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.