The State of the Music Cities Union
A few years ago, a new term emerged to explore the role of music — industry and otherwise — on how our cities function. The term is called ‘music cities’ and while there is no agreed upon definition, I define it as a city that takes its music seriously and treats it, across policy, regulatory affairs, licensing and environmental health, like it would anything else. Music is often taken for granted in our cities, towns and places. It is everywhere, ubiquitous, always prevalent. But across the globe, changes to building codes, development approvals, misunderstandings and a lack of auditing and assessment are harming music and musicians. As a result, cities only recognise the value of music when certain elements of it are under threat; venues close, artists move away, negative press ensues.
So while the term has been around since the 1950s, cities only began to recognise their role in managing music a few years ago. At the same time, a partner of mine and I started a conference to bring city leaders together to explore what’s wrong, celebrate what’s right and importantly, develop a canon of best practice and knowledge so music can be legitimised, legislated and strategised in urban environments. If we don’t build it in, then we’re stuck bolting it on. The cities that embrace this strategy are beginning to see the benefit and become the most successful cities within their country. Austin remains the US’ fastest growing city above 1m. Melbourne is Australia’s fastest growing city. But growth need not be the only measure of success. Asheville in North Carolina, a city of 100,000, has seen its music output grow at a faster rate than Nashville.
Music is not the only answer to how to create growth, attract entrepreneurs, improve fairness and develop greater community relations, but it’s part of the toolbox, yet it remains something that isn’t as integrated as much as other sectors. This is something I am driven to change, so music is rightly regarded for what it is — an economic generator, tourism driver and key indicator to improve all our lives. This is what this article is about, a redux of what we should be proud of, while also a call to action on where we — as city builders and music professionals — need to go from there. This is my State of the Music Cities Union.
The below are objectives we must all embrace, in order to increase this debate, I ask three questions:
1. What should we be proud of?
2. What needs improvement? And…
3. Where is best to go from here?
I use the word ‘we’ in a general sense. If you love music, want it to thrive when you live and support music as a common good, then I include you in this assessment.
To start, let’s celebrate…
What Should We Be Proud Of:
- Legitimacy: In only a few years, the term ‘music cities’ is normalised. When it is spoken in most council chambers in some parts of the world, there is an understanding of what it is — in the UK, Australia, United States, Canada, some European and Latin / South American countries — the concept that music is important to city development is accepted. Not only is our Music Cities Convention thriving, but other events have popped up, exploring the topic. From Reeperbahn Festival to SXSW, most music conferences also feature content related to the topic. As an example, music featured in SXSW’s new Cities Conference.
- Transference: Slowly but surely, music is being explored as a tool to solve, or assuage, non-music problems. In Jordan, a pilot program using music to deter terrorism is ongoing. The UN is exploring the role of music in sustainable development. Music has been central to creating a fairer, more pro-culture planning policy in the UK. Music has featured at the world’s largest property fair, MIPIM and Smart Cities conference, Smart Cities Expo in Barcelona. The value of music in non-music situations is increasing.
- Collaboration: Like in other sectors, cities are speaking to each other about music. In 2011, Austin and Toronto created an alliance. As has Belfast and Nashville. There is a thriving Indonesian Creative Cities Network, which is using music as a key driver. Alberta in Canada has a fledgling Music Cities Initiative and our own Music Cities Network has 5 member cities. While some of these initiatives lack tangible successes, talking more across linguistic, cultural and geographic barriers is important. This has increased over the last few years.
- Sheer Numbers: The amount of cities exploring music policy has increased tenfold in the past year. Cities as far reaching as Seoul, Brisbane, Brazzaville, Bogota, Chengdu, Huntsville (Alabama) and Lausanne (Switzerland) are developing music policies (note re conflict of interest — Sound Diplomacy is developing some of these). Over 175 cities have attended our Music Cities Events. But this is only a small percentage of the total. It is exponential growth, but there is significant room to improve. But many administrations are realising that a municipality without a music policy is one that’s losing revenue, jobs, tourism and cache, and are doing something about it.
- Night Time Economy: There has been a corresponding growth in the legitimacy of the evening and night time economy, which positively impacts music. Many cities have Night Mayors, Night Czars and otherwise, more are contemplating it. This is good for everyone, music professionals and otherwise. A thriving evening and night time offer that is managed makes cities safer, more transparent and saves resources across multiple government departments. See our Night Time Guide for more info, which we are releasing this week at Tallinn Music Week with our partner, Andreina Seijas (who is an amazing academic).
Now, let’s look at our challenges…
What Needs Improvement?
- Measurement: There remains a significant lack of quantitative, scholarly tested approaches to what the term ‘music city’ means and how its assessed. There have been many music strategies that rely on volunteerism, stakeholder engagement and people going above and beyond their day jobs, which is not sustainable. Few music strategies are commissioning new economic work. New York, London and a few others are exceptions. Many use outdated data, which doesn’t work in a sector that changes everyday. Others ignore or lack capital to commission this important work, leaving strategies to documents that argue for policy without backing up assertions with data. Creating an effective data-driven methodology to assess music in a place is integral. We do this, and we’re constantly improving our processes, as we’re learning what works, what doesn’t and how music and land economics meet. If this continues without data, we will use music strategies to state and verbalise issues without a comprehensive approach to solve them and monitor their progress. Too many of those will delegitimize this field.
- Links With Other Sectors: The music cities approach that is often spoken of is one that has no grounding in the sectors that it is most influenced by, namely planning, licensing, environmental health, urbanism and built environment management. As such, we tend to prioritise specific music industry related issues, rather than explore the role of music on our cities and society as a whole. Some places do not need a music industry, but all places need music, ideally, we’d have both. Most cities have sustainability, green energy, long-term growth and other adjacent strategies, that music must be a part of. I believe we need to incorporate the expertise of others more. It’ll improve the state of music for all of us.
- Rigour and Academia: This will come with time, but needs to happen now. There are only a handful of academic articles pertaining to music cities and no full journals, although one is due to be published later this year. The few that exist are welcome, but are few and far between. In addition, there’s only a handful of courses, all in English, exploring music cities. If we do not create a tested, peer-reviewed approach to music cities policy — maybe in cultural studies, or sociology, or urban planning — we won’t see this taken up as a position by future generations, which will harm all of us. I applaud the academics pursuing music cities policies now (we’re thankful some of them are speaking at our events), but we need more. I throw my hands up as someone who can do better, and I don’t mind being held to account to write and question things more. I hope that as the term and other similar terms expand into our lexicon, there will be a greater call to subject them to academic rigour — which will encourage debate, critical thinking and improved policies.
As we work on what we need to improve upon, I do feel we can chart our direction now, and all be better for it. So, my last question is…
Where should we go from here?
- Let’s Go Beyond Live: There has been a focus on live music within music cities strategies, mainly because live music is the easiest to track, we can see it. This is changing across music industry issues and we’re starting to see the role of music industry activity on other sectors, from advertising to gaming, escape rooms to amusement parks. More cities are exploring the role of music across a wider set of hard and soft infrastructure. Live music is intrinsic to this work, it is at the top of the pile, but the pile is wide and can welcome other sectors, issues and questions. I will continue to improve our practices to recognise this.
- We Must Invest in Health and Wellbeing: Music’s role in our health — physical and mental — remains scientifically proven but poorly adapted in urban planning and policy. To some, music is just seen as a sound issue. Few recognise the value of music in healthy aging, encouraging cognition in babies and toddlers, fighting disease and making us fitter. Imagine an exercise class without music, it’d be a challenge. The value of music across the health and wellbeing sector, from the fitness sector to hospitals, needs more assessment. For example, hospitals in the US are not licensed by performing rights organisations for music. Licensing them would encourage hospitals to use music more deliberately to combat pain, stress and fight disease, and by doing it, artists get paid. I see cities creating music section of their well-being, aging and sustainability strategies sooner than later.
- Remember, Music Tourism is a Thing: We created a conference to explore music and tourism last year, we’ve since held 2 editions and had over 300 businesses, cities and tour operators attend. Many cities rely on music heritage to entice tourists, but music heritage is everywhere. You don’t need to be Nashville, Vienna or New Orleans to capitalise on music tourists. There’s a Depeche Mode bar in Tallinn that welcomes thousands of tourists a year. There’s a statue of Frank Zappa in Lithuania that is a tourist attraction. The corner of Winslow, Arizona drives the economy of the town, due to the Eagles. Music is everywhere, more places will begin to recognise their music.
- We Need to Track: We’ve created a method to track, assess and measure everything we propose to a particular place, to see what works, what doesn’t and how to address issues in real time. This is increasingly important in strategies written to support evening and night time economies, address fairness and transparency and measure ecological and environmental impact. Music, like everything else, leaves a trace. Tracking it will become increasingly important, and this can’t be left to commissions and volunteer music boards, although their existence and experience is important. We need to track music cities policies to improve them. I pledge to do so.
- The Future is Female and Diverse: I believe every music city strategy must pledge to prioritise increasing opportunities for women and people of colour. Increasing diversity is a proven economic driver and music — our only globally universal language — is best told by as many people from as many backgrounds as possible. All boards and commissions should be diverse and gender equal. This should be happening now, in every city.
I am writing this post to celebrate 5 years of Sound Diplomacy, the company my partner Jordi and I founded long before the term ‘music cities’ was popularised. We are lucky that we have been able to be a part of this change, but this is only beginning. We must all improve, because all decisions made related to music affect artists the most, and if they aren’t happy and supported than every dollar, pound, euro or peso invested in music does not see a return.
So, let’s continue to write, speak, yell and badger, because music is important. Music, to me, is a basic human right. Music is as important as water, air, land and human contact. We are all born with an instrument, let’s use it to make our cities better, wherever we are.