Nov 14, 2022 - News

The end of an era for Exit/In

The entrance to Exit/In

Photo: Alex Justice, courtesy of Exit/In

Chris Cobb's nearly two-decade run as operator of the historic Exit/In rock club concludes at the end of this month.

  • His departure follows a bitter battle to preserve the building and his family's multiple failed attempts to purchase it, up to the last minute.

Why it matters: The changing hands at Exit/In underscores the uncertainty facing Nashville's live music industry. Corporatization and development pressures have made it increasingly difficult for independent operators to survive.

What he's saying: "These are the last shows at the version of Exit/In that anyone has known since Charlie Daniels and his group bought the venue in '79 and remodeled it into what it looks like today," Cobb tells Axios. "Is it the last run of shows? I don't know the answer to that, and I don't know anyone who does."

State of play: New property owner AJ Capital Partners, the development firm behind the Graduate Hotel chain, reiterated to Axios its plans to keep the venue but provided no details.

The intrigue: In a sign that interior changes are imminent, planners have been combing over the property recently, including when Axios was on site last week.

  • It remains a mystery if Exit/In will be an independent under AJ Capital or partner with concert giant Live Nation, which has been aggressively growing its roster of Nashville-area venues in recent years.

Zoom out: In addition to the situation at Exit/In, the longtime operator at the Mercy Lounge complex lost his lease last year. 3rd and Lindsley is facing an uncertain future as well. Skyrocketing real estate values have especially threatened venues operating near downtown.

  • In the last seven years, Live Nation purchased a controlling share of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, took over operations of Ascend Amphitheater and entered into partnerships with local clubs the Basement East, Marathon Music Works and Brooklyn Bowl.

Driving the news: On his way out the door, Cobb says his focus is making his last shows as memorable as possible.

  • To celebrate the venue's legacy, Cobb booked a slate of local legends to play the last string of shows on his watch.
  • Emmylou Harris, whose history at Exit/In stretches back decades, will perform later this month. So will Lilly Hiatt, JEFF the Brotherhood and Diarrhea Planet.

What we're watching: The situation begs a complicated question for Nashville's music industry.

  • If the building is preserved and continues as a music venue, but one with a corporate partner instead of a local operator, was Exit/In saved or lost?
Jimmy Buffett performs at Exit/In in 2021. Photo: Andrew Sarta, courtesy of Exit/In

Few music venues in the world boast the rock and pop music credibility of Exit/In. Jimmy Buffett famously wandered in off the street and played the first show there 51 years ago.

Flashback: Before they were household names, the Police, R.E.M., Billy Joel and the Talking Heads headlined shows. Icons like Etta James packed the room.

  • Comedy legend and bluegrass savant Steve Martin led the crowd in a march out of the club and around the corner for hamburgers. An almost-famous band called the Red Hot Chili Peppers enjoyed an impromptu Thanksgiving meal in the humble backstage green room.
  • The wall of Exit/In pays homage to the legendary acts who played there. You find names like Tom Petty, Muddy Waters and Johnny Cash.

But the wall also contains names of beloved local bands like Jason and the Scorchers and Protomen.

The bottom line: Cobb worries the city's live music scene will lose that local flavor if corporations are booking and operating the smaller venues.

  • He says small venues run on tight margins, and it can be tempting for operators to eschew the risk of booking an unknown local band in favor of a known touring commodity.

The sale of Exit/In last year played out very publicly as Cobb and his wife Telisha Cobb attempted to buy the building and the Hurry Back bar, which they also operate.

  • Cobb started a GoFundMe last year to raise money to try to buy the buildings.
  • In recent weeks, Cobb and AJ Capital have also been engaged in a federal trademark dispute over who owns the club's name.
  • Cobb applied for the trademark, and AJ Capital contested his claim on the last day an objection could be filed.

In a statement by a spokesperson, AJ Capital touted the historic zoning protections it secured for Exit/In and said "long overdue physical improvements" are coming.

  • "We look forward to the next half-century of moments and memories, and to announcing 2023 show dates very soon," the AJ Capital spokesperson said.
Photo: courtesy of Exit/In

Cobb has dedicated his life to live music in Nashville. He previously operated Marathon Music Works, and he booked the annual Live on the Green festival.

  • He played a leading role in the passage of the federal Save Our Stages Act, which provided funding for venues that were shuttered during the pandemic.
  • Through those efforts, he helped launch the National Independent Venue Alliance and the Music Venue Alliance Nashville. Cobb says those groups will split the GoFundMe money.

"We're not really Music City right now. We're Pro Sports City," he says, pointing to the proposed $2.1 billion Titans stadium.

  • "You look at how that would be funded in part with hotel-motel taxes. Well, in Austin, they used those same tourist taxes to develop a fund to help operators own their building and [pay for maintenance costs]."

"We have to be sure that the young creative who shows up with a guitar has the ability to live here, make a living and pursue their dreams, because you can see it's under threat."


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