Elizabeth Cawein: How to build a thriving music scene in your city

Back in January I took the hashtag #TEDxMemphis stage to share my idea worth spreading: that smart cities are music cities. Today I'm so psyched to tell you that the folks at TED have selected my talk to share across their international platforms!

Elizabeth Cawein: How to build a thriving music scene in your city

How does a city become known as a "music city"? Publicist Elizabeth Cawein explains how thriving music scenes make cities healthier and happier and shares ideas for bolstering your local music scene -- and showing off your city's talent to the world.



Each of these songs represents a scene, a movement, in some cases, a sonic revolution that completely altered the course of popular music. They're all also calling cards, almost, for those cities, songs totally linked with their city's identity, and it might be why you probably consider them to be music cities. Now, the magical mythical thing, the thing we kind of all love about stories like these is that those cities weren't doing anything in particular to make those moments happen. There's no formula for capturing lightning in a bottle. A formula didn't give us grunge music or introduce Tupac to Dr. Dre, and there's definitely no blueprint for how to open your record business in a South Memphis neighborhood that, turns out, is home to Booker T. Jones, William Bell and Albert King.

So this is just something that happens, then, right? When the stars perfectly align, great music just happens. And in the meantime, New York and Nashville can churn out the hits that come through our radios, define our generations and soundtrack our weddings and our funerals and everything in between.

Well, I don't know about you, but the very idea of that is just deadly boring to me. There are musicians all around you, making powerful, important music, and thanks to the internet and its limitless possibilities for creators to create music and fans to discover that music, those zeitgeist songs don't have to be handed down to us from some conference room full of songwriters in a corporate high-rise. But also, and more importantly, we can't decide that it's just something that happens, because music is about so much more than hits, those big, iconic moments that change everything. It's more than just entertainment. For so many of us, music is truly a way to navigate life. A means of self-expression, sure, but it also helps us find our self-worth and figure out who we are. It connects us with other people as almost nothing else can, across language barriers, across social and cultural and economic divides. Music makes us smarter and healthier and happier.

Music is necessary. What if you lived in a city that believed that, that said, "We're not waiting for that hit song to define us. We're a music city because music is necessary."

By seeing music as necessary, a city can build two things: first, an ecosystem to support the development of professional musicians and music business; and second, a receptive and engaged audience to sustain them. And those are the two critical elements of a music city, a city whose leaders recognize the importance of music for our development as individuals, our connection as a community and our viability as a vibrant place to live. See, smart cities, music cities, know that thriving nightlife, a creative class, culture is what attracts young, talented people to cities. It's what brings that lightning. And no, we can't predict the next egg that will hatch, but we can create a city that acts like an incubator.

To do that, first, we've got to know what we've got. That means identifying and quantifying our assets. We need to know them backward and forward, from who and what and where they are to what their impact is on the economy. Let's count our recording studios and our record labels, our historic landmarks and our hard-core punk clubs. We should count monthly free jazz nights and weekly folk jams, music schools, artist development, instrument shops, every lathe and every luthier, music museums open year round and music festivals open just one weekend a year.

Now, ideally through this process, we'll create an actual asset map, dropping a pin for each one, allowing us to see exactly what we've got and where organic momentum is already happening. Because it's not enough to paint in broad strokes here. When it comes to specific support for music locally and a broad understanding of a music brand nationally, you've got to have the receipts.

Next, we'll need to identify our challenges. Now, it's important to know that, for the most part, this won't be just the opposite of step one. We won't gain a whole lot by simply thinking about what's missing from our map. Instead, we need to approach this more holistically. There are lots of music venues on our map. Awesome. But are they struggling? Do we have a venue ladder, which just means, can an artist starting out at a coffee house open mic see a clear path for how they'll grow from that 25-seat room to a hundred-seat room and so on? Or are we expecting them to go from a coffeehouse to a coliseum?

Maybe our challenges lie in city infrastructure: public transportation, affordable housing. Maybe, like in London, where the number of music venues went from 400 in 2010 to 100 in 2015, we need to think about protections against gentrification. The mayor of London, in December of last year, actually added something called the "Agent of Change" principle to the city's comprehensive plan. And the name says it all. If a real-estate developer wants to build condos next to an existing music venue, the developer is the agent of change. They have to take the necessary steps for noise mitigation.

Next, and this is a very big one, we need leadership, and we need a strategy. Now we know there's a lot of magic in this mix: a lot of right people, right place, right time. And that will never stop being an important element of the way music is made, the way some of the best, most enduring music is made. But there cannot be a leadership vacuum. In 2018, thriving music cities don't often happen and don't have to happen accidentally. We need elected officials who recognize the power of music and elevate the voices of creatives, and they're ready to put a strategy in place. In music cities, from Berlin to Paris to Bogotá, music advisory councils ensure that musicians have a seat at the table. They're volunteer councils, and they work directly with a designated advocate inside of city hall or even the chamber of commerce. The strongest strategies will build music community supports like this one inward while also exporting music outward. They go hand in hand. When we look inward, we create that place that musicians want to live. And when we look outward, we build opportunities for them to advance their career while also driving attention back to our city and leveraging music as a talent-attraction tool.

And here's something else that will help with that: we've got to figure out who we are. Now, when I say Austin, you probably think "live music capital." And why? Because in 1991, leadership in Austin saw something percolating with an existing asset, and they chose to own it. By recognizing that momentum, naming it and claiming it, they inevitably caused more live music venues to open, existing spaces to add live music to their repertoire, and they created a swell of civic buy-in around the idea, which meant that it wasn't just a slogan in some tourism pamphlet. It was something that locals really started to believe and take pride in.

Now, generally speaking, what Austin created is just an assets-based narrative. And when we think back to step one, we know that every city will not tick every box. Many cities won't have recording studios like Memphis or a songwriter and publishing scene like Nashville, and that's not a dealbreaker. We simply have to find the momentum happening in our city. What are our unique assets in comparison to no other place?

So, if all of that sounds like something you'd like to happen where you live, here are three things you can do to move the needle.

First, you can use your feet, your ears and your dollars. Show up. Be that receptive and engaged audience that is so necessary for a music city to thrive. Pay a cover charge. Buy a record. Discover new music, and please, take your friends.

Two, you can use your voice. Buy into the assets-based narrative. Talk about and celebrate what your city has.

And three, you can use your vote. Seek out leadership that doesn't just pay lip service to your city's music, but recognizes its power and is prepared to put a strategy in place to elevate it, grow it and build collaboration.

There really is no telling what city could be defined by a certain scene or a certain song in the next decade, but as much as we absolutely cannot predict that, what we absolutely can predict is what happens when we treat music as necessary and we work to build a music city. And that is a place where I want to live.

Thank you.


Elizabeth Cawein
Founder Music Export MEM + Signal Flow PR

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