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Trends: Mastering a music city – Investing in music to boost city economies

By | Published on Friday 17 July 2015

Music City

At CMU Insights @ The Great Escape this year, we invited four music people to deliver a message to the incoming government outlining their priorities for how the UK’s new ministers could best help the music business.

As one of the four speakers, Great Escape co-founder Martin Elbourne urged the government to recognise the value of music not just to the UK-wide economy, but to individual cities and regions too. His speech came on the back of a new conference he had co-launched the previous day, also in Brighton, called Music Cities, which in turn was inspired by the work he did reviewing the music industry of South Australia.

He explained “I spent a year on and off working for the South Australian government, where my official title was the rather grand Thinker In Residence. My topic was live music, which was pretty much non-existent in southern Australia at the time, and we ended up writing a report with about 40 recommendations, most of which are now being implemented”.

“The reason they originally set up the project was because a key venue had shut down, basically the only small venue in Adelaide. But Adelaide’s problem wasn’t really just one venue shutting down – and that venue has now re-opened – but it provided the impetus to review the music community in the city. What we really focused on was trying to stop talented young people moving away to Melbourne and Sydney. We wanted to find a way to cultivate a buzzing city, by attracting culture and tech companies”.

Which is the key point here. Cities with a vibrant music community will not only see social and cultural benefits, it can boost the local economy too, both directly and indirectly, if the right investment and support is provided. A city which properly supports its music community can become a ‘music city’, and then reap the wider rewards.

It’s with this in mind that Canadian record industry group Music Canada, supported by the International Federation Of The Phonographic Industry, recently published a report called ‘Mastering Of A Music City’, previewed at the aforementioned Music Cities conference and subsequently launched at MIDEM, and which provides a manifesto as to how and why cities should be investing in their local music scenes.

There are, of course, a multitude of reasons why a vibrant music community can benefit a city. “The cultural and social benefits have long been known” Music Canada’s Amy Terrill told CMU. “Music has the ability to bridge language, economic and cultural divisions. It is an effective means to engage disadvantaged communities. And obviously music allows us to tell our stories”.

But if the focus needs to be economic in order to attract the attention of legislators, then there are plenty of tangible benefits in that domain too. Terrill: “A music community delivers significant economic benefits, not least increased spending, job creation and music tourism”. Linking music to tourism can be key. “Live music is a unique tourism product because not only do people travel the world to experience live music, but a music scene operates seven days a week, 52 weeks a year”.

But a key message from the Music Cities conference in May was that the economic benefits go beyond the direct jobs created and wealth generated by venues, studios and other music companies. As Elbourne noted, having a strong music industry means local creative talent is more likely to stay local, rather than gravitating to competing urban centres with a more established entertainment business.

And a creative population tends to inspire entrepreneurialism, and to attract individuals and businesses from other sectors, especially tech. Terrill goes on: “A vibrant music scene helps communities with youth retention and, in fact, attracts young talented workers no matter their profession, which also helps attract the companies that employ those young workers. Cities like Austin, Seattle and Berlin link growth in their high tech industries to the music economy, for instance”.

But how can music communities who currently feel unrecognised, and unloved, by their city authorities convince the powers that be about the benefits? “Hopefully this report will be helpful in that regard” says Terrill, “because it provides concrete examples of the benefits enjoyed by cities that have supported the growth of their music economy”.

She goes on: “Municipal politicians want to see the economic benefits in particular. Communities, no matter their size, are in competition for investment and talent. Linking a vibrant music scene to these objectives by citing specific examples from other communities will help demonstrate its value”.

Another message from the Music Cities conference was the importance of exposing political decision makers to their local music community’s output. “Getting city officials and politicians out to experience music, or tour recording studios or labels, also helps to better inform them of the power of our industry. And we have found that there are music lovers and hobby musicians everywhere, including within city halls”.

Assuming a city ‘gets’ the cultural and economic benefits a thriving music community can deliver, what does it need to do to help local musicians thrive? The Music Canada report has seven key proposals, not all of which involve writing cheques, though some investment is likely required along the way.

Except, of course, there are some things money can’t buy, which poses the question, what does a city need in terms of an organic music community if it has ambitions to become a ‘music city’. Terrill advises: “We identified five key elements and some ‘nice-to-haves’. Clearly it starts with artists and musicians. Artists tend to cluster organically as a result of the collaborative nature of making music”.

Of course this is more likely to happen if there are affordable places for musicians to live, record, rehearse and perform. And that means, Terrill says “venues that serve artists at every stage of their career and a receptive audience that supports those artists. Other things that really help are a distinctive music history or identity, and support and attention from all levels of government”. Which brings us to the report’s seven formal proposals for wannabe music cities.

Music friendly policies
Up top on the list is ‘music-friendly and musician-friendly policies’. Says the report: “Government policies have a direct impact on the ability of music businesses such as live performance venues, recording studios and rehearsal spaces to operate sustainably. Business licensing, liquor licensing, transportation planning and parking, as well as land-use planning all have an impact on the health of the music economy”.

It’s perhaps interesting that the first big proposal in this report doesn’t really involve budding music cities in spending any extra money, it’s more about cutting any red tape that is getting in the way. Obviously city councils have to balance competing interests, meaning this is never as easy as you would like. Though even taking that into account, sometimes the music community – admittedly often through poor representation – feels like it is unfairly treated.

A common issue is noise restrictions placed on thriving music venues because of complaints raised by local residents, which might be understandable complaints, though it’s particularly irritating when a venue has been running for years, possibly decades, and it is relatively new neighbours who raise objections.

Many commentators have noted of late the more-frequent-than-you’d-like trend whereby venues help transform run down parts of a city into a cultural hub, which makes the district a more desirable place to live, which sends up property prices, which brings in new residents who complain about the noise.

One solution to this, currently being pitched to the UK government by the Musicians’ Union, is an ‘agent of change rule’, that says any developers converting buildings next to venues into residential properties must also pay for any sound proofing needed at said venue to ensure it’s not the subject of future licensing issues. On a local level, a licensing authority that spots the new-neighbours-new-issues trend and does what it can to protect long-established live music haunts is a good start.

The next two proposals are also more about approach than money, though this is where some modest expenditure may be required: a music officer and an advisory board.

The music industry can be a complicated place, though no more complicated than the average local authority. For each side, the other’s world seems impenetrable. This can cause all sorts of communication issues – so often the real cause of problems for music people – which is where a bespoke music officer supported by a music advisory board that sits between the city and the local music community plays a role.

Says Terrill: “It’s important that a city opens up dialogue with its music community. This is best accomplished by a music advisory board that can address the regulatory impediments facing music. Meanwhile, day to day, the music community often has trouble navigating city hall, which is why a music officer, or wider ‘music office’, has also been effective in many cities”.

Expanding on what the advisory board might look like, the music cities report says that these committees “are typically composed of representatives from a broad cross-section of the music community, but also often include professionals engaged in related industries such as tourism and economic development”.

Good communication isn’t just needed between the city and the music community, often there needs to be more talking within the community itself, which is the report’s fourth proposal: “engaging the broader music community to get their buy-in and support”. This may be a second role for the advisory board and the music office.

Says the report: “Collaboration across the different segments of the music community doesn’t always come naturally as the sector is composed primarily of small and medium-sized businesses. Many operators of these businesses wear various hats, work only part-time in music, and struggle just to make a living. However, evidence shows that cooperation and collaboration across the sector can lead to significant improvements to the regulatory and business environments”.

People and places
The next two recommendations are where some more significant spend may be required from aspiring music cities, though not necessarily. First, musicians need spaces to learn, rehearse, perform and record.

The report suggests cities audit what facilities are already in place and what is still needed, and then look into how it might help fill the gaps, either directly, or by supporting small businesses which can provide these facilities, or looking at how existing spaces, such as colleges or community halls, could be better used.

The report goes on: “For live performances, a full range of venues is essential to support artists as they advance through their careers – everything from small basement venues to stadiums and all points in between. Frequently, venues and other music businesses
cluster together, enhancing their success. Hubs and accelerators are also proving to be very effective in different cities around the globe”.

By ‘people’ they mean audience. A local population keen to experience and consume music, especially new music, is also important. To an extent this needs to be in place from the outset, and is probably why many established music cities also have large student populations, though an organic music audience can be grown through better marketing, public transport and educational initiatives. “All-ages events can help engage younger audiences” the report also notes, “thereby encouraging youth to develop a lifelong relationship with music”.

Music tourism
In much the same way different stakeholders within the music community need to be brought together for a music city to grow, joined up thinking is also needed within city hall, not least between any music office and the local tourist authority. We noted music tourism as a key potential output of these ventures, though that needs a clear strategy to evolve.

Says the report: “A few cities have developed comprehensive music tourism strategies that involve music-based branding, promotional campaigns, wayfinding apps and other social media strategies, investment in music infrastructure and signage, and programming”. Assessing the outcome of this work then requires a specific focus on the impact of specifically music tourism. “Accurate measurement of music tourism is a common gap” the report notes, “since it is normally grouped with cultural tourism”.

“We set out to provide a road map for music leaders and city officials in communities of all sizes to follow by providing concrete, relevant examples from cities around the world” Terrill says of the motivation behind the Music Canada report.

“This was in response to requests for just this, received after we published a report comparing Austin and Toronto in 2012. The more ‘music-friendly’ and ‘musician-friendly’ communities in the world, the more successful our industry will be, and the more likely artists and musicians will be able to earn a living from their music”.

One key result of the endeavour was demonstrating the value of cities on other sides of the world monitoring and learning from each other’s work. “It was a surprise to see so many similarities throughout the world” Terrill says of the research project, “similar challenges, like gentrification say, are faced by cities on every continent, and similar strategies have been adopted to address them”.