Aria Bendix is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab. Her work has appeared on Bustle and The Harvard Crimson.
Insights from America’s first Music Cities Convention.
The Music Cities Convention, a global conference on the vital relationship between (you guessed it) cities and music, held its inaugural U.S. event last Sunday in Washington, D.C. The convention brought together policymakers, local entrepreneurs, data analysts, and musicians—all united by a common desire to improve and augment the role of music in our urban environments.
To be sure, the policies and programs that have made music thrive in one city might not always work in another. But there’s plenty that cities can learn from each other about how to cultivate a vibrant and lucrative music scene. In New Orleans, for instance, the music scene is mainly prioritized as a means to boost tourism. In Austin, the music industry is one of the top 10 contributors to the city’s economy. And over in Nashville, music has a $10 billion annual economic impact.
So which cities are getting it right, and which still have a long way to go?
On the most basic level, branding a music city seems to play a critical role in attracting tourists and new residents. According to Nikki Rowling, the lead architect of the Austin Music Census, labeling Austin “the live music capital of the world” proved to be a successful marketing tool.
But there’s more to a music city than its nickname. Key music cities have affordable spaces for artists to perform and a public desire to pay for these performances. The more music venues there are, the more jobs become available, and the more a city’s economy is able to grow—assuming the city is able to foot the initial costs.
Festivals, in particular, are a great way to garner revenue. The Bravalla Festival in Norrköping, Sweden, for instance, brings in around $15 million for the city. Many representatives of city governments also found it valuable to establish music development offices that prioritize and cultivate the role of music in their local economy.
Perhaps the most important initiative in developing a sustainable city is incorporating music into educational programs. This subject was a principal theme throughout the convention, which featured speakers from organizations like Youth on Record, a Denver public school program led by Colorado musicians, and Turnaround Arts, an arts education program led by the President’s Council on the Arts & Humanities. According to John Abodeely, the council’s deputy director, art seems to be a missing link in transforming low-income, low-performing schools into thriving educational centers. In fact, schools that were selected for the Turnaround Arts program displayed higher rates of improvement on average in math and reading than their cohort schools without art programs.
Unfortunately music is often overshadowed by technology and innovation. Many delegates at the convention expressed concern that city funding for the technology sector came at the expense of funding for music and the arts. And yet it may be possible for tech and music to operate symbiotically within a city’s economy. In Austin, for instance, Rowling argues that the tech industry’s “supersonic growth is a key context for what is happening in Austin with music as well.” Indeed, it is no coincidence that some of America’s largest tech economies, like New York and Los Angeles, are also superstar music cities.
Cities like New York and L.A. thrive because they have established a “scene economy” in which entrepreneurship is key, employment opportunities exist for local artists, and spaces are set aside for a community to gather. But with the rise of a music scene also comes public safety concerns. The fact remains that many festivals and venues rely on liquor sales to generate traffic and turn a profit, which often contributes to a hazardous nightlife scene. This creates an uncomfortable paradox in which establishments are forced to promote alcohol sales while also preventing alcohol-related incidents.
So it’s important to remember that the growth of a city’s music industry isn’t always necessarily positive. Often the development of a music scene can transform neighborhoods and alienate certain members of a community. But it also has the potential to diversify and unite a community in ways that few other industries can. Moving forward, music cities must strive to develop effective strategies that enrich their neighborhoods rather than drive them apart.Top image: Elena Dijour / Shutterstock.com