Cannery Ballroom Owner Talks Support for Exit/In and a Safe Reopening of His Music Venues

With the historic Nashville venue Exit/In under contract to a developer, its operator Chris Cobb has been busy crowdfunding an effort to buy the building and keep it open. And even competitors, like Todd Olhauser, are jumping in to help. Todd is the owner of a trio of local independent music venues — stacked inside a gorgeous historic property at 1 Cannery Row off of 8th Ave. S. — that’s Cannery Ballroom, Mercy Lounge and the High Watt. WNXP’s Celia Gregory caught up with him ahead of a May outdoor benefit show being organized to save the Exit/In.

Celia Gregory: So, Todd, despite my clamoring to see live music in that building, whenever you’ll let me in, I’ve got you here today for a different reason. And that’s because you’re one of several indie music venue owners showing support for the Exit/In at a May 30th benefit event at East Park called Nashville Helping Nashville. It’s going to feature local artists covering Uncle Tupelo and The Allman Brothers Band and a lot of other local neighbors and friends out there. Why did you sign on for this event that’s essentially throwing support behind a “competing” local music venue?

Todd Olhauser: Well, you know, even though we may be competitors, Chris Cobb and Telisha Cobb and I have been friends really since we opened Mercy Lounge. I mean, Chris did some of the first shows we ever had at Mercy. And Telisha was our very first Special Events Director. So she booked all the weddings and all the corporate events for us for the first several years. They got married at our place, you know, so we’re old friends. I don’t really look at it so much as competitors. They’re my friends and they have the same love of of doing shows that I do. It’s one of the great things since we formed the Music Venue Alliance. Now, all of the independent venues in town, we’re on a call every week and just the whole dynamic has changed. Now we’re not competing with each other. It’s us against the world. You know, it’s this “we’re banding together” and it’s it’s really been a healthy bonding experience for all of us, we kind of realize we’re all here to support and help each other.

CG: Oh, that’s lovely. Well, you mentioned the Alliance. It’s actually the Music Venue Alliance Nashville that will receive the proceeds of this Nashville Helping Nashville event on May 30th and then go towards efforts for Chris and Telisha Cobb of Exit/In to hopefully retain the property from developers and keep Elliston Place the “rock block.” You coming together to rally around this particular venue, it does sound you’re saying “a rising tide lifts all boats,” right? Let’s keep Music City what it’s about. So, have you evolved, then, the relationships with other music venue owners by necessity in the last year or so with music taking a major turn?

TO: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, we all talk, you know. We tried to put something together a long time ago, and it’s hard to get everybody on the same page. And this has kind of necessitated that, OK, we all need to be on the same page. Everybody gets along — it’s been one of the few positive things that have come out over the last year. And I think we’ll be stronger, hopefully, after all of this.

CG: My WPLN news colleague Paige Pflager actually just published a story today about how Nashville music venue owners and musicians are sort of on their own without city or state guidance about reopening and assessing safety needs versus financial needs to stay afloat. And then, of course, the National Independent Venue Association successfully pushed for and there are a lot of dollars associated with federal funding towards venues, but that’s been slow to get dollars into pockets. How have you weighed those risks and probabilities of getting bodies back in your buildings?

TO: Some of our peers have opened with limited capacity. And it it’s easier for some of them based on the layout of their rooms. You know, if you’re a big square open room, it’s a lot easier to socially distance whereas in Mercy Lounge, the stairs come up in the middle of the room. You got a landing. We just measured it out and it’s like we can’t really do it, because of the shape of the room. We’d end up with, you know, 50 people. So we’re cautiously planning our target date [for reopening] as Friday, June 4th. We think things will be hopefully be relaxed by then, being that the vaccine is now open to everyone over 16. Hopefully, it will be safe and there will still be some social distancing. But as far as having everyone at table six feet apart, hopefully we’re not there by that point. We’ll see if we have to push it back further. My thing was, I just I don’t want people getting sick. I don’t want my employees getting sick. I don’t want my patrons coming and getting sick. And I want to put people back to work, but I also can’t lose more money by opening, you know? So June 4 is the plan for now.

CG: Well, for your part and for so many other venue owners in the Association, also radio stations, the benefit for Exit/In is on May 30th. It’s in East Park. I think more artists are going to be announced that are playing. I hope that I can see you out there when everybody is safe and enjoying the beginning of their summer.

TO: Oh, I’ll be there. Wouldn’t miss it.

CG: Well, thanks, Todd. I hope to see you back at Cannery Row soon, as well.

TO: All right. Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.