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.