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Decoding the value of music in cities

A new method to evaluate quality of life in cities is emerging. Using music as an indicator, and focusing on the prevalence and success of one’s local music sector, a number of people surmised that if one investigates the importance of music on a city, we can take lessons from music and apply them to other urban indicators. 

Music is ubiquitous. It is a part of our urban fabric without detection. In addition, music is a medium where, if done right, most won’t notice the process that went into the creation and dissemination of it. Lastly, music is an artform bolted onto myriad urban uses, from fitness, public transit to education. If a city or place gets music right, it can be hypothesised that a lot of other urban challenges are being overcome simultaneously.      

But these hypotheses are just that, hypotheses. There is little scientific analysis to understand the impact of music on a urban environment. Instead, it is parcelled out to measure specific urban issues, including cultural policy, planning, noise pollution, crowd control, security, aging and, of course, quality of life.  Access to music and greater culture is one of the main pull factors that is driving people to live in urban areas. Without these opportunities, we create places to live without things in them to live for.  

Music is also a tool to understand how we need to reorder and revalue our land use system

Music is an end use, meaning it only appears after something is built, purposed, zoned and planned. First the music venue or school needs to be built before music is superimposed into it, be it infrastructurally (through cabling, speakers etc…) or qualitatively through programming and performance. 

We lack the foresight in our planning system to take a piece of land in its master planning stages and understand the role of music in it. We lack planning and valuation codes for music and, in many cases, culture in general, and often seek to didactically require landowners to guarantee cultural uses in development plans through S106 or community infrastructure levies, rather than thinking about the value chain of music and culture in the earliest stages of development. As a result, a system has been cemented where the value of the land is more important than what happens inside the building. 

Music is a noisy canary in this coal mine, because its use is most often the first to go. When licensing restrictions on a premises become overwhelmingly stringent, music is often removed as a compromise. At development meetings, music venues are eliminated as uses because they are too complex. London alone has lost 35 per cent of its grassroots music venues since 2007

This is not a music-related problem, but a problem of how we build and develop our cities and urban areas. Music is a mass participation activity. The structure in which development has been pursued is individualistic, in juxtaposition of music’s inherent and prospective value. And this is what leads to emigration and talks of our cities losing their creative heart. 

Much research needs to be developed to further justify this theory. I know much of this is assumed theoretically; but the implications are literal. Venues are closing. Music education is in its worst state in a generation. And people are leaving our major cities, like London. This cannot be exclusively further examined through music, but music is a terrific place to start. 

I call this way of thinking ‘music cities’. The term is misleading because it is not purely about cities, but all urban areas. All cities or places with people in them have music, so therefore all places are ‘music cities’. But few cities around the world look at music as a tool to better understand development, demographics, gentrification and economic value. These are cities that invest in understanding the role of music in policy and take steps to include it in how they govern. London has done this. As has NashvilleMelbourneAarhus and New York, as well as smaller cities like HastingsColumbus and Norrkoping in Sweden. 

Networks exist to promote this, including UNESCO’s City of Music and an Australian academic, Andréa Jean Baker, published a set of criteria to analyse music cities activity, but the thinking is in its nascent phase. This is because there is no agreed upon structure to measure music in cities. This is what I plan on solving.

To measure music in cities, we must first define what music in cities means. Most cities do it through the size or state of their music industry, with most focusing on contemporary music. 

A city’s music industry is one variable in urban music health, but it's far from a defining indicator

Music is infrastructure, similar to schools, roads and hospitals. It requires building, maintaining, evaluating and assessing. This includes our built environment’s capability to host and support music, but also how it feeds into the fabric of our urban lives. This includes every child playing an instrument, every festival and every music license in shops, cafes and hairdressers. 

In addition, it includes the ease of staging ephemeral events, indoor and outdoor, along with noise, building code and environmental health ordinances. And these are a few of hundreds of indicators to place a value of music on a particular place we have begun analysing.

For most cities, the research methodology in determining this value starts and stops with assembling industry actors in roundtables and discussion sessions, plus coordinating an accompanying survey to best understand the musical activity of a particular place. We do this too and the findings are invaluable. This is where we discovered a thriving hip-hop community in Katowice, Poland, or a number of studios making cutting edge reggae music in Castries, St. Lucia. But this is the beginning. This is why we have developed - and want to propose here - a new method of measuring music. Its objective is to place a value of music on non-music situations, such as a city’s place-making strategy, or its offer to tourists, or its land value in a redevelopment site. And it is done by measuring both music and non-music variables. 

Can we ensure the role of music - and culture as a whole - is given pride of place in a master-planning session?  Can we objectively develop a higher education framework around music urbanism, both in definition and scope?  And can we assess the value of music per resident, if music was factored into these aforementioned decisions?  

So watch this space. If the term ‘music cities’ was thought of the same way as liveable cities, resilient cities, happy cities or healthy cities, we’d see more livable, more resilient, happier and healthy urban spaces. Music cities will soon be every city, once we realise how much value we are losing by not measuring music in all its forms, functions and opportunities.

Dr. Shain Shapiro is the founder and CEO of Sound Diplomacy. Sound Diplomacy is the leader of the Music Cities movement, which sees culture built into the urban environment through policy. They also run Music Cities Events, the global leading music cities conference series.


Shain Shapiro

Shain is the Founder and CEO of Sound Diplomacy. Sound Diplomacy is the leader of the global music cities movement. He is also the co-founder of Music Cities Convention, the world’s la…