Here are some thoughts about a different way to think about arts-based urban revitalization, written in the form of a suspiciously confident manifesto. These ideas are completely pie-in-the-sky and fly in the face of the prevailing wisdom in this field, but I’m fine with that if it reveals some fallacies and unspoken assumptions of most strategies for arts-based urban revitalization (ABUR) today. I draw on my observations as an urban sociologist who studies the new urban economy, a phenomenon that’s increasingly understood and promoted through the “creative city” paradigm popularized by Richard Florida and others. I’m also interested in the role of place in the new urban economy, which I worry has been reduced to a postcard experienced to be consumed by the creative class, tourists, and second-home owners. Finally, I’m responding to the changes ushered in by music technology and the music industry, which seem to have exhausted the opportunities for most musicians to make a living by recording and touring.
My vision of ABUR revolves around music, more specifically popular music, and in particular those genres of rock, R&B and country that assign some value to innovation and artistic development. Possibly this proposal could extend to other creative industries that draw on collaboration and a collective infrastructure (rehearsal spaces, performing venues, retailers of equipment and other specialized goods and services). In fact these are often assumed to be general conditions of creative industries, but there may be important differences between popular music and other creative industries that I’m not ready to address yet.
The problem with most thinking about ABUR today is that it focuses predominantly on supply-side questions of attracting and retaining creative people. The fawning over bohemian enclaves like Williamsburg and Austin illustrates how the field emphasizes critical mass and fails to consider the broader contexts that draw creative-class migrants, and that shape their relationship to places. Absent such considerations, researchers and planners often import into the ABUR field assumptions specific to musical bohemians: that they’re a restless, mobile population with few commitments (e.g., dependents to take care of, jobs they’ve trained a long time for) and therefore an ability to give up the semblance of a regular life for their art. In short, ABUR strategies are too often premised around the model of indie-rock bands composed of 20-something, college-educated hipsters working beneath the financial norms for their socioeconomic class. Such a population can of course be found in large numbers in the bohemian enclaves of big cities and college towns; their presence is no doubt a necessary prerequisite for these places’ prosperity in the creative economy.
However, this population’s relationship to place is rootless; more to the point, it ismarket-based. This means, first, creative-class types stay put only as long as the costs of their social reproduction are agreeable to them. So, if they choose to have families (fewer are choosing to do so, the demographic evidence suggests), cramped apartments and poor public schools push them out. Also, they move out when rents go up, leaving behind them a wake of coffeeshops and lifestyle boutiques to be patronized (or not, more likely) by the older, affluent residents who remain. Second, the creative externalities to be found in these places have to remain positive for them; this is a function of rent and business costs, but also ephemeral currencies of cool. In fact, these shifts often occur simultaneously, one sometimes giving meaning to the other’s experience — e.g., the 20-something flight from Manhattan and San Francisco.
If gentrification is your issue, you can fit it into this scenario quite easily. I think it highlights the more general context for gentrification: a consumerist, commitment-free relationship to place. This kind of relationship to place isn’t a sustainable basis for ABUR, unless the latter is only a code word for “rising property values.” It’s also not a sustainable basis for great art. Consider the navel-gazing handwringing we see in the manifestos, debates, and scholarship that fall under the umbrella ofhipster studies. Within the music itself, the dialectical yearning for/detachment from authenticity that has informed rock music since punk rock — and which, if you ask me, has made for often boring, solipsistic art of late — reflects this contradiction of the new urban economy.
Why are musicians in such a hurry to leave the places that shape their creative impetus: the places where they grew up, maybe went to college, or where family and friends live? Yes, we know from the baby-boomer rock legends how alienating, conformist, or dull the suburbs, towns, or dismal cities they hailed from could be. However, in case no one has noticed, those qualities can now be found in so-called thriving cities as well. As musicians and other creative types persist in striking out for uncharted terrains of authenticity — maybe it’s the countryside, maybe Detroit — it begs the question, What happens if they just stay put? Perhaps this way lies the accomplishment of ABUR’s loftier ambitions: the stimulation of creative milieus, efficient use of the creative resources and infrastructure already in place, the development of genuinely local styles and local traditions, the cultivation and integration of local talent into a meaningful enterprise. Maybe some property values would even rise when all is said and done, who knows?
The critical issue isn’t what places can do to attract musicians, but what musicians can do for the places they inhabit. Framing the problem this way means we can push all those supply-side, if-you-build-it-they-will-come approaches to arts-based urban revitalization to the side for our later consideration (or perhaps disposal). Below, I articulate an alternative vision of music-based urban revitalization in the form of a proposal — really, a challenge — to the musical creative class. I proceed on three premises. First, musicians and other creative types can come from just about anywhere. Yes, the research shows that most of them (again, usually in their 20s and 30s) move from anywhere to cluster in just a few places, but the raw material of musical creativity is more or less randomly dispersed. And second — it’s time to bring this issue to the foreground — musicians are already abandoning the traditional record-and-tour career model that the music industry and digital music sharing have just about brought to their knees.
First, find a place to a call home and lay down roots. We know that, like other artists — indeed, like most everyone — musicians seek a meaningful relationship to the places they live. This doesn’t mean bars, coffeeshops, parties, industrial lofts and other “creative amenities,” but places that fuel the expressive, productive impulse within musicians. Even places that are alienating can provide this relationship; just because artists don’t need to suffer to make great art, doesn’t mean they require a superficially “fun” place to live, either. In fact, if a possible destination seems attractive only so long as it retains its “cool” (a non-local, consumerist currency if there ever was one), then it should be eliminated from the short-list of places to live. Just about any place can work, so musicians should decide what’s a good place to do their thing — not just make music, but to have a life — and then commit themselves to living there, making new relationships, raising families there (if that’s in the cards), and participating in the existing community in good faith. The self-segregation of hipsters in lifestage-specific enclaves is to be avoided. There’s no need to do this alone; musicians could encourage their friends and fellow musicians to join them in this sample and make the same commitment.
Second, stop selling recordings. The market is already glutted with too many recordings, which has only diminished listeners’ attention to and appreciation of music in general. CDs and digital music for sale commoditize music, the first step in drawing local music into the global market and surrendering musicians’ ambitions to the unit-shifting demands of the music industry. It really doesn’t matter whether a band is signed to a transnational music conglomerate or an independent label. If music can be sold on Amazon, much less any brick-and-mortar retailer, the thresholds of profits mean most recording artists will face the necessity of financially discounting their music or being ignored altogether. In either case, there goes any chance to make a living on recorded music.
Needless to say, musicians are driven to record, to hear themselves and demo new work. They’re also compelled to share their recordings with remote strangers, still the quickest way to reach the greatest number of ears, and still the quickest way to inflate their egos. We’re lucky that the internet makes all of that possible today. But if music is as easily accessed as a tweet, the reality of digital sharing is that most people won’t pay for it, at least not at a price sufficient for musicians to make a living by recording music only. It’s fine to pursue that small market niche exsts for specialty goods that can be sold at a premium (handmade releases, extensive liner notes, limited releases); the economy for this kind of output more resembles the market for material arts and crafts then music.
Third, stop touring. Or at least ratchet it down significantly. Playing live is the foundation of musical expression, but touring is more than just playing live. Or rather, it’s less. Too often, it’s about promoting new recorded product via one-night stands in venues with corporate fees or liquor licenses to pay off, located in large markets where listeners already have enough choices for their entertainment dollar. It’s common knowledge among performers that some of the best places to play are off the beaten path, yet the industry denigrates these places as b-list or c-list destinations – yet another contradiction that’s killing music. The economics of touring mean that most performers have to rely on the sale of merchandise. Hey, I like a concert t-shirt as much as the next guy, but let’s be absolutely clear: a t-shirt doesn’t convey music so much as a band’s brand.
Notice what happens when musicians stop selling recordings and touring: by today’s industry standards, they effectively become amateurs. This is entirely a good thing. Music no longer serves as a means to an end (e.g., making a living, becoming rich) but becomes an end in itself. Now, musicians needn’t sacrifice their life for work – and selling CDs and touring is indeed work, the dreariest, least artistic aspect of the musician’s career. Now, music is no longer the province of 20-somethings eager to work “start-up hours.” Now, art can be integrated genuinely and sustainably back into the musician’s life, alongside friends, family, community, and, yes, making a living in some other enterprise.
Fourth, make as much new music as possible. To do so, they’ll generally have to turn local, working with friends and nearby musicians and setting up local studios. Let a thousand home recordings bloom – and, when you’re done, share your 8-track recorder with your neighbor, won’t you? Without bands to maintain or careers to promote, time is freed up to collaborate with fellow musicians. From this can come a constellation of overlapping ensembles and episodic projects – a marketer’s headache, but a musician’s delight. The collective goal should be to sustain musical innovation, but we might anticipate that innovation, now freed from the careerism of recording and promoting new product for “the band,” will take surprising form. For instance, playing other people’s songs, traditionally what a cover band does, might become a new platform for theatrical narration or curatorial expression. In any case, creative advances and musical idioms will develop naturally, unmotivated by the need to distinguish music product through superficial place-based association. The localness of the scene is no longer the sum of live there or, even worse, the musicians who once lived there (which is much of what music-based urban branding peddles today). Intead it derives from the locally emergent, collective tradition of artistic practice.
Fifth, perform live as much as possible. This is an obvious corollary of the prior point, but it’s in the public settings for live performance that an alternate basis for ABUR starts to emerge. It’s fine if there are local bars or concert halls to play at, but without big-name careers or mass-market recordings to sell, the audience for any one event will be small. Better then to play in untraditional venues: house parties, block parties, community centers, public commons, subway stations, libraries, etc. (Portable electricity generators will soon rank among the most important pieces of infrastructure in many scenes.) Out-of-town musicians and touring artists should be invited to headline local performances. Feed them a home-cooked dinner and given a bed to sleep in, they’ll see for themselves (and report to others elsewhere) how excited and exciting the local operation is.
By this point, the local music scene will approach, at least in kernel, what any good college scene has to offer: a creative milieu and collective infrastructure for small-scale performance that can sustain itself as students come and go. Or, if you prefer a less youth-centric model, the local scene will resemble what we associate with musical New Orleans: a community where art is fully integrated into life, offering musicians performing opportunities and local traditions in which they can exercise their creativity, even as they go about making a living by other means. Significantly, this has been achieved without substantial financial investment. The DIY nature of the scene has been the very medium for creative innovation, and the source of buy-in by its participants.
With a foundation of place-based musical distinction established, now ABUR can begin in earnest. If places can offer a regular schedule and homegrown milieu for musical performance in a distinctly local style — something only a few of the biggest cities can claim — people from elsewhere will be drawn to see for themselves what’s going on. Create local music festivals or hitch on to existing events; set up an internet presence to share your music (for free!) with the rest of the world. As talent develops and new sounds emerge, some musicians will invariably want to seek their fortune elsewhere. Let them move away with enthusiasm and no resentment, because they can spread the word about the specialness of your city and town. But as years go by, it’s important to think in advance about sustaining this local music scene:
Fifth, use ABUR resources to support music education. Not that ABUR generally entails much financial support, but when the money is there, too often it’s dedicated toward ambiguous “beautification” projects or other efforts that serve to promote property values or real estate development. Forget about those; they do little to support the local arts (and, in the form of gentrification, often do much to impede the local arts). Want to channel your ABUR investments into something of direct benefit? Teach the kids how to play music and othewise participate in the arts. We know that formal music education is regularly put to the chopping block at public schools, a short-term saving that in the long term undermines whatever creative advantage places might have. In this context, investing in the youth is not charity; it’s an important final step toward preserving and furthering the collective effort that has been put forth at musicians’ considerable personal expense. Most likely this ABUR “investment” will take the form of voluntary or discount services, not money: e.g., providing lessons and teaching classes — traditional vocations for working musicians anyway. Don’t worry if your musical graduates move somewhere else after graduation to make music. Like a public university system, the returns on this educational investment aren’t measured only in terms of workforce contributions, but also in other externalities that attract more talent and enhance local reputations.
Some of the scenarios I’ve proposed are already in place. In Woodstock, NY, former Band drummer Levon Helms opens up his monthly Midnight Ramble to audiences out of his recording studio; the event attracts guest musicians like Emmylou Harris, Phil Lesh, Elvis Costello and Donald Fagen, all the while furthering Woodstock’s reputation as a capital for rootsy, 60s-era jam music (admittedly, not my cup of tea). Canada’s urban music scenes are famously fluid and place-based, the best known being the Toronto bands and musicians who revolve around the Arts & Craft label (Broken Social Scene, Feist, Metric, Stars, etc.). The Canadian government’s FACTOR program (the Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent On Recordings) plays a big role in subsidizing the costs of the musical endeavors in these scenes, albeit toward the goal of boosting export-oriented revenues from the sale of recordings — an economy without much of a future, I suspect.
No doubt readers of this blog can think of additional comparisons. Perhaps this proposal doesn’t involve reinventing the wheel, but instead linking existing institutions into a more coherent, sustainable system. The point is to question the careerist, peripatetic orientation toward the artistic life that is only viable for a small number, mostly those willing to defer a life for their work and its sacrifices (no health insurance, sleeping on floors, etc.). Not only does that prop up an increasingly unsustainable economy — post-Fordism exacting its final costs on an atomized, “flexible” cadre of creative producers — but it doesn’t bode well for art either.