. When Southeast Venture made the sale of the real estate that houses the venue and the Cobb-owned bar, Hurry Back, public in February 2021, Cobb attempted to buy it himself with the help of North Carolina firm Grubb Properties and its newly launched Live Venue Recovery Fund, which aims to, “Establish long-term ownership and increase the number of owner-operators to create a more diverse and sustainable live music ecosystem.” Though he made an offer above the asking price, the owners promptly dismissed his bid—according to Cobb—as retaliation for his family’s role in organizing 2019’s Save the Rock Block campaign that successfully prevented the construction of a Holiday Inn Express in the neighborhood.

Post-rejection, Cobb continued raising money through GoFundMe and various benefits, all while AJ Capital Partners had the property under contract and eventually finalized its purchase for $6.5 million last July. “Nashville is tired of losing its culture to corporate greed,” Cobb told The Pamphleteer. “The success of the Go Fund Me [sic] proves that. We have 9 months left on our lease and will continue to fight for an independent Exit/In until the end!” AJ Capital Partners has expressed no interest in flipping the property, but Cobb has remained vigilant about sustaining press attention and financial support for his plan, an effort to prove, as Telisha Cobb said at the April 2021 rally, “The people of Nashville are not for sale."

Cobb’s continuing GoFundMe campaign bears the tagline “Keep Exit/In Independent,” yet it hinges on the venue’s contradictory status as long-beholden to landlords, which raises the question of when or if the Exit/In ever held such autonomy in the first place. Likewise, Cobb has spent the last fourteen months demonizing non-locals as the enemy of Music City, most clearly on display when he quipped, “If decisions are continued to be made by corporations, out-of-towners and luxury developers, our city cannot make progress,” during his rally speech. Cobb obviously intended the statement as a defiant gesture to show he would not go quietly into the night at the whims of those from out of state. That his own bid for the property would have been impossible without the aid of the North Carolinians at Grubb apparently didn’t register. Such remarks seem even more off base considering that AJ made the decision to move its headquarters from Chicago to Nashville nine months before the sale and has, by all accounts, remained more than supportive of efforts to preserve the Exit/In. In November, it sought Metro’s approval to turn the venue into a historical landmark and has even declined to raise Cobb’s rent.  

Yet, none of these acts of goodwill have slowed Cobb’s anti-corporate vitriol. He responded to AJ’s offer to reimburse donors to his GoFundMe campaign by accusing its founder, Ben Weprin, of never attending a show at the venue amid more “can’t be bought” platitudes. As local media elevated Cobb into a gentrification-fighting man of the people, allegations of racism reported by outlets such as Fox 17 received an odd pass in the age of cancel culture (this may explain Cobb’s affinity for wearing BLM apparel in publicity materials). Considering its owner’s history, one could make the argument that rather than serving as the latest victim of Nashville’s creative destruction, the Exit/In’s precarious fate is the product of Cobb’s incendiary rhetoric and pugilistic approach to local politics—so noxious that the property’s previous owners would leave substantial money on the table for a chance to get him out of the neighborhood.

Perhaps the greatest irony of the Exit/In saga is that the fiercely local Cobb (and his one-time business partner Josh Billue) built his career on developing venues in other cities before selling them off, including The Signal in Chattanooga, The Truman in Kansas City, and The Mill and Mine in Knoxville (for which he served as a consultant), a pattern that began with his stint as the former co-owner of Marathon Music Works. In discussing his shift to larger ventures, Cobb said, “Small venues like Exit/In naturally become more engaged in their communities because they can host small events, local shows, community events and fundraisers more easily. Larger venues are simply expensive to operate which prohibits as much of this type of activity and programming. Marathon is a great venue and asset to our community, just in a different way.”

Cobb did gain some street cred when he and Billue turned down a 2016 offer from Live Nation to sell the Exit/In and Marathon, but whether the decision was altruistic or just bad business remains murky. Under Cobb’s ownership, the Exit/In has maintained its decades-long reputation as largely unprofitable. Its 2021 revenue is 76% lower than in 2019 according to Cobb, a decline that coincided with the venue famous for its lax security policies instituting vaccine requirements. Though 2022 attendance to date is off by about 53% from the same period in 2019, the weeks since the Exit/In dropped said mandates have buoyed its financial performance. “Omicron went as quickly as it came and fans and bands alike are ready to have concerts again!” said Cobb, who also firmly believes the Exit/In property’s sale would never have happened if not for Covid.

Nashville’s rampant growth and decline in affordability partially explain the local press’s recent deification of Cobb. However, news coverage’s neglect of the lack of transparency over the status of the funds he raised is indefensible. At this point, AJ Capital Partners has not indicated any plans to sell the property, rendering Cobb’s effort dead. Yet, patrons continue to donate to the campaign. While Cobb’s GoFundMe page clearly states, “Should our bid fail, all money raised with [sic] be donated to NIVA [The National Independent Venue Alliance] and MVAN [Cobb’s The Music Venue Alliance of Nashville],” the cash bonanza’s intended purpose remains opaque as does the endgame for the donations generated from his other fundraising endeavors. AJ’s promise to reimburse donors and assume the loss has remained active for a year, but Cobb has publicly extended no such offer to return the funds to backers or provided specifics on his plans for the contributions such as what percentage will go toward which organizations, cryptically telling the Tennessee Lookout that the money remains in a bank account ready for him to transfer to the two nonprofits after he feels “this is over.” When The Pamphleteer asked whether he planned to simply refund the money should AJ continue to express no interest in a sale, Cobb said, “There have been a few refund requests ... maybe 5 out of over 4,000 donations. Those were all refunded.”

As the president of MVAN, Cobb supervises the four other staffers who work toward the specific and actionable goal of, “Retaining and nurturing the fragile, yet complex ecosystem of every individual aspect of our famous music scene here in Nashville, TN.” Fifteen local venues belong to the organization, including The Bluebird Cafe, The East Room, The Station Inn, The 5 Spot, and Cannery Ballroom most of which also enacted the same vaccine requirements the Exit/In implemented, though Cobb said such was never an expectation for members. While MVAN incorporated in 2017, the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office dissolved it the next year due to improper filing of paperwork. Cobb applied for reinstatement in June 2020, but the state again dissolved MVAN in August 2021 for the same reason. Consequently, the Exit/In’s GoFundMe accepted donations for nearly seven months on behalf of an organization that the State of Tennessee deemed no longer in existence.

While Cobb submitted an application to the Secretary of State’s office to reinstate MVAN last March the day after The Pamphleteer inquired about its dissolution, not enough public information is readily available to fully determine the Alliance’s budget or funding sources. The Pamphleteer repeatedly asked Cobb for copies of MVAN’s Form 990s and other tax documents that the IRS requires nonprofits to share with the public, but our requests remain unanswered. As a result, a host of questions linger about the connections between MVAN’s daily operations and the Exit/In’s donation money. According to Cobb, all staffers are volunteers including himself barring a former social-media manager who invoiced the nonprofit monthly. The IRS and Tennessee Department of Revenue do not have any publicly available record of the Alliance’s financials, including documents outlining its budget, expenditures, and donations. Yet, MVAN’s website includes a donate button linked to a PayPal account not associated with the Exit/In GoFundMe or the organization’s online merchandise store, avenues Cobb used to solicit financial support during the months the state considered the nonprofit dissolved.

Of course, a coast-to-coast annihilation of 500-seat local venues would ignite a massive upheaval for emerging artists. But, despite the chorus of Chicken Littles and the legitimacy the press has given it, such isn’t an accurate reflection of the music industry. Nashville’s concert scene was already oversaturated when Cobb turned down Live Nation. Unlike the struggling indie owners of Cobb’s ilk currently marketing themselves as collateral damage of Music City’s disruption, the Exit/In’s almost owner has established an impressive track record of developing smaller venues across the country that garner enough interest to not only stay out of the red but flourish. As Live Nation’s success proves, the media campaign Cobb and his MVAN cohorts have initiated elides that the problems Nashville’s indie venues face are largely self-inflicted. Most of the MVAN crowd has been grinding away for decades as small-business owners, which provided plenty of time to buy real estate in the pre-“It City” days when it was affordable if only they had the foresight of the late 20th-century upstarts who’ve now evolved into the firmly established nobles of Lower Broad. Not coincidentally, Cobb’s honky tonk counterparts also largely opposed the cumbersome Covid restrictions most MVAN members continue to hold sacrosanct as they rode Nashville’s near-immediate tourism rebound in contrast to the indie venues’ marketing strategy of alienating potential patrons ready to resume normal life, propagating enough fear to keep the reticent at home, and scapegoating Covid for their revenue failures while Steve Smith partied it up at Mar-a-Lago.

In the wake of MVAN member the Mercy Lounge’s recent closure and planned relocation, Cobb has retained his role as the spokesperson for the indie venue movement, appearing in yet another The Tennessean semi-profile published this month. He continues to tout rising property values and Covid’s impact as the greatest threats to what he views as indie venues’ vital role in Nashville’s identity. As he astutely told The Tennessean, “You take music out of the name, it’s just ‘City.’” Such emotional appeals are effective enough that Cobb’s “Battle for Nashville’s Soul” has become a perennial marketing ploy. Nevertheless, it remains based on an intentionally myopic definition of music that begins and ends with MVAN’s member venues and their business model. According to Cobb’s view, record labels, country superstars turned restaurateurs, and Music Row’s unsung heroes didn’t turn Nashville into an international tourist hub; musty clubs with questionable flooring and price-gouged bottled domestics did. In a world devoid of MVAN, an up-and-coming outlaw troubadour may sacrifice hipsterdom by building set lists in front of bachelorettes and conference-goers for a local or global corporate overlord like Live Nation. Yet, all those people buying condos behind the Bluebird and renting future Airbnbs migrated to Music City for a reason, well aware that a city’s soul can’t be contained by real estate.

Adjacent to Cobb during the rally last April stood a replica of the mural on the Exit/In’s wall. It features the names of the seminal artists who have graced the venue’s stage since its opening fifty-one years ago, a Who’s Who of pop icons, college rock staples, and renegade songsmiths: Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, R.E.M., Dr. John, Billy Joel, the B-52’s, Ryan Adams, 10,000 Maniacs (most of whom claim the out-of-towner status that otherwise draws Cobb’s ire). Despite this storied history rendered in chalk, Nashvillians would be wise to remember that the Exit/In did not make these legends; these legends made the Exit/In. Unlike an artist’s first step onto the stage at the Opry or Ryman, which signaled new career epochs, time on the stage of the Exit/In served as the Nashville iteration of a stepping stone that artists climbed city by city, dank club by dank club as they built their legacies.

At the moment, the Exit/In’s merch offerings commemorating its half-century sticking it to the man appear much more bountiful than its concert calendar. The venue made its mark. It got its historical society sign. If the future dictates the Exit/In fades to black, it should be granted its dignity, remembered as more than a collection of dead online petitions, failed crowdfunding campaigns, muddied financials, and politically opportunistic tweets. Nashville owes it that much.

The Pamphleteer contacted representatives of AJ Capital Partners and former MVAN Secretary and current Vice President, Todd Ohlhauser, for this article. Neither could be reached for comment.