Let’s just start this off by drudging the big elephant right out in the middle of the room and shining a big ‘ol spotlight on it. Mike Curb, Herr Führer of Curb Records—the man who has made millions off of the indentured servitude of many of country music’s most famous names, and manipulated consumers with repackaged releases and Greatest Hits bamboozels—has taken his blood money, his ill-gotten gains, and thrown them behind the much-ballyhooed preservation of Music Row’s historic Studio ‘A’ in Nashville, and we all should feel deeply conflicted about it.
It was announced on Tuesday (12-23) that the deal to purchase Studio ‘A’ with the intent to preserve the historic property had finally closed, and that two unexpected, and previously-unannounced investors were joining preservationist Aubrey Preston as partners in the preservation effort. Studio ‘A’, originally built by Chet Atkins and Own Bradley nearly 50 years ago to be the bigger brother of the older Studio ‘B’ right beside it, was sold to a developer earlier this year called Bravo Development, who let it be known their intent was to bulldoze the building that so many greats had recorded hits in over the years to build a condominium complex and a music-themed restaurant. But preservationist Aubrey Preston pulled off an 11th-hour deal to purchase the property for $5.6 million in an attempt to usher it into a more permanent state of preservation.
But Preston may have not been in the position to throw $5.6 million around on his own, and made it known from the very beginning that it wasn’t his intent to own the building himself forevermore, but shepherd it into more permanent hands who could see its preservation into the future. To help buffer the deal, Preston brought on two more partners at closing, and now all three own the building in equal share. The first Preston partner is a healthcare business executive named Chuck Elcan (healthcare is Nashville’s other big industry), and the other is the aforementioned Mike Curb.
Nobody should act surprised that Mike Curb came on board as part of the preservation. In fact, you’d have to have your head in the sand to not see it coming. Mike Curb has worked to preserve other historic places in Nashville, including Studio ‘B’ which like is planned for Studio ‘A’, is now in safe hands to be protected for all time. Curb has also thrown his money around to help build other Nashville landmarks, especially on the Belmont University campus, and as part of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In August, when some were focused more on being angry about what seemed to be the impending fate of Studio ‘A’ as opposed to crafting pragmatic solutions, Saving Country Music posted an essay about the best ways to preserve Studio ‘A’ (which might have been the least-read article posted on the site the entire year), and observed, “Some large entrepreneurial spirit with an established footprint on Music Row such as Mike Curb or Scott Borchetta could buy the property. It seems like this would be the best option to see the long-term preservation of Studio ‘A’.” It was also pointed out that Curb had already worked with Belmont University on numerous cohabitated properties on Music Row.
But how is the conscientious music lover—many of whom overlap their passion for preserving Studio ‘A’ with the desire to see reform in the way some of Music Row’s major labels do business—supposed to feel about Mike Curb’s involvement in this matter? Meanwhile it can’t be taken for granted that everyone knows about all the ill will Mike Curb has sewed over his sullied career, especially in the last decade plus.
When Hank Williams III began to make a public nuisance about how Curb Records was treating him in the mid 2000’s, many thought it was simply the sour grapes of a foul-mouthed punk. Since then, a parade of artists have come out complaining about how the label has treated them, trainwrecking their careers from their ill-conceived policy of waiting five years between releases, resulting most notably in a massive barrage of lawsuits back and forth with Tim McGraw, who Curb Records did everything they could to keep him perpetually signed to their label by refusing to release his final album, and instead released one Greatest Hits album after another. McGraw, like Hank Williams III, eventually defeated Curb Records in court, but not after great damage had been done to his career.
LeAnn Rimes, Hank Williams Jr., Jo Dee Messina, Lyle Lovett, Clay Walker, and even going back to The Beat Farmers and Frank Zappa, they all have legitimate beefs against Mike Curb and the way they were handled by the country music mogul.
In 2011, Saving Country Music asked if Nashville should be careful of its Mike Curb legacy, pointing out that many important buildings around the city now bear Mike Curb’s name and what this might mean as he continues his unscrupulous business practices. Just last month, yet another Curb Records manipulation was unearthed when it was revealed the label would be releasing yet another round of regurgitated releases from Tim McGraw and Hank Williams III in the hopes of misleading the public into buying previously-released material repackaged to look new—something Curb has been doing for years from the two artists.
At the same time, it is a good thing that Studio ‘A’ is being preserved. The concerns about Mike Curb’s philanthropy have never been about the specific targets of it, which all appear to be worthy benefactors, and it’s not as if he doesn’t deserve any credit for making these types of charitable moves with his money. The bigger concern is where that money is coming from, and if it’s worth receiving it if a stipulation to take it is engraving the name of Mike Curb—and all the baggage that comes with it—on the edifice.
Just to clarify, there’s no plan at the moment to rename 30 Music Sq. West “Mike Curb’s Studio ‘A'” or any other such permanent homage to his involvement in this preservation effort. There’s a good chance that by the time the building finds its eventual permanent ownership environment, Mike Curb won’t even be involved. Nonetheless, the legacy of Mike Curb is not one of a few public feuds and personal grudges. It is of a legacy of the purposeful manipulation of artists which has seen Curb Records shed talent at a record pace, despite the label’s aggressive, and many times illegal retention practices, and then taking the money Curb made through such practices to donate to private, charitable projects to help etch a different legacy moving forward.
Like the preservation of Nashville’s historic places themselves, the legacy of Mike Curb, which only continues to grow more dubious by the month, should be considered when looking at what the legacy of Music City will be moving forward. Mike Curb’s money is as green as anyone’s, but his name is tarnished brown. And Nashville’s institutions should ask if they want that stain sullying their most historic and important places.