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Music Producer Seeks Finale to Home Recording Fight With Nashville

Just after record producer Lij Shaw got a certificate for his work on a Grammy Award winner, Nashville sent him a cease-and-desist letter, citing a city law prohibiting home-based businesses from providing client services in their home. That 5-year tussle may end tonight.

NASHVILLE (CN) — The mixing console in Lij Shaw’s former home recording studio could have been donated to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but instead it continued to bring in the Grammys.

“I really liked the old stuff, the old gear as well as the new computer stuff. I like mixing and matching,” Shaw said walking barefoot around the studio covered in Persian rugs.

Before Shaw bought it on eBay, the mixing console sat in Criteria Studios in Miami during the '70s, he said, and mixed “Hotel California” for the Eagles, “Stayin’ Alive” for the Bee Gees and “Margaritaville” for Jimmy Buffett.

The console sits surrounded by about a foot of soundproofing in a detached garage down the hill from Shaw’s house in a neighborhood with a train line on one side and a diesel mechanics school on the other.

Shaw’s Studio, The Toy Box Studio, was named on the suggestion of Pat Sansone from the band Wilco because Shaw collected music-making toys from nearby thrift shops. A baby’s toy piano-xylophone hybrid sits on the mixing console along with two Teletubbies dolls.

The latest Grammy certificate for his work came after the console was used to mix Mike Farris’ album “Shine For All The People,” which won best roots gospel album of 2014. 

Braden Boucek, vice president of legal affairs for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, is one of the attorneys challenging Nashville’s client prohibition. (Courthouse News photo/Daniel Jackson)

“You think that's a mixing board,” said Braden Boucek, Shaw’s attorney. “That is contraband, according to the city of Nashville.”

In the same month Shaw received a certificate for the Grammy Award, Nashville sent him a cease-and-desist letter. The city has a prohibition on its books that stops home-based businesses from inviting clients to their place of businesses and providing services in their home. 

According to Boucek and Shaw, the city asked to schedule a walk-through of his home and threatened to seize his recording equipment, though it backed away from that position in subsequent communications.

After five years, Shaw sees the light at the end of the tunnel.

In 2017, Shaw and a licensed cosmetologist challenged the constitutionality of Nashville’s client prohibition in Davidson County Chancery Court. After the chancellor sided with the state and dismissed the lawsuit in October 2019, attorneys for the home-based business owners appealed. 

But the whole matter could be moot depending on how Nashville’s Metro Council tackles the issue at its meeting Tuesday night.

While changing the client prohibition has been considered and shot down before, factors such as the Covid-19 outbreak have brought momentum this time around.

"It's hard to argue against home businesses when the council is voting from home, doing their jobs over Zoom,” said Boucek, who is vice president of legal affairs for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a nonprofit think tank.

While the client prohibition affects a wide range of businesses, Shaw says the disagreement he has with Nashville could affect the future of Music City: for instance, the people moving there hoping to make it in the industry, and students of music production.

The hit song, Shaw said, “needs a safe place to be born and grow. They say every overnight sensation in the music business is 10 years of hard work. And without home studios as a safe place to begin your music and to take chances and to affordably make independent records, there will be no place for music to start.”

After the cease-and-desist letter, Shaw took his story to the press, which told his story anonymously. It took a records request by Boucek to find Shaw and talk about the case. Around that time, the Institute for Justice was interested in challenging the client prohibition in Nashville. The two organizations joined forces.

Among the public-interest the Beacon Center of Tennessee tackles are property rights, economic freedom and free speech. “That's sort of our core, and Lij naturally falls under the umbrella of all three,” Boucek said.

Beacon and the Institute for Justice said in the lawsuit that the client prohibition was unconstitutional because it is applied unequally. Residents operating daycare centers and short-term rentals through platforms such as Airbnb can serve up to 12 clients a day at homes in residential areas, they said in briefs.

In Shaw’s instance, the thick soundproofing kept sound from bleeding out of the recording space as much as it kept the neighborhood noise out.

Boucek said Nashville justified shutting down Shaw’s business over imagined harms, and not any legitimate concerns — a far too expansive legal precedent.

According to Shaw’s brief filed with the Tennessee Court of Appeals, Nashville is the only major city in the nation that has such a strict prohibition on clients visiting home-based businesses.

A spokesperson for Nashville’s Codes Department said the department does not keep data on how many times the client prohibition has been enforced.

Lora Fox, an attorney for Metro Nashville, said the judge found there was a rational reason for Nashville to have a client prohibition, and in these kinds of decisions, the courts typically defer to the policymaking done by the metro council.

Some of those reasons include managing traffic and the concern some people have about strangers in their neighborhood, Fox said. 

“If the Legislature changes their mind, it’s their prerogative,” Fox said.

In her October ruling in Shaw’s case, Chancellor Anne Martin said the metro council appropriately exercised its legislative authority.

The plaintiffs’ “businesses are like any others in that if the public is allowed to come to their residences as customers, it could disturb the residential nature of their neighborhoods, as well as foment a potential host of other problems,” Martin wrote in her 26-page order dismissing the lawsuit.

On appeal, Shaw’s attorneys said the judge erred when she disregarded and did not cite the voluminous record filed in the case.

With Metro council reconsidering the client prohibition, the case may be mooted, but that depends on what kind of legislation the metro council ultimately passes, attorneys on both sides said.

Nashville has a deadline at the end of June to file a brief with the appeals court.

While Shaw’s business has taken a massive hit because he cannot operate the recording studio under the code, he started a podcast and began teaching how to record music.

Meanwhile, bassist Dave Pomeroy is optimistic the metro council will roll back the client prohibition. The president of Nashville Musicians Association AFM Local 257 said the client prohibition’s effect on recording in the city has been the “800-pound elephant in the room.”

Many Nashvillians relocated to the neighboring counties of Williamson or Rutherford, saying they can't deal with the client prohibition, Pomeroy said.

He said past attempts to change the code were sidetracked by neighborhood activists who did not realize that home recording has been a reality for Nashville’s musicians.

“I think it was well-intentioned long ago, but a photographer having a studio in the back of his house hurts absolutely no one,” Pomeroy said.

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