Can City Hall Make a Music Scene?

In hindsight, the recipe always seems easy.

Take, for example, one comparatively affordable city—someplace sleepy and isolated enough to do its own thing. Add rain and second-hand flannel. Stir together some hangry young musicians and a pair of shrewd fans-turned-record-label-bosses. Garnish with distinctive black-and-white photography full of flying sweaty hair.

Voila: You’ve just cooked up the Seattle grunge explosion of the ‘90s.

But in the moment, hot music cities arise unpredictably, disappear quickly, and often leave city leaders scratching their heads about what just happened. Professional speculators in hype may try to anticipate or stoke a scene blowing up, but a robust local music ecosystem usually seems to develop organically—or not at all.

Shain Shapiro thinks otherwise. His consulting company, Sound Diplomacy, aims to put some science behind making a scene. He wants to help cities take stock of their musical assets and then make the most of them through policy—zoning, housing, coordination between city agencies, etc.—and investment. “Roads don’t pave themselves and potholes don’t fill themselves,” says Shapiro (who has also been a CityLab contributor). “There’s a process that builds and maintains and structures our transport system and our healthcare system and everything else.”

If a city wants to cultivate its musical biome to boost quality of life, education, tourism, and the local music biz itself, then it has to get serious about it. “That means it needs a policy,” he says. “It needs assessment mechanisms. It needs to be discussed in public. It needs to be less reactive and more proactive.”

Shapiro worked in music promotion before earning a Ph.D in cultural studies, so he has experience with hype vs. reality. His method of how cities can maximize their musical qualities starts with data. “If you don’t know what you have, then you don’t know what needs to be improved,” he says. The auditing process assesses not only music venues and recording studios, but also sound and light companies, musical instrument shops, and musical education in schools, as well as charting the economic activity that branches out from each aspect. A crappy club in a “bad” neighborhood might employ as many as 20 people, he notes, from the bartender and the bouncer to the graphic designer who does the posters and the lawyer who drew up the LLC.

Having an accurate inventory of music-related assets can then help shape policy, Shapiro says, and he’s developed a template to help cities encourage the health of their music infrastructure. Knowing where a loud club is less likely to disturb sleeping neighbors can help shape zoning, for example. Municipalities can benefit from planners having music in mind, as well as restaurants and retail, when plotting development. “You can build music and greater creative-arts infrastructure directly into cities if you think about it the minute the lines are drawn, literally,” he says.

Shapiro believes that cities can benefit from a more strategic approach when their music scenes are hot. “It’s not going to be like that forever,” he says. And when the hype cools, as it inevitably must, careful planning can help keep the boom from going bust.

In Memphis, there’s no lack of music history, but the city’s commitment to building  a flourishing music ecosystem today is less clear. (Beth J. Harpaz/AP)

Take Memphis, Tennessee. On paper, it’s a great music city. But it has also spent much of the past 40 years struggling to capitalize on its rock and soul heritage. It may not lack for bars or studios or talent, but the town that birthed Sun Records and Stax Records and gave us Elvis Presley and Al Green has had a lower profile since, and official municipal efforts to reverse that have been fitful and ineffective. In 2015, then-new Mayor Jim Strickland defunded the Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission altogether, leaving the city with no organ or officer dedicated to building local music.

As Deron Hall, chief executive and innovation officer at the nonprofit Memphis Arts Engine, puts it, “When the mayor in a music city says that they’re not going to support arts and culture in the city budget, maybe that’s not so good.”

The arts often lose when budgets tighten, but even a little coordination by—and representation in—city government can help. “Offices of arts and culture are really about curating relationships and opportunities, and seeing all of the ways a municipality can partner,” Hall says. “In order for that to happen, you have to have folks in the room who are specifically thinking about that as an issue area.”

Shapiro pitches cities on the full soup-to-nuts process of developing a music policy, but no one set of tactics that will work in all cases: Each city is different, with unique strengths, problems, and opportunities. “I can’t tell Des Moines what to do,” Shapiro says. “Des Moines has to tell Des Moines what to do.”

Well, so what about Des Moines? Iowa’s capital blipped onto the international music map almost 20 years ago when masked metal troupe Slipknot broke out. Beyond that anomaly, there lies a quiet prairie city with a variety of venues and bands (check out Tires, who specialize in lightly proggy instrumentals) and several annual music festivals, including the 80/35 Festival, which brought around 30,000 concertgoers to the city’s sculpture park this summer to hear the Shins, MGMT, and dozens more.

Slipknot, pride of Des Moines, in 2005 (Jim Cooper/AP)

But Des Moines’ music scene may not be as happening as it could be, due to a single local ordinance: Music venues that serve alcohol can’t allow patrons age 16 to 21 inside after 9 p.m. Some of the larger venues in town qualify for an exemption based on the size of revenues other than alcohol sales, but several smaller clubs are out of luck.

The ordinance keeps local college students out of many shows and cuts down on acts that play Des Moines, according to Molly Brandt, advocacy coordinator for the nonprofit Des Moines Music Coalition. Interstates 80 and 35 cross on the edge of town, and touring bands making their way across the Midwest pass right by all the time, but many “won’t stop here, because if you want to have an all-ages show, it has to go from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.,” Brandt says.

The DMMC is advocating that the ordinance be changed, and Des Moines City Council Member Christine Hensley, a Republican, says it’s “one of the biggest issues we’ve got right now.” But there have been several attempts to tinker with the ordinance over the past decade, and none have made all-ages shows any easier.

Truth be told, local governments can hinder local music more than help. Hot scenes often arise from illicit spaces in struggling neighborhoods—musicians gravitate to lightly regulated and low-rent environs. Witness the punk and hip-hop movements that emerged from Lower East Side and South Bronx, respectively, during the 1970s: That didn’t happen because nigh-bankrupt New York City was promoting them. Today, several cities wary of disasters like Oakland’s Ghost Ship fire last year have shuttered the kinds of underground ad-hoc live-work-performance spaces that can incubate local scenes.

To Shapiro, the fact those DIY spaces exist at all is a sign that something’s wrong: “If people are making music in illicit spaces, then clearly there are no legitimate spaces to do that in.”

Historically, most successful music cities became music cities without any help—or even in spite of it. When Tonya Dyson isn’t writing and performing her own music in Memphis, she works with the Memphis Slim Collaboratory and the Memphis Music Initiative, two of many nonprofits that do their part to restore the Bluff City to musical glory. In a way, making it without outside assistance has long been a Memphis thing. “Memphis was never one of those huge record-label-type cities where you had big labels rushing to the city,” she says. “You rely on the talent, you get with a bunch of people who believe in you and believe in themselves, and you figure it out together.”

That’s been the story since Prince and Hüsker Dü were tearing up the Twin Cities in the 1980s; today, lesser-known scenes are emerging from places like Richmond, Virginia, or Eau Claire, Wisconsin. But there’s a familiar disruptor stalking every town trying to incubate attention-getting music scenes: the internet. The rise of social media and music-sharing platforms such as Bandcamp and Soundcloud have not only allowed musicians to reach beyond their local fanbases, they have channeled much of the creative energy and connectivity within physical scenes up to the Cloud. Tumblr or Facebook are now more reliable sources of gig info than a flier-spattered telephone pole, and a demo can make it around the world at the speed of a click.

That hasn’t killed regional scenes—Balkan screamo, anyone? But the migration to digital seems to have sped up their birth-death cycle. Dubstep originated in South London, for example, but an online network of DJs, producers, and fans quickly liberated it from its home turf; few of those who hear it at outdoor festivals today know or care that it hails from the streets of Croydon. Can East Coast vs. West Coast hip-hop matter in a world where Soundcloud rap is a thing? It’s possible that the next Seattle—if there is one—will exist only online.