Music Biz 101, Lesson 4: What’s Your Town’s Scene?

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Music as Community Investment

Bar Scene? Tourist Scene? Music Scene? They’re Not the Same

The trendy thing among local and regional planners across the nation is the development of arts–based economies within their territories..

We know that drill by now: incubate and nurture local artsy enterprises along with their supporting nonprofits and voila: communities become well-positioned to finally turn the corner into a thriving post-industrial future. The formula’s simplicity is as appealing as its promised outcome.

Community developers seem to have become part-time arts developers — and vice versa. There are probably a lot of dual degrees out there nowadays.

The origin of this new age approach to local development is known: Richard Florida ‘s 2002 The Rise of the Creative Class sought to determine why some metros are booming while others still lag. He concluded that the successful ones are those best able at attracting this certain breed of cat — which he dubbed creative economy workers.

Tartan Terrors headline First Night Saratoga
Tartan Terrors headline First Night Saratoga

How? Not by the traditional development carrot of firm-based incentives, but instead by the presence of a social, cultural and lifestyle climate that hooks this target group’s desire for experience-based fulfillment in all aspects of life; not just work. After hearing this whistle, the civic hounds were unleashed.

Its subsequent critical and peer pushback notwithstanding, Mr Florida’s scholarship begat a new and loud chorus being chanted by economic developers coast to coast: make and keep these bright-eyed nerds and hipsters happy, and the jobs will follow afterwords. Easy, right?

But, as always, proper execution is the key to the mint.

The typical local strategy for achieving this goal is to approach it as a v2.0 sort of physical infrastructure challenge. Makes sense; given, that’s how these planning types have been educated and trained. It’s that old dogs vs new tricks sort of thing again …

The new “build it and they will come” mantra no longer involves shiny gleaming offices buildings or sewer lines leading to industrial parks, but instead it is funky downtowns with the requisite streetscapes, cafes, farmers’ markets, galleries and performance spaces.

That’s part of the reason why there are now more brewpubs in this nation than there are Elks Clubs. Many have been funded with help from these new true believers drinking the Florida brand of pale ale, in towns and cities both large and small.

There are several examples of this strategy in-motion in our own 518 region of upstate New York: the cities of Hudson, Troy and Schenectady are commonly cited in this context. Each has no doubt improved its downtown look, feel and vibe with increased night owl entertainment and resulting foot traffic. Music can be heard, graphic art can be seen, poetry can be read and chefs are the new rock stars. All is good; right? Well, hold on.

Photo by Frankie Cavone

Framed another way: is this enough? Is successfully creating this particular type of landscape what the New ‘Burgh report card should be based on? The case presented from this corner is: Not Quite.

Yes, the coffee shops, hibachis and brewpubs (especially) are important; when done right. Thankfully, they usually are. But live music scenes are equally important; probably even more so. Yet too often, they are left out of the equation or done poorly. That needs to be re-examined.

We fully subscribe to popular mantra of Music is the Gateway Art. Accordingly, we applaud investments and initiatives with a music-first mindset when it comes to local development thru arts-based strategies.

The execution that is too often the show stopper: this crucial need is deemed locally as already being solved by native cover bands playing in bars and park fests or even the occasional bigger-name acts visiting the local theater.

It often goes like this: “What do you mean, we don’t have a music scene here: have you heard the noise coming from our bar(s) downtown?” We contend that this sort of complacency is a mistake — a very big mistake.

While those mentioned settings can be helpful and desirable for other reasons, what’s really needed in building a true Music Scene (or Music Town) economy is to start with one or more small and mid-sized venues that regularly host original acts: touring, regional and local.

There are literally hundreds of these type performers skipping across the continent at any given moment, presenting a programming alternative to talent buyers that take the time to look for them instead of their lazily writing the “$100 a head” check to the usual party band suspects or (worse) the push button DJ heroes that wear them down for gigs. For the precious few that do make that effort, good things accrue to the larger community — and those people should be both thanked and rewarded.

That’s right: start handing them some public and nonprofit money! Invest in the community by funding programming, venues and presenters.

But why is this type of a “scene” so important to economic, community and arts development — and what exactly makes up said scene? Didn’t we skip that part?

Yes, we did skip that part. The answer: it’s complicated. But the summary version goes like this:

** A scene (music or otherwise) hosts multiple parts of a so-called industry supply chain. In the music world, this includes not only the performers, but also technicians, agents, management, publicists, promoters, studios, publishers, songwriters and more. An industry ecoSystem, if you will, develops and is sustained. Participants attract other participants in what the econ-dev world calls clusters.

The best news? They mostly tend to live, love and work within those same clusters; usually meaning downtown or at least in the greater urban boundary. When it works, it scales and it also attracts and crossbreeds with other arts segments as well as with other creative segments, such as tech and design ecosystems. The result is people that live, work and play in the urban footprint instead of just people that occasionally play there.

The Means to that desired outcome? A Music Scene delivering those aforementioned benefits is developed with the existence of live music stages featuring original and touring acts. It’s that simple. It starts right there. That makes the whole formula work; it’s the first link in the supply chain. Without it, the math falls apart.

That’s different than having a couple bars with grayhairs playing the classic rock of their youth or even a setting with 20 stages hosting 20 cover bands playing to seasonal visitors (yes; we’re looking at you, Saratoga).

The former is a bar scene while the latter is a tourist scene, both with minor or minimal contributions to that desired chain. Neither is necessarily a bad thing, but not all towns want a large locals’ bar zone and not all can be become a tourist trap. But all probably desire a creative economy. The best advice: start with Music.

Now substitute other subsets of the greater Arts Scene umbrella, and similar exercises of differentiating real vs faux ecoSystems can take place. Here’s a relevant exercise for developers and planners, both public and private sector:

If your current “creative class” efforts are attracting suburban office girls that listen to pop music on the radio into town for a Friday night karaoke fix or if it is bringing senior citizens down for matinees showings of Broadway revivals; well, show them a good time and get some sales tax $ out of them. But you’ll never get either of those demo’s to live, work and create stuff downtown – and that right there should be your best-case scenario and end-game goal.

Instead, work on getting that post-grad gal with the arts degree and big fashion dreams in her head that’s into indie electro-shoegazer to come on down. Let her mingle with those neighborhood types that are working, hanging, playing and showing in the nearby galleries and stages or are making a living supporting those that do. Provide her that sort of setting, for she’ll be the more likely one to stay or at least come back in the daylight hours – and you’ll be glad she did. She’ll bring friends.

But you’re not going to accomplish that with horn bands on the patio playing Mustang Sally or the corner art shop offering Thomas Kinkade prints to Jersey weekenders.

In other words, while many communities are playing the Arts Card as a way to jump on the urban renaissance bandwagon, quite often they are playing a weak hand. What some claim to be a vibrant scene or sector is actually a mirage. Hype can easily supplant actual success or even reality (hello again, Saratoga!). Those bluffs need to be called out.

We just did. Economic developers need to get into the arts business. But they must understand that not everything that passes for art will help them build truly vibrant communities. A bar or tourist scene with music in it should not to be confused with a true music scene. Falling into that trap is far too common.

Yes; that includes handing money out to those sectors and makers & shakers in the same way they have long been handing it out to those distribution warehouses, manufacturers and chips fabs they have been happy to please for far too long,

It is all in the economic development profession’s best interest to do so. When directed properly: it’s a better bang for the ole buck.

Let’s keep educating them to that fact.

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