Grand Ole Opry Owners to Buy Austin City Limits Location. Again.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The owners of the longest-running music radio show in America—The Grand Ole Opry—want to purchase the location of the longest-running music television show in America—Austin City Limits—setting off alarm bells about the encroachment of outside money into the Austin music scene, and the greater implications upon music culture at large by the merging of these two important, yet distinctly different musical institutions.

If it sounds familiar, it’s because it was supposed to already happen, but didn’t. On December 10th, 2019 it was announced that Ryman Hospitality Properties—which owns the Grand Ole Opry, the Opry House itself, The Ryman Auditorium, and numerous other important music properties in Nashville and beyond—had struck a deal to purchase the 37-story, full city block-sized mixed-use complex in downtown Austin along second street known as “Block 21” that houses the 2,750-seat Moody Theater where Austin City Limits is taped, and ACL Live events happen weekly.

Along with the Moody Theater, Block 21 also houses the W Austin Hotel, numerous businesses and restaurants at the street level, and 53,000 square feet of other Class A commercial space. Once housed in a much more quaint location on the University of Texas campus in a Communications building, Austin City Limits moved to the Moody Theater in 2011. An iconic statue of Willie Nelson, who played the first episode of the venerable show sits at the southeast corner of the property. More importantly, many live concerts are also held in the Moody space under the name “ACL Live” throughout the year.

Ryman Hospitality was to originally pay $275 million for the property, including assuming $141 million in debt still owed for the original development. However, in late May of 2020 during the uncertainty of the pandemic breakout, the deal was dissolved, with Ryman Hospitality having to pay the current owner, Stratus Properties, $15 million to back out of the deal. For those concerned about the deeper cultural implications of the purchase, the crisis was averted.

But just announced this week, the deal is back on, with the new price tag for the Block 21 development being $260 million, which is the original $275 million price, minus the $15 million Ryman Hospitality paid out in earnest money for forfeiting the deal in 2020. The deal is set to close near the end of the 4th quarter if everything goes as planned.

“Through this acquisition, we have the opportunity to build a relationship with the millions of music lovers who visit Austin each year that will allow us to cross-promote our brands to a new, but related customer,” chairman and chief executive officer of Ryman Hospitality Properties Colin Reed said around the original deal. “We also believe there are significant opportunities to create content that will position Austin and Block 21 as a must-visit destination for country lifestyle consumers through our new TV platform, Circle.”

Therein lies the greatest concern for this deal. What do mid and top-level managers in Nashville know about the unique aspects and legacy of Austin music? Cross promoting Ryman Hospitality brands like The Grand Ole Opry and corporate-sponsored “lifestyle” brands that Ryman Hospitality regularly partners with in Nashville in many ways feels like the antithesis of what Austin music is all about. Willie Nelson and others fled Nashville for Austin in the 70’s to get away from the consumer-centric culture of Music City, finding a home in the creative autonomy of the Texas Capital.

Also, Austin music isn’t just about country. Psychedelic rock, hip-hop, punk, blues, and jazz all play important roles in the vibrant and diverse music environment that makes Austin so unique and interesting. Though Ryman Hospitality taking control of the Moody Theater might feel like a short-term win for country fans in Austin, it could be a long-term loss for the diversity and uniqueness of Austin music in general.

The Grand Ole Opry and the Ryman Auditorium are the cornerstone properties of Nashville music culture, similar to how Austin City Limits and the Moody Theater are the cornerstones of the Austin music culture. Putting them all under the same ownership is a potentially significant move in the continuing homogenization of American music. Similar to how many point to the consolidation of ownership in radio stations for robbing music of regional diversity, this sale could have a similar effect.

It’s important to underscore that the Austin City Limits television show itself is its own autonomous production, and may not be affected at all by the change in landlords of the building where it is taped. It’s the more frequent events held under the “ACL Live” name at the Moody Theater that will now be under the auspices of Ryman Hospitality.

And the deal may not be all bad. It may put both institutions on more sure footing moving forward. And since the last deal was announced (and fell through), Ryman Hospitality’s Circle Network TV outlet has proven to be surprisingly successful. The Grand Ole Opry with the help of the Circle Network was one of the big winners through the pandemic shutdown, and it has helped revitalize the institution’s standing in country and American culture. Since the Moody Theater is specifically designed for television productions, this could unlock important opportunities for performers to be featured on The Circle Network via the Austin property.

We can hope for the best with this deal, while also being mindful of the potential bigger implications. The autonomy of Austin, TX from Nashville has always been one of the most important aspects of it as a music hub. We should hope, and remain vigilant that the Ryman Hospitality purchase is just for a building, and not for the soul of the Austin music scene.

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