Music is a vital urban resource. How do we plan for it?

City on song … musicians in New Orleans. Image: REUTERS/Brian Snyder

by Shain Shapiro

We take for granted what we use every day. Take clean water. For those lucky enough, we turn on the tap, and water comes out. Not only do we not realise that the simple act of turning on the tap is a privilege, but also by doing so we ignore the complex infrastructure that led to water coming out. From wells to filtration, desalination to distribution, dredging to waste management, an intricate system must function so we can take a drink.

When something is wedded into the fabric of everyday life, we ignore the systems that create, sustain and support it. The same cognitive dissonance is occurring with music and culture. When you hear a song that moves you, it’s about that moment with that song, not the recording, production and marketing functions that led to that moment happening. But without these systems and practices, those moments disappear; that tap runs dry. Music, like any other resource, is not infinite. If we do not teach, invest and support it, it disappears. Given music is our universal language – we all speak it – it must be better understood for its capabilities to support, sustain and improve communities around the world. This is happening in cities all over the world. It’s the merging of planning, resource management, resilience and intentionality around music, called music urbanism.

As an industry, music grew by 9.7% last year, fuelled by the rise in streaming. Goldman Sachs research argues it will more than double by 2030, to more than $131 billion by 2030. It is omnipresent in our cities, towns and places, wherever we live. From baby namings to bar mitzvahs, communions to quinceaneras, even the adhan call to prayer, music is everywhere. Over the past decade, a growing number of cities are recognising that in order to maximise the economic, social and cultural value of music, it must be considered in land use, regeneration, tourism, education and economic-development policies. This emerging field has created a new moniker – music cities – for places that think about music in policy, rather than simply enjoy it in practice. And those cities are creating this new music urbanism.

Projected music-industry revenue in 2030. Image: Goldman Sachs

Thinking about music in this manner – as a deliberate and intentional policy – is new. Traditionally, cities have tended to interact with music in two primary capacities: through licensing sound and noise and creating musical experiences, including festivals, community events and tourist opportunities.

But, in both cases, this historical focus is narrow. There is no direct link to the holistic value of music on communities. This is what music urbanism addresses. Companies – such as Amazon in their HQ2 competition – frequently refer to a place’s quality of life as a core consideration. Along with breweries, outdoor space and walkability, music is a core urban indicator. A nation’s music education system is a wealth generator, such as Sweden’s. Musical participation increases access and promotes health benefits; it creates jobs and supports a wide number of sectors, from food and beverage to retail. Music in public transit can calm commuters’ nerves. These outcomes are wider than regulation and tourism. Viewed as a whole – as a music urban ecosystem – strategising its input and output can increase value, improve communities and drive investment.

Music in the built environment

Examined across a lifespan, music is an ecosystem that can improve all our lives. Exposing infants, toddlers and children to music has many benefits. Music in school demands cognitive, organizational and management skills; children in bands and choirs must work well with others, and showing up is a prerequisite. Research has shown that attending a concert every few weeks can add years to one’s life, while listening to music when we’re old can ease dementia and loneliness.

In our built environment, as we live in denser communities, better building codes, materials and streetscaping creates places for interaction, congregation and spontaneity. Festivals in and of themselves are pop-up urban places; supporting them can provide permanent facilities for the communities around them, as in the case of Nyege Nyege in Uganda. Music can be a tool to engage communities to tackle issues of prejudice, discrimination and unrest. In Madison, Wisconsin, a music and equity task force has widened a needed conversation about institutional racism. But these initiatives are siloed and approach music as a solution to a particular problem; not as a core strategic element in developing, fostering and maintaining community cohesion and economic growth.

This is what is slowly changing around the world as music urbanism takes shape.

Source: Sound Diplomacy

What are cities and places doing?

Many cities, regions and towns are in the process of developing music strategies. The best examples are those focusing on music as a holistic, community benefit, across economic development, tourism and inclusive growth. In France, the state is setting up a Center for National Music, tasked with researching the impact of music on each region. One of the most active, the Loire, collects economic data on the value of its music sector. In the United States, aside from Nashville and Austin (who have longstanding music policies), two dozen cities are leading the practice of music urbanism. New Orleans launched its NOME initiative, aimed at increasing the value of intellectual property for the city’s musicians. In Indianapolis, Indiana, the city’s strategy is focused on elevating local musicians, fostering tourism and increasing inbound investment.

In New York, an initiative geared to supporting female musicians was launched this spring. London has altered its planning law, to better support and prioritise cultural infrastructure, combating music-venue closures. Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide have music policies, with the first operating a music office within the city council. Chengdu has an expansive growth strategy, including creating a new music district and 14 new concert halls. Many metropolises around the world have partnered with UNESCO to be music cities, which work to elevate the role of music in local governance. There’s a separate Music Cities Network as well, focused on information-sharing and best practice.

The University of Colorado at Denver, Visible College in Memphis and Monash University in Australia offer music cities courses, and the first academic book dedicated to music cities and music urbanism, Andrea Baker’s The Great Music City, was published this year.

Overtures for the future

Much of this work is dedicated to growing cities’ music industries, rather than exploring the role of music on local civic society as a whole. Most networks of music cities are either informal or prioritise information-sharing, rather than analysing detailed land-use policy and appointing agents of change in forums, commissions and community groups. Moreover, certain genres of music are more supported than others. There are robust policies in place through arts councils and cultural outfits to support classical music, but little support exists, for example, for emerging MCs. In the UK, one subgenre of hip-hop, has been all but criminalised in a country where youth clubs, community recording studios and mental health support have been decimated by austerity.

This is music urbanism’s task: creating competitive advantage for cities who wish to engage. Music is the most personal artform we have. It is cross-generational and transcendent of culture, creed and race. But like water, music is not a renewable resource. It is dependent on land use, resource allocation and community engagement policies to flourish and be impactful. And this is a new way to explore the role of music, one outside of the commercial sector, as the goal here is better cities, along with more music consumers and thriving artists.

If we do not treat music consciously in urban policy so all cities have music officers, policies and processes, we lose out. Cities around the world are recognising this.