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Published on Apr 21, 2020

Tuning up: Local music scenes as economic development tool

Contact: Brian Daskam

How local music scenes can serve as an economic development tool.

Interview with Michael Seman, Ph.D.

Your work examines the intersection of music, entrepreneurship, and economic development on the urban landscape. How did you get into that niche?

I received my PhD in urban planning and public policy, specifically in looking at how music scenes can drive and fuel the economy. What I found is that a lot of people have looked at this concept from a fine arts perspective, but not necessarily in terms of popular music like rock, hip-hop, indie, country, and other genres.

My dissertation examined the robust local music scene in Denton, Texas, and noted how it operated much like a traditional economic cluster—think Silicon Valley. My master’s thesis looked at Omaha’s Saddle Creek Records and how the music scene around it was an economic driver within the city to the point where the label and those associated with it actually reinvested some of what they earned into building a $10.2 million redevelopment project in downtown Omaha.

At the same time I was working on my degrees, I played in the band Shiny Around the Edges. We did, and still occasionally do, all the things bands do: releasing albums and touring in different parts of the country. I met a lot of people who were also musicians and policymakers, and the same subject kept coming up in all of these different places.

Right now, I’m very interested in illuminating how powerful all-ages DIY music venues are for cities, in terms of catalyzing entrepreneurship and also helping to redevelop spaces around them.

Do you think it’s uncommon for local leaders to consider a local music scene as part of their economic development strategy?

I see the tide turning. I speak with a lot of city leaders, and that’s exactly what I encourage them to do. You want to address your music scene as you would any other industry you have within your region, because music scenes basically operate much like those other industry clusters.

In Omaha, you have a music scene that resulted in a several-million-dollar redevelopment project. In Denver, there’s Youth on Record, a great alternative education program that works with at-risk youth in high school, introducing them to music production and performance. The leaders of that project are now finding that it is positively influencing the graduation rates among this marginalized population.

 

It’s an amenity that attracts and retains super creative, skilled people.

You most likely already have similar music-scene activity in your city or region. Take some time to think about how you can positively interact with it, facilitate it. There are a lot of positive, hopeful outcomes that can happen.

Are local officials surprised by the different ways a music scene can benefit the local economy?

Definitely. The goal isn’t necessarily to produce rock stars and sell tickets, although if that happens, great! But more commonly what you find is that the majority of people participating in music scenes become (or already are) teachers, graphic designers, nonprofit administrators, IT professionals, doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, and more. And they’re staying in your region in part because of the music scene. It’s an amenity that attracts and retains super creative, skilled people

A lot of people want music to be in their lives. They want to play it. They want to experience it at concerts. And that’s a strong anchor for community development. Scene participants will often end up in another career outside of music, and they’re likely to be successful because, again, they are super creative, skilled people.

So a music scene can act as an unofficial job-training program?

Absolutely. It’s another reason to love music scenes if you are local policymaker. Being in a band or being part of a music festival is one of the greatest unofficial job-training programs you can have in a city.

With music festivals, you are often dealing with volunteers between the ages of 19 and 25 who on occasion have to make decisions that could affect thousands of dollars or thousands of people—or both—at any given moment. I’m always amazed at how well these volunteers handle these situations. To this day, I still write reference letters for volunteers I encountered while working on music festivals in the past, and they all have built successful careers.

What can local leaders do to better understand the music scene in their city?

If you’re a city leader who’s unfamiliar with the music scene, go out and see some shows to start. And more importantly, find out who the gatekeepers and stakeholders are in your music scene, invite them to your office, and ask them what’s going on. How is your experience in the music scene going right now? What are some challenges you experience on the ground? What do you think could help?

And you’ll be surprised. These are people that have been involved in the music industry in your region, sometimes for decades. They know how it works, all of the dynamics to consider, and they are likely to be glad you’re taking them seriously.

Dr. Michael Seman is an assistant professor of arts management in Colorado State University’s LEAP Institute for the Arts. His work primarily examines how music ecosystems help drive regional growth, with special attention paid to all-ages DIY music venues operating as entrepreneurship incubators.

They got the beat

These are just some of the cities that successfully cultivate their local music scenes as a tool for economic development, according to Michael Seman.

Austin has done a great job of understanding and harnessing the economic power of their music ecosystem, integrating it as an action item throughout several government offices.

New Orleans is great in terms of their mix of music, education, community development, and tourism. Memphis has integrated their musical heritage with tourism quite well.

Nashville is possibly the gold standard of music cities: their regional economy thoroughly embraces all facets of the music industry, labels, touring, publishing, etc. Atlanta is similar in nature.

Flint, Michigan’s all-ages, DIY music venue, Flint Local 432, has operated for the past 35 years and played a significant role in helping revitalize their downtown.

Seattle’s involvement with the all-ages DIY music venue The Vera Project helps develop talent from high school-age scene members to those in their post-college years.

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