In this piece Allen Bargfrede explores the relationship between cities and their music and how that relationship works to shape a city’s culture and ethos, whether by accident or through intentional branding.
I travel a lot, for both business and pleasure. I’m always struck by how music, and the sheer presence of it, impacts the culture and ethos of a city. Cities like Nashville and London have a rich musical history dating back a century or more. Austin bills itself as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” Memphis is known as the home of the blues, and the “Detroit sound” was widely celebrated for many years. In some cases, legacy industries and a bit of luck have made certain cities into music and cultural capitals of the world — but in many cases, it’s built into the brand of the city by a conscious decision.
As I write this, I’m in Nashville, also known as “Music City USA.” I’ve also recently been in LA, Portland, and Houston – and all four cities have airport music installations. While the music in each airport varies, with country in Nashville and classical in Houston, the attempted effect is the same. New York is currently in the midst of New York Music Month, a citywide celebration of New York’s diverse and thriving music sector, offering free concerts, free rehearsal space, and conference focused on urban development and music.
Some cities have seen the value of music and taken aggressive action to build their city’s brand around it. Vigo, in Northwest Spain, made a conscientious decision in the 1950’s, and again in the 1980’s, to pursue a musical heritage through the development of multiple music conservatories and live venues. Another Spanish city, Bilbao, felt that arts and culture were so vital that it pushed to acquire the first international Guggenheim museum in the 1990’s. The city is now making a sustained new effort with the BIME festival for music and gaming each fall – fully supported by the local government. The gamble has paid off in both places, with Vigo now a “must-stop” for small to mid-size touring acts and Bilbao’s transformation from a sleepy industrial Basque city to an internationally known center for arts.
A recent study, The Mastering of a Music City, from the International Federation of the Phonograph Industry (IFPI) and Music Canada found the key elements of a music city to be: 1) artists and musicians 2) a receptive audience 3) music industry businesses 4) access to spaces and 5) a thriving music scene. Building a music city “builds GDP and tourism revenue, while at the same time increasing the quality of life and attracting a highly educated workforce.”
What do you think of when hear a city’s name, like Nashville, or Austin, or LA? What can your city do with music?