On Tuesday morning (9-25-12) Gaylord Entertainment, the owners of The Grand Ole Opry and its various assets will conduct a board meeting to finalize their sale to Marriott International for $210 million and restructure the company into an REIT or Real Estate Investment Trust. Though the deal has been opposed by the two top investors in Gaylord, TRT Holdings and Gabelli Funds, the deal is expected to go through by most experts, but you never know what can happen.
TRT Holdings, Gaylord’s biggest shareholder, had to be bought out make Gaylord’s REIT restructuring possible, and the other big investor Gabelli wants Gaylord to spin off the company’s Grand Ole Opry investments before the restructure, worried these assets will get smothered in a real estate model. With the TRT buyout, Gaylord will likely have the shareholder votes to make the deal go through.
But sitting on the sidelines seems to be the fans of country music and their best interests. Tuesday will be the first time since 1982–when Gaylord purchased The Grand Ole Opry, WSM, and all of it’s various properties–that The Opry will have an opportunity to be free of a larger company’s control, a company that must meet shareholder’s demands, and figure out how to fit an old, historic institution into a modern-day corporate management structure.
Many diehard and purist fans of country music have been saying that The Grand Ole Opry has been mismanaged for years. They feel disenfranchised by the Opry’s recent moves of showcasing more pop, and more younger members of the country music industry. Others cite various causes like the Stonewall Jackson lawsuit that exposed the Opry dilemma of how to handle aging talent, or the campaign to Reinstate Hank to the Opry.
But where is this opposition in the argument for the Opry’s fate that could very well be decided tomorrow? They seem curiously absent. Instead of anger at what has become of arguably country music’s most important institution, there seems to be apathy and resignation to the fact that it is over, that the Opry will never return to its prominence of the past, or to a healthier balance, where both young, up-and-coming talent, as well as aging and traditional country artists share the billing.
But this quite possibly is the moment when the tide has turned. How much influence can the country music public have on the sale of a company? None if they don’t speak up in favor or opposition, but for the first time, they have the business men who make the decisions on their side, echoing the same sentiments Gaylord detractors have for years about Gaylord mismanagement.
The shuttering of The Ryman Auditorium for 20 years would have never happened without the complicit nature of the country music public. The Opry will never fit well in a modern-day corporate structure, and like shareholder Gabelli points out, things could get worse under the new system.
When Gaylord initially purchased the Opry in 1982, there were concerns then about how it would be managed in Gaylord’s complex and diverse portfolio. Marriott showed interest in the Opry in 1982 also, and so did MCA and Anheuser-Busch before passing on the deal, unable to resolve how to take the complex Opry assets and manage them fairly and efficiently. That’s when Gaylord recognized the power of the “Opry” brand and pounced, and since has been poorly managing assets that don’t fit in its structure as a media company, and now as a real estate company.
The folks opposed to the current direction of the Opry should be salivating at this opportunity instead of being resigned to the loss. Maybe it is because of the complexity of the Opry/Gaylord/Marriott deal; they just don’t understand how ripe the moment is. This is the time to be in full throat, to be most vocal. This is the time to be marching on the temple and overturning the tables of the money changers who’ve set up shop in the Opry institution.
Shareholders and bylaws can say whatever they want about who owns the Opry, but the true owners of the Opry will always be the people of country music. Without them attending the shows and listening to the programs, the Opry doesn’t exist. And for the first time in years, there’s allies in the boardroom, parroting similar sentiments to Gaylord’s detractors, not from a heartfelt love from the traditions of country music, but from very cold and concrete analyses of business and management.
At the same time, it is also time for pragmatism. Bad words and calls for bowls of blood have done nothing to re-engage the Grand Ole Opry with the roots of the music, they’ve only typecast the arguments against Gaylord’s ownership regime. The Opry must keep the institution relevant by showcasing younger, popular stars. What must be yearned for is balance, where young, traditional and neo-tradional stars, as well as older stars still putting out relevant material are given equal footing. The Opry needs to re-emerge as the fulcrum in a country music farm system to evaluate and develop emerging talent in an industry that has become creatively stagnant.
And this vote on Tuesday may not be the end of this fight, but only the beginning. As Gaylord restructures into an REIT, the opportunity will linger, if not present itself even more that the Opry assets must be spun off for the health of the Opry, Gaylord, and the new Marriott parent company.
This is not the time to sit back and let Gaylord tighten their reigns on Opry control, it’s time to point out that Edison Research says folks want more classic country, that the Reinstate Hank petition now has over 53,000 signatures. And that what the Opry needs, just like Gabelli says, is autonomy, or an owner who cares.
The Grand Ole Opry is the founding institution of country music, and will always be worth fighting for.