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  • Rochelle Beiersdorfer

Episode 1: Music Cities 101

Picture this: you're walking through the streets of a small city, taking in the sights, smells, and sounds. You continue down the road, and from a parked car's radio hear: Welcome to today's show in this glorious music city.


Music city? What is a music city?


Hello, and welcome to LSGS, a three- part podcast about music cities. I'm your host, Rochelle Beiersdorfer, an MA Journalism student at Oxford Brookes University in Oxford, England. In this first episode, we're going to explore the development of music cities, what the term means, the academic research around it, and how the music city paradigm is implemented in the real world. I hope by the end of this episode you will have a better understanding of what Music City means and how music-centric initiatives are implemented in cities around the globe.


But before we get into the meat of this episode, there's one thing that needs to be clarified. Being that this podcast is the artifact for my graduation project, the framework for this trilogy is going to be similar to a dissertation. So while listening to this three-part chronicle, think of it as an audible dissertation.


Now, let's explore what makes a city a musical one.


When I first heard the term music city in 2019, I thought it meant any city with either national or international recognition for its music scenes or for being the birthplace of a musical style.


You know, like Nashville for country music, Seattle, Washington for grunge rock, or depending on what side of the pond you are on, New York or London for punk rock. But the more I thought about the phrase, the more I started to wonder if every city in the world with flourishing music communities wasn't entitled to be called a music city.


For instance, Cleveland, Ohio, with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is referred to as the Rock and Roll capital of the world. So, what exactly warrants a city being recognized as a music city? And how is the research around it categorized? In the 2016 article Music Scenes and Self Branding (Nashville and Austin), the academic and culture journalist, Andrea Baker defines five key areas.


Of these five key areas, four of them are pertinent to how a city can claim the status of Music City. If you're wondering, the fifth deals with a lack of geographical research. Anyways, the four applicable ways are:


1. Government policy and economic development that's centered around music.


2. Self-declaration as a music city through press releases and marketing campaigns.


3. Being recognized as a music city through an official accreditation process. from a national or international reputable organization, such as UNESCO. UNESCO has an accreditation program called Cities of Music Network. We'll explore this network more in the second episode of this three part podcast.


4. A city establishes itself as a music city. By forming a kinship with a municipality that is already recognized as a music city. This sistering between cities is based on the wannabe music city getting knowledge on how to either become a music city or on how to boost their national or even international standing as a music city through knowledge being passed down from the established music city. For instance, Nashville, whose nickname is Music City USA, has a few sister cities. One such city is the rap music capital of China, Chengdu.


Now, before we dig into the first key area of government policy and economic development, let's discuss the second area of self-declaration a little bit. When it comes to self-branding, Austin, Texas, and Nashville, Tennessee are probably the most notable cities that have claimed themselves cities of music.


Just Google "music city" and you'll get pages upon pages of results all about Nashville and how music has been an integral part of the city's cultural and social fabrics since the very beginning. Nashville having the nickname of Music City is usually credited to three very different sources. Queen Victoria, a local Nashville radio station, and Johnny Cash.


The story with Queen Victoria is that in 1873, after sitting a performance by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an African American a cappella troupe from the historically black college of Fisk University, she supposedly commented that they must come from a music city. Then, in the 1950s, a local radio station named WSM had a program that was first called Music City, and later, Music City, USA. Now, how is the man in black a contestant for being the one who gave Nashville this nickname? Well, airing from 1969 until 1971, Johnny Cash had his very own TV show. Cleverly named "The Johnny Cash Show," he would start every episode with a dialogue welcoming watchers to Music City, Nashville, Tennessee.


Now, let's go 860 miles from Nashville to another city that branded itself as a music city in the 20th century. This city is Austin, Texas, and when it comes to Austin, the story goes that this state capital has seen itself as a music mecca for decades. Today it's probably internationally known mostly for the South by Southwest Festival, which started in 1987. According to an article by KUT 90. 5's website, that's Austin's local NPR station, Austin was calling itself Second Nashville as far back as the 70s.


And in 1988, a year after the first South by Southwest festival, the local government founded the Austin Music Commission, an advisory board whose interests are with the local music industry. Then, on August 29th, 1991, during a council meeting, Austin city officials declared the city the Live Music Capital of the World, based on surveys of Austin's venues. Today, according to Visit Austin, Austin's tourism website. Austin has hundreds of venues scattered around the city and surrounding areas.


Besides self-branding through marketing, there's also cities that have earned the title of music city over time through an organic process of just being cultural hubs where creative people want to flock to.


In a 2015 article entitled The Geography of Pop Music Superstars, the academic Richard Florida states that there are really only three major superstar music cities: New York City, London, and Los Angeles. Based on a research and analysis done by a, at the time, PhD student in urban planning named Patrick Adler, Florida shows just how much star power these three cities really have.


As Florida states, and I quote: “Together, New York, London, and Los Angeles lay claim to almost two-thirds (63.2 percent) of pop’s biggest hit-makers from 1950 to 2014.” New York, London and LA's star-making power hasn't run out. Since 2017 NME has published annually a 100 emerging artist to watch list and every year musicians from and/or based in New York, London or L. A. have been taking the list by storm. In 2017, 53 of the 100 artists included on the list were collectively from these superstar cities. This year, it was 31. Please bear in mind that NME is a UK-based music media outlet. So the vast majority of bands included on these lists hail from the UK. With that in mind though, of the 100 artists profiled on the list every year, at least a quarter of them are from London.


When it comes to economic growth through the use of music, The scholar Richard Florida is a major player and is someone who all the scholars works that I read for this podcast kept citing because of how music city initiatives, generally speaking, are driven by government officials with the sheer desire to boost their city's economic growth through creative means. You know, the first reason that Andrea Baker said for the research and how it's categorized?


So you might be asking yourself right now, who is Richard Florida? And why is he a major player? Well, Richard Florida is significant because of a cultural economic theory he proposed in the early 2000s. And this theory has become the skeleton to a lot of the research and urban development initiatives that are not just with music but with creative mediums in general.


In 2002, Florida published a book called The Rise of the Creative Class where he argues that cities who nurture their creative class will flourish. In other words, this theory states that there is a causal relationship between the creative class and economic driven population growth in U. S. cities. And although we all have the innate capability to be creative, which Florida admits, by creative class, he means the class that has the opportunity to be creative at a professional level. This would obviously include every type of artist, such as musicians, but also includes scientists, businessmen, and healthcare professionals. Pretty much anyone who works in a profession that requires them to think critically and creatively on a daily basis makes them a member of the creative class. Or at least that's my takeaway.


At the time of publication in 2002 of The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida's research found that around 30 percent of America's workforce could be categorized as a member of the creative class. In 2019, Florida wrote in a Bloomberg CityLab article that America's creative class two years earlier had made up more than half of the labor force in big cities.


So, how does Florida suggest cities lure creative people to them? Well, Florida suggests that in order for a city to entice the creative class to move to that city, the city needs to possess three T's: talent, technology, and tolerance. That was the original grouping of T's. But, in the 2012 edition of Florida's book, he added a fourth T, territorial assets.


This new addition was in response to criticism of his theory not being conscious of social issues around the areas of class, race, and geography. Territorial assets of a city would be the value given to a physical area, so think social, cultural, environmental resources. And the physical condition of a city, so think the development and preservation of land. In sum, Florida's four Ts of talent, technology, tolerance, and now territorial assets pretty much just covers the factors that would make any artsy individual want to move to a particular city. But, getting creative residents isn't the only aim of Florida's theory.


In a sort of trickle-down-economic-esque way, Florida's theory illustrates how if a city has a prosperous economy based on culture, this can in turn create a profitable and sustainable tourism industry. This latter point is an uber important element when it comes to the music city development plans.


There are various projects and initiatives set out to give cities guidance on how to brand themselves as a music city. Throughout my research for this podcast, four entities kept popping up. The first was UNESCO, which we will explore in the next episode. Another one was the international firm Sound Diplomacy, which works with municipalities to help them develop their cultural economy through a process of first doing an analysis of the city's music sector, and then creating a growth strategy tailored to that city. Besides doing city by city expansion plans, Sound Diplomacy also publishes manuals on music city development and hosts events around the world through their subcompany Music Cities Events. The other two bodies that kept popping up was Music Canada, a non-profit organization that, as they put it on their website, "is a passionate advocate for music and those who create it," and IFPI, which is another non-profit organization whose interests are in the recording industry. IFPI stands for the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.


In the summer of 2015, IFPI and Music Canada released what seems to be the holy grail handbook on music city initiative plans. This handbook is called The Mastering of a Music City: Key Elements, Effective Strategies, and Why It's Worth Pursuing. This "roadmap" for how a city can become a music city defines a music city as a municipality with "a vibrant music economy." Within its 106 pages, this manual explains through a list of essential, important, and relevant elements how a city can realize music city status. These elements are, at the essential level: 1. “artists and musicians, 2. a thriving music scene, 3. access to spaces and places, 4. a receptive and engaged audience and 5. record labels and other music-related business.” The components that are deemed important are "multi-level government support for music, broader city infrastructure, and music education." Lastly, the relevant elements that are found in most cities already widely acknowledged as music cities are "music history and identity, music tourism and recognition for music as an economic driver, strong community radio supporting local independent music, and a distinct local sound or sounds."


As the UK academic Toby Bennett rightly points out in his 2020 article The Justification of a Music City, Handbooks, Intermediaries, and Value Disputes in a Global Policy Assemblage, IFPI and Music Canada's strategy puts huge importance on the live music industry. However, as the scholars Christina Ballico and Dave Carter stress in their article A state of constant prodding: live music, precarity and regulation, and I quote: "The live sector is a vital way through which the pulse of a local music scene can be gauged."


Besides putting a lot of weight on a local live music sector, IFPI and Music Canada's handbook and others like it put a lot of importance on how local music economies can grow through tourism. You know, that uber important point from Florida's work? For example, The Mastering of a Music City… has a whole section on music related tourism and the benefits this type of tourism could bring to a city.


As the manual states, tourism is a major market and, I quote, "the worldwide growth in tourism has spawned intensified competition for tourist dollars." The manual claims that, and I quote again, "more and more cities are leveraging their music scene to draw visitors and the economic benefits they bring." An interesting example of this would be how Canada is using music to boost tourism in the cities of Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, and Vancouver.


In October of 2022, Destination Canada, Canada's government agency for tourism, released a campaign in collaboration with Spotify that, through an interactive website, allows potential tourists to explore eight trip options in a sort of choose your own Canadian adventure style quiz. Called Turn It Up or Take a Breath, you can either plan a trip to one of the four cities already mentioned, based on your music taste, or book a trip off the grid to unwind with the sounds of nature in rural Canada. If you choose one of the four music meccas, Spotify's API technology will generate a personal playlist based on the city you select with artists from that city.


In a 2013 article called Why Get Involved? Finding Reasons for Municipal Interventions in the Canadian Music Industry, the scholar Richard Sutherland writes when discussing Canada's government involvement in the music industry, that, and I quote, " “the national scope of music industry policy has implications for its effects at a local level. These policies have their greatest impact in existing centres such as Toronto (still the location of most of Canada’s recording industry) and Montreal, as well as, to a much lesser extent, Vancouver. This makes these policies less relevant for Calgary’s still nascent music industry. Indeed, the city, along with the rest of the province of Alberta, secures much less funding from federal programmes than its share of the population would suggest (Sutherland 2013).”


Hmm. Now if you're keeping track, the four cities Sutherland mentions are the four involved with the Destination Canada Spotify campaign. Interesting coincidence?


There's always two sides to every coin. And with all the pros that music city strategies present, there are also drawbacks.


Through research and brainstorming for this project, I think there are three very apparent drawbacks. The first being that these strategies and policies are very western centric and narrow in their approach. The available toolkits and manuals don't give much wiggle room for cities in non western countries to establish themselves as music cities in their own ways.


What I mean by that is, these handbooks and initiatives are one-size-fits-all plans that don't take into account cultural differences or any other differences between countries or even cities. Next, these plans, being that they are grounded in government policy and coming from the point of view of growing an economy, seem to be exploiting music purely for profit.


Most of the academics that I read for this project would agree. One academic is Dr. Andy C. Pratt. In his 2011 journal article entitled The Cultural Contradictions of the Creative City, Dr. Pratt analyzes how cities use cultural sectors to boost local economies. In that paper, Dr. Pratt addresses how, when it comes to initiatives, art generally is not appreciated simply for art's sake, and is instead seen as a means for tourism and consumption.


And this leads us to the most glaring negative impact that music city initiatives can bring to a city: gentrification. With how massive the area of gentrification and its impact on communities is, I could create an entirely separate podcast just talking about that. So for the purpose of our understanding, think of gentrification as simply a collective group of people displacing another group of people who are the current occupants of an urban area. The ones moving in and redeveloping the area are usually of a higher, more affluent social class. The inhabitants getting kicked out are usually from the working class and or minority groups.


Now to equate gentrification to music cities, Dr. Christina Ballico and other scholars highlight that the local scene's musicians are usually one of the groups that gets the short end of the stick. This displacement could be because of a variety of reasons, such as venue closures or housing costing an arm and a leg.


Even with these drawbacks, music city initiatives are still important, as Dr. Christina Ballico communicated during our face-to-face interview. Here's what she had to say when responding to a question on how global music city schemes can impact local music communities:


Global Music Cities initiatives can affect local music communities as they can give legitimacy to local music activities and pave the way for more support at a government level, such as through funding or other policy initiatives, which can be advocated for more strongly when, say, a city has received a UNESCO City of Music designation. And also more broadly, the process of getting such a designation or even engaging in a branded music city initiative requires relationship building and networking in order to assist it being enacted and ultimately it being successful. These relationships and a wide level of what we call buy-in from within and beyond the sector is important. As it can help ensure that the erasure of certain histories and genres doesn't occur when we focus on particular facets of a history which are often leveraged in these particular frameworks, and it can be very easy for that to happen when dealing with notable music histories and scenes.

Today we only brush the surface of the music city paradigm. But even at the surface level, we saw that the term music city and the paradigm around it encompasses a lot of different elements from cultural history to government policy, urban development, and tourism. As we explored, there are four key ways cities can establish themselves as a music city. A city can claim the title of music city through either being one of the superstar cities that has a lot of cultural clout, or through creating urban development policies and or following step by step manuals. Regardless of how a municipality becomes a music city, the objective is all the same: to boost their local economy. And, as we saw, the use of a creative medium to grow a city's economy can be traced back to Richard Florida's 2002 theory for how U. S. cities can tailor themselves to being artsy hotspots in order to lure artists and other creative thinkers to set down roots there.


Through my research for this project, I have become more and more dismayed by the whole music city paradigm. I came into this project with very rose-colored glasses, thinking that these plans were rightly putting music and its local communities on pedestals. But through pouring over academic research, music city policies, and news reports, it's become blatantly obvious that music city initiatives are just the newest method to exploit a creative medium for economic, financial, growth. But that's just my two cents.


What's your thoughts on music cities? Let me know on social media, links to socials are provided in the show notes below. And if you'd like to read more into the music city paradigm, I highly encourage you to grab a copy of Music Cities: Evaluating a global cultural policy concept which was co-edited by the academics Dr. Christina Ballico and Allan Watson. It's a great collection of scholarly articles on the music city paradigm and how policies and initiatives are employed in cities throughout the world.


On the next episode, we'll be jumping into a yellow submarine and heading to Liverpool, UK to explore the importance of place when it comes to a city's music identity. While we're there, we will also see how Liverpool has become a bona fide music city based on historical significance and as a part of the UNESCO Cities of Music Network. I hope you give that one a listen.


But before you do, I'd like to thank a few people for their contribution to this project, this podcast, and to this episode.


First, many thanks to Dr. Christina Ballico for taking the time to share with me her research. It was an absolute honor and joy to be able to chat with her. I'd also like to thank all of the other scholars and writers whose research and articles were sourced in this episode, podcast, and project. By sharing their knowledge and research, myself and anyone listening to this podcast are able to get a better grasp on the music city paradigm.


Next, thank you to all of the professors and instructors who helped me hone my journalism and news sense while a part of the MA Journalism program at Oxford Brookes University in Oxford, England. I'm very grateful to my project supervisor, Leander Reeves, for her guidance, constructive criticism, and for lending a sympathetic ear more than once through the entire process of creating this podcast and accompanying content.


And last but not least, thank you, the listener, for taking the time to listen to this episode. I hope you learned something and have new food for thought.


Until the next episode, keep rockin'!


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