Music Cities Convention: Memphis

In October, we held the fifth edition of our Music Cities Convention alongside Music Export Memphis and Memphis Music Initiative in the birthplace of rock 'n' roll and the home of the Blues - Memphis, Tennessee.

The event was a sell-out. 215 attendees travelled to Memphis from 5 continents, 10 countries and over 50 cities. We had an incredibly busy three days with 37 speakers bringing their music city expertise to six presentations, five panels, roundtable sessions and two event receptions!

The convention kicked-off with an opening reception at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and Memphis Slim Collaboratory, allowing the delegates to absorb some of the music history that Memphis has to offer. The Recording Academy: Memphis Chapter partnered with the event to provide entertainment from the world-renowned Stax Recording Academy graduates, as well as superb local food and drinks.

MCC - Memphis

After this crash course into Memphis’ musical history, the following day saw the full 225 delegates descend on the Halloran Centre for a day of presentations and panels, with discussions and talks ranging from ‘Every City Needs a Music Strategy: Artists as Leaders’ to ‘Chengdu Music City’ to ‘Understanding Audiences: The Role of the Consumer in our Music Ecosystems’. Coffee was provided by the excellent local roaster Edge Alley Coffee and food by local favourites, Sweet Potato Baby.

MCC - Memphis Panel

After the day’s talks, we had a special surprise for the delegates and one of the highlights of the event! Local musicians the Memph Orleans Street Symphony were ready and waiting to lead the group down the road to our main event reception at the Blues Hall of Fame Museum - you can check out footage of this in our event video at the bottom of this article! For the reception we partnered up with upcoming Music Cities Convention hosts State of Victoria: City of Melbourne and Lafayette Convention & Visitors Commission to provide our delegates with amazing drinks, food and conversation, which was a fitting end to a great day.

MCC - Procession

The final day of the convention included a half-day of roundtable sessions for a limited capacity of 80 delegates. Topics that were discussed included ‘Music Ecosystems of the Future: What Has to be Improved to Develop a Forward-Thinking Music Policy City?’, ‘Access to Music for Everyone’ and ‘Designing Music-Friendly Noise Regulations and Policies’ which was presented in partnership with expert Don Pitts the CEO of Sound Music Cities.

MCC - Roundtables

The team at Sound Diplomacy then ended the three days with a special VIP speaker trip to the former home of Elvis, Graceland. We had an amazing time, but some of the delegation had an even better time...

MCC - Jackets

We’ve now launched our two 2018 Music Cities Convention events, so head to our website for more information and updates. Check out the Music Cities Memphis video here


Sound Diplomacy on the Road: Seoul

Over the past two months Sound Diplomacy has travelled to Seoul in different capacities. We are always excited to come to Seoul, it truly lives up to its reputation as a 24 hour city. In Seoul, cultural activities, from performances to digital installations, are awaiting the curious mind around every corner.


Being invited to speak at Seoul Music Cities Connection, I traveled to Seoul to present some of our work and discuss best practice and policies for Music Cities with the local music industry, researchers and city representatives. The event took place at Platform 61, a three storey space built from shipping containers in the north-west of Seoul. Opened in 2016, the space includes recording studios, artist residencies and a concert venue. As part of the conference, there were also some music showcases. I was especially impressed by the performances around Hyewon Choi, Songhee Kwon and Seayool Kim, Songhee Pansori Lab, building on their traditional background in gugak music with more contemporary influences.

During my time in Seoul I managed to visit some other creative spaces. I was most impressed by the Oil Tank Culture Park, which opened a week before my visit and is close to the World Cup Stadium.  The 140,000 m2 space hasn’t been open to the public for over 40 years. The whole area comprises of six oil tanks that have been renewed over the few last years and now offer indoor and outdoor concert spaces, exhibition spaces, a community center and much more. On Friday evening I visited Seoul Art Space Gumcheon, a former telephone factory that had been regenerated into a  multi-functional arts space in 2009. They were hosting a special night with some of their local and international residents and other performers, including a great performance by Seoul artist KIRARA.

Mystik, one of my favorite clubs from my last visit had unfortunately closed, but the city is still bustling with lots of other venues and spaces. Since my last visit the owners of Cakeshop have expanded and grown their existing space with Contra, next to its smaller location called Pistil, offering a wider variety of musical styles. I was amazed by vurt and volnost, clubs that are hidden away in residential buildings behind seemingly hidden doors, soundproofed, offering a space for Korean and international artists.

If you are interested in diving deeper into Seoul’s electronic music scene, I recommend spending some time on Seoul Community Radio, who are operating out of a Itaewon. On my visit to their studio, I managed to catch a set by Disco Experience. I also recommend the hidden-away record store Clique Records. It wasn’t easy to find, but if you are lucky you will also be treated to a concert on their rooftop.


After mu:con last year, this was my second visit to Seoul. There are still many more places and areas I haven’t mentioned or didn’t get to visit. Thanks to the organisers of Seoul Music Cities Connection and all of the other people who showed me around during my visit to Seoul.

Sound Diplomacy on the Road: Bilbao

Last month, Sound Diplomacy’s Berlin team travelled to Bilbao to attend BIME Pro - one of Spain’s leading international music industry networking and music & tech conferences.

Bilbao is a former industrial powerhouse and busy port located in the Basque country in northern Spain. Hit hard by severe economic recession in the 90s, the city has since moved on from its industrial past and successfully reinvented itself as a culture & services hub.

We observed this innovative and friendly local spirit in the variety of Bilbao’s music places - from impromptu community choir performances in the historic urban hub, pintxos hotspot Plaza Nueva and raw energy heavy metal shows in Bilborock - a former church-turned-community centre - to the grandiosity of the BEC Exhibition Centre, a multi-use fari and sports arena built in 2005.

Home to both BIME Pro and BIME Live - the two-day music festival responsible for bringing legendary artists to Bilbao - the scale of BEC allows for a true ‘big festival’ experience. Our personal highlights this year included the colossal, yet intimate performance by German industrial veterans Einstürzende Neubauten and the sheer happiness that Orbital brought to our inner 90s ravers. There was nothing better to wrap up a busy three days packed with inspiring panels on the future of music, the launch of Keychange - a European initiative to empower women in the music industry, and BIME City - the showcase programme for emerging artists, ranging from French psychedelic combos to Colombian techno producers.


Photo credits: Javi Muñoz Pacoto and Sound Diplomacy

Why Cities Should Be Planned for Night – and Not Just Day

This article first appeared in NewCities

Image: toyechkina - Adobe 

Image: toyechkina - Adobe 

The Anglo-Saxon planning system that guides our towns and cities in North America is not fit for purpose. The reason I say this is that the rules and guidelines that determine what is built where and why ignores the length of our day. The concept and practice of planning urban areas is tailored almost exclusively to daytime functions. This means, intentionally or not, the needs of the nighttime are overlooked from a planning perspective. This creates significant tension in our town centres and central business districts around the world.

This is one of the primary reasons cultural and entertainment venues are struggling in city centres around the world. In London, one-third of all music venues have closed in the last ten years and around half of all nightclubs. In Toronto, seven music venues have closed in 2017 alone. These trends are echoed everywhere. If these challenges are addressed in planning, we can surmise that two opposing needs of urban residents at night – those who want to sleep and those who want to go out – are not considered at the same time and place, making it difficult to consciously cater for both. Planning, being a blunt tool, classifies commercial, industrial or residential, leaving little leeway for culture as growing pressure on living space means residential areas are encroaching into crowded urban areas, putting residents closer to entertainment or commercial uses. If managed appropriately through mixed-use planning, strict guidelines and modern development practices, this would energise our towns and cities.  Instead, in practice, it leads to noise complaints, ordinances, infractions and conflicts.

No one individual is to blame and there is no single reason why businesses close their doors. But, if we take a closer look at our cities’ blueprints and explore how our cities are mapped, designated and planned, planning for nighttime is frighteningly absent. While all cities need more homes for more people, the cultural reasons many of us choose life in cities are under threat. I believe this boils down to the historical framework that guides how we plan. If we plan for the daytime but license at night, we create a reactionary system after 7:00 p.m. where everyone loses. If buildings are not fit for purpose, for example, or allowed to be constructed without considering their local environment, those that inhabit them are affected. It makes it incredibly difficult to positively plan for all scenarios.

We need a global, 24-hour planning system to ensure we are building better towns and cities for us all, whatever activities we choose to participate in after 7:00 p.m. There are many examples of city leaders demonstrating tools and mechanisms that work through planning. In San Francisco, the city entertainment licensing agency, the San Francisco Entertainment Commission, are statutory consultees on planning applications within 300 feet of an entertainment premises. This includes condos, office blocks and hotels. In London, music venues are being planned within mixed use developments from the very beginning of the master planning process, including one in Vicarage Field in the city’s eastern suburbs and the Old Vinyl Factory, in the west. In New York City, the Mayor is creating a Nighttime Ambassador position to tackle a host of issues including burdensome regulations for licensed operators. In the United States alone, over 40 cities have a Nighttime Mayor or a Nighttime Manager. The State of Florida is even developing a network to support them. Much of this work is about compliance, policing, safety and noise, but it legitimises a need to plan at night – and provides the appropriate support to manage this plan.

Much of this is framed around the need to increase nightlife, but this is not the case. It is about legitimising, planning and thinking about life at night – from now into the future – and how it affects the places we choose to live. Only London has a vision for developing and managing its nighttime economy – and it is less than one month old – a document that proactively projects and proposes a plan, rather than waiting for something to happen. This is just beginning. Every city should plan all day, all 24 hours, and while life at night means something different in each city, every city experiences night, and it is the same amount of time for all of us.

Why isn't music urbanism a thing?

This article first appeared in CityMetric

In Colorado a few years ago, a non-profit teamed up with the Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) to tackle issues of truancy among high schoolers in a deprived part of Denver. Along with building new social housing and offering affordable, below-market rent to some of the tenants, the partnership hired a number of professional musicians to teach music production at an after-school program, housed on the ground floor of one of the developments.

The program, called Youth on Record, taught songwriting, production, DJ and other skills, and its success was staggering. The high school truancy rate of those attending the after-school program was cut in half, as they weren’t allowed to attend if they didn’t go to regular classes. In addition, a new income stream was created for local musicians who were paid to teach. Since the school was first set-up, the organisation has recorded albums, staged a community festival and improved the lives of hundreds of residents.

Halfway across the country, the famed STAX Museum and Soulsville USA Foundation in Memphis opened the “Memphis Slim Collaboratory” across the street from the museum, teaching local kids how to play, perform and record. In addition, they created a new music district, which promotes the history while supporting emerging talent. Their work led to the creation of the Memphis Music Magnet, a community organisation aimed at reclaiming derelict buildings and turning them over to music and the arts.

Heading east, in an industrial area outside downtown Boston, The Record Co. outfitted an industrial warehouse into a recording studio, offering cheap rehearsal and recording space for the city’s independent and DIY music community. Six years on, the studio operates at full capacity, has hosted over 1000 recording sessions over the past 12 months alone and has been approached by a number of landowners to create similar spaces, including commissioning a feasibility study to set up a grassroots music venue in the city. 

In Detroit, a number of residents across both music and real estate are turning the city centre around by creating music-led spaces in abandoned warehouses. Led by techno pioneer Dmitri Hagemann, who made his name at Berlin’s Tresor nightclub, the Detroit Music Foundation and the mayor’s Head of Customer Service, the city is looking at how music – in both its heritage and future – can be a tool in fostering regeneration, community activism and economic development. This includes creating a talent development partnership with Berlin and establishing awards, a museum and an ongoing public discourse on music’s role in rebuilding the city.

These programs are becoming more of the norm, rather than the exception. They fall under an emerging topic in placemaking and music industry circles, called ‘music cities’. Reports have been written, conferences are held and cities around the world – from Cape Town to Toronto, Santiago and Brisbane – are grappling with the concept of music’s role on urban development, placemaking and regeneration. When you expand upon questions of how to grow one’s industry or create new music or cultural festivals and investigate further, I believe that there’s an argument to develop a new body of scholarship and debate in city and urban studies. Let’s call it music urbanism.

If cities are living organisms ebbing and flowing within a changing, integrated ecosystem, then music is an indicator that can be used to measure the health and vitality of such an ecosystem. It’s widely acknowledged that music and a thriving evening and night time economy attracts tourists, increases vibrancy and builds competitiveness, but we must go further. Looking at music’s impact on the value of land and the health of communities can demonstrate an impact even greater than measuring vibrancy.

If one attaches music to urbanism – learning about the complex organisms that our cities are, and about how they operate – it provides unique insight into understanding the types of cities we want, compared to the types of cities we often create. Music is a proven tool to reduce social exclusion and loneliness. Taught with the same vigour as maths and sciences, it improves cognition and empathy. It enhances the perception of safety, such as when classical music is aired in subway stations during rush hour. It activates public realm and squares.

But we are not measuring this value. Music’s role in creating better cities, improving sustainability and promoting engagement is only ever loosely analysed. It is more often measured on the growth of the music industry – an important but not entirely inclusive analysis. The value of music per square foot of land, for example, is not considered; nor is the impact of the health of the music program down the street to the grassroots music venue on the corner or the impact of music on a city’s building codes, ordinances and regulations.

If we could predict these values, we could plan better. Otherwise, we can only treat music as an end-user use, implanted into a situation after the questions surrounding land, built environment, regulation, community boards, economic impact, viability and servicing have been answered.

Music is a unique tool to better understand how our cities are changing for better and worse for all of us. Music is often the first use to go in a newly regenerated area, or the first cultural form to be implemented in areas that needs regeneration. Most cities still interpret their planning and zoning laws to prioritise the value of land over what happens inside the building, and music venues, studios and recording spaces are not the most valuable uses of land in such a definition.

In addition, as cities become denser, what is sound and music to one person can be interpreted as noise by another. Despite living in closer quarters, we all need to sleep, and music venues are often the first victims when those of us who used to go out now have kids, jobs in the morning and grey hair.

If we trained and supported music urbanists, these challenges could be seen as what they are: scholarly problems that require research, market testing, intervention, policy and analysis. If we see music from the lens of an urbanist and vice-versa, music’s role could be blossomed across cities, positively impacting all our lives, as we all understand and acknowledge music, whatever language we speak.

So: I volunteer to be the first music urbanist. Please join me, and we can learn together.

On building a music city

This article first appeared in Hypebot

Image: Fototrips - Adobe Creative Cloud

Image: Fototrips - Adobe Creative Cloud

Over the past few years, there have been dozens of articles, talks, seminars and reports concerning how we define and then proliferate, for our collective benefit, the term ‘music cities’. Its evolution is inspiring. It is needed that we, as a music sector, peer above the parapet, so to speak, to look at how what we do - in all our roles - can be a tool to make the places we live better. This is because the term ‘music cities’, in its simplest form, is about improving quality of life. Whether you work in the business or not, music is best as a positive force in one’s life, from a path to paying our bills to a medium that brings us joy. Combining our industry with urban planning, city policy and regulatory affairs is a way to do this, and open up this conversation further to incorporate more disciplines, including placemaking practice, public space usage, licensing, architecture and cultural affairs. And music is winning, as the term is becoming part of the general, urbanism lexicon. When the phrase ‘music cities’ is included in something, it is better understood. That is good for all of us.  

But we’re only beginning this journey, and frankly we (by ‘we’ I mean anyone interested in the topic) have work to do. As my day-to-day life is immersed in this topic, I often receive calls or emails from city representatives asking me, ‘how do I become a music city’. This idea that there’s a process to becoming a music city, baffles me. The work here is not in becoming a music city, or town, or hamlet, or country; it is in recognising that everyone and every place already is a music city. It is not the music itself that’s at play. That’s prescriptive, and anyone is free to enjoy their definition of music, wherever they live. It’s the laws both within and external of the music sector that defines the success or failure of a place in harnessing its music output. All cities have music, but not all cities incorporate music into planning and regulatory structures that determine how we all live together in this growing built environment. If a city, town or hamlet has people, it has music. If a city has public space, it has music. If there’s music in an elevator in a city office block, there is music. If someone, somewhere down the street from you right now is humming a tune, or whistling, there’s music. Music is everywhere. Therefore, instead of asking ‘how do we become music cities’, we must ask ‘what policy is lacking to support our cities’ music?’. And in this question, we have to differentiate that supporting the industrial side of music is only one aspect of supporting music. We all have to work to develop a more sustainable music industry. I believe that influencing, rewriting and redeveloping urban regulation is a way to do that. But if we lack land uses to develop talent, we lose. If we don’t understand planning and zoning codes and recognise how music fits into these systems, we lose. If we do not propose solutions that fit within existing planning, regulatory and land allocation plans, we lose. The music is still there, but it’s not maximised culturally, economically or socially to do the most good for all involved.  

Not all talent needs to end up in the industry for music to benefit. But music should be available to all, to encourage all to better value the talent we have. Cities that do not prioritise, or make mandatory music education from nursery through to high school are losing revenue and creating a less sociable community. Those that do not recognise their music heritage and convert it into a tourism offer are losing experiences, as well as increased income. But even if cities do neither, they are still music cities; just ones losing skills, jobs, talent and taxes.

This is why I believe we need to recognise music as infrastructure. Similar to roads, bridges, airports, schools and hospitals, music is a societal right that improves wellbeing if deployed and managed correctly. If we focus on music’s role in how land is used, how basic tools, structures and buildings should be built and maintained to ease user experience, talent develops quicker. If we actively engage in cultural dialogue through music, more people visit and spend. Music, as infrastructure, improves. We all benefit. If we look at music as infrastructure, we can convert passive music cities to active ones.  

So in asking ‘how do I become a music city’, the infrastructure argument often loses to one concerned more with branding and recognition, over process and policy. Branding is important, but it is ephemeral and needs revisiting every few years. That’s why when I pick up the phone, my answer to that question always is, ‘you are a music city. But do you think about your music in the same way you think about your schools, roads and hospitals?’ Remember, potholes do not fill themselves.