In exploring how cities sustain musical creativity, you eventually get around to the creative city thesis. This is most commonly associated with Richard Florida, the regional planning professor and urban consultant who contends in books like The Rise of the Creative Class that the most prosperous cities and regions are the ones with the highest density of creative class members: artists, writers, scientists, scholars, designers, architects, and others who innovate new forms and new uses, plus the professionals (doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc.) who exercise discretionary judgment as part of their work. Places that draw this creative workforce, he argues, do so because they offer the lifestyles, amenities, and social ambiance that this population seeks; in turn, the employers, industrial activity, and regional competitiveness follow the creative class.

Florida has taken heat for some of his policy implications, his consulting side business, and—let’s be frank—the wide attention his ideas have received. In truth, his argument isn’t as revolutionary as it’s sometimes portrayed. Most geographers studying the economy’s cutting edges have long recognized the general importance of clustering skilled workers (see, for instance, the work of Allan J. Scott).

Personally, I’ve met Richard Florida, he blurbed my first book, and I’m happy to credit him with synthesizing an often jargon-filled scholarship (again, see the work of Allan J. Scott!), backing it up with catchy data (his “Gay Index” will have to be the subject of another post), and clearly explaining it to a broad non-academic audience. I make finer distinctions, different conceptualizations, and certain counterclaims when responding to his work as an academic, but I think he and many other scholars are on-the-money in rejecting old wisdoms about creativity, technical, artistic, or otherwise. For instance, think about how we might associate these claims to high-tech engineers but not rock musicians:

  1. Creativity results from individual talent.
  2. Creative talent is independent of locational setting or social networks.
  3. With the proverbial punch of the clock, creative talent can be turned on, continuously exercised, rationally managed, and then turned off.
  4. Creative workers care less about lifestyle opportunities or supportive cultures and more about low taxes, cheap real estate, and good schools for the kids.

In fact high-tech engineers and rock musicians, it turns out, aren’t so different in how they relate to the people they work with, the populations and neighborhoods they live among, and the locational amenities they can take advantage of—which is positively, interactively, and synergistically. Much of the “revolutionary” impact of Florida’s creative city thesis can be understood by this generalizing sweep.

This provides a moment to consider the multidisciplinarity of this blog’s perspective on musical urbanism. In many ways, I share the generalizing approach illustrated by Florida’s creative city thesis. After all, this is what the social sciences are about (or at least, for the eggheads among you, the structuralist and nomothetic traditions in the social sciences). Beneath the individuality of human biography and the novelty of day-to-day life, social life is organized by broader patterns, shared contexts, and common forces. These can be helpfully understood through universal, abstract descriptions of social life—the stuff of hypothesis-testing, theory-building, and other intellectual activities that scientists care deeply about. An abstract, generalized view of social life is also intrinsic to any discussion of policy proposals. If the lessons of, say, New York City couldn’t be understood in universal, abstract terms, then they’d have no relevance to, say, Cleveland or Barcelona.

Music enchants us with its particularity—a melody like no other, an especially tantalizing arrangement or production, a song that we associate with a specific time and place in our lives. Arguably cities work the same way, or at least “great cities” do (is there a musical equivalent to the concern for placelessness?). It can seem odd or even antithetical to consider music through an abstracting, universalizing lens as ethnomusicologists or cognitive psychologists are wont to do.  Richard Florida doesn’t tackle music this way, but he does think about the setting for musical creativity in such a manner:

  • Scenes are basically vehicles for producing, consuming and improving products – and they’re responsible for creating experiences too. They represent “modes of organizing cultural production and consumption,” according to Terry Clark and his associates at the University of Chicago.
  • The real key to understanding a scene, he argues, lies in the way “collections of amenities and people serve to foster certain shared values and tastes, certain ways of relating to one another and legitimating what one is doing or not doing.”
  • Scenes are to music what Silicon Valley is to the high-tech industry—a vehicle for bringing together highly skilled talent, sophisticated consumers, cultural gatekeepers who identify new trends, economic infrastructure such as state-of-the-art recording studios and leading venues, and business moguls who take those trends to market in a concentrated physical and geographic space.

Putting the definition of “scenes” or other concepts aside, there’s nothing wrong with a universalizing approach to music or cities. It goes against the grain of how we listen to music and how we inhabit cities, to be sure. It’s the reason why Richard Florida’s idea that Detroit should use the music of the Stooges to brand itself can seem a little absurd. But when we assert that punk rock or hip hop constitute social movements (as a thousand undergraduate papers have), we draw on this universalizing approach. I don’t think it can be dismissed out of hand. But if we’re to understand musical urbanism in its particularity as well, and further to understand the general relevance of its particularity, then we’ll need to articulate a multidisciplinary epistemology and methodology for such an undertaking. At its most ambitious, that’s a key project for this blog.