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The Music Industry Chooses Winners and Losers. Cities Can, Too.

By creating a robust music ecosystem policy, cities can incubate talent and launch new stars, Shain Shapiro argues in his new book.

Story by Shain Shapiro

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This excerpt is adapted from Shain Shapiro’s book “This Must Be The Place: How Music Can Make Your City Better” (Repeater, 2023), which looks at the powerful impact music can have on how cities are developed, built, managed and governed. His U.S. book tour begins March 10.

One of my favorite bands is Phish. Its headline concert in Florida at the turn of the millennium was the world’s largest concert to welcome in that year. In 2017, the band performed 13 straight nights at New York’s Madison Square Garden without repeating a song. It hosts festivals that welcome over 100,000 people — and it’s the only act.

But what fascinates me most about Phish is how its music, aesthetic and outlook is intrinsically linked to the place it was founded: Burlington, Vermont.

When the band started out in 1983, Bernie Sanders was mayor. Despite a population of only 40,000, the city had a thriving arts, culture and music scene. The frigid temperatures during winter kept people inside, meaning more practice opportunities. For such a small place, it had more music venues per capita than anywhere else in the U.S. Guitarist Trey Anastasio and bassist Mike Gordon have both said it wasn’t possible for Phish to come from anywhere else. As a result, its music is peppered with references to their home city. Its major label debut in 1992 is named after the owner of the venue where it cut its teeth, Nectars. Songs reference local companies, such as “Harry Hood,” which pays tribute to the local dairy.

Did Burlington have any policies that would have made a band like Phish more likely to happen there than anywhere else? Did its public art program, education policy, licensing framework or strategic plan have anything to do with it? Or did Phish just happen? Is it possible for a city to create a globally famous band? Can deliberate education, economic, social, cultural and tourism policies be designed to tilt the scales?

Phish thinks so, and they may have a point.

In his eight years as mayor, Bernie Sanders pursued an agenda that fiercely promoted civic engagement, community activism and local organization. He spent money on arts and culture. He created a community development organization. His staffer, Peter Clavelle, succeeded Sanders as mayor and — bar a two-year gap — held the position until 2006. Investing in and the incubation of local businesses increased, and a land trust was created. A framework of governing focused on community empowerment, activism and engagement was created. Phish, along with Ben & Jerry’s, Burton Snowboards and others came out of this political ideology.

Burlington wasn’t a paragon of music strategy. It went through economic hardship and budget cuts and, like most cities and governments, hadn’t explored the role of the creative industry in its economic development. But if Phish was right, can any city replicate that success? Can local policies, funding, practices and community engagement directly create a future rap superstar or leading jazz trio?

The music industry chooses winners and losers. I believe cities can, too.

Comprehensive policy

A music ecosystem policy is an overarching framework that encompasses the role of music across all governance structures, defining policies to support the creation, dissemination and enjoyment of music across society. It is not about any particular genre, discipline or outcome. The intention is to create a structure for better understanding the role and impact (positive and negative) of music on all policies.

The problem we currently have is that music is incorporated into governing when it suits. If there’s an issue that requires legislative change — such as protecting music venues in a dense town or city center — we advocate for an alteration in planning law. This issue gets a lot of airtime, as most cities are seeing music venues and nightclubs close down for a variety of reasons. Implementing a policy governing the wider ecosystem is much more efficient and effective than a reacting to challenges when they appear. Venues being threatened by new housing developments or artists or copyright holders not receiving their fair share from the usage of their music are symptoms of a lack of music ecosystem policies, even though they are treated as one-offs.

Although we know people move to cities to experience culture and nightlife, policymakers don’t pay sufficient attention to the infrastructure required for a thriving cultural scene. When it works, we call a place “vibrant.” When it doesn’t, it is chaotic or dangerous. When the music is not to someone’s taste, it can increase fear and biased decisionmaking. When a person can’t sleep, they are irritable. So when things go wrong, it’s personal situation versus personal situation — those who want to go out against those who want to sleep. The urban environment becomes polarised, and music, in one way or another, is part of the problem.

Rather than tackling these issues on a case-by-case basis, we should explore why there’s no foresight being applied — why isn’t there a music ecosystem policy? People should be able to sleep in their apartment, even if there’s a concert going on downstairs. Gig-goers should be able to park without being grossly overcharged or ticketed, or have a safe night-time public transport option available. Those who want quiet should have it.

What’s on the stereo, how it gets there and how it impacts our urban geographies is still impacted by the decisions made in city governments, even if the word “music” is not included in decision-making. By not understanding the sound and acoustics of our urban fabric, we pass noise bylaws that restrict music in places, despite not measuring the impact this would have on the music ecosystem.

We expect our arenas and stadiums to be filled with fans of global superstars, and celebrate when they emerge from our hometowns, but we fail to grasp the impact that reducing music education has on this happening. We expect people to live in denser communities, and those who do so expect to have a vibrant quality of life — until it gets too loud and they can’t sleep. Music is delivered on demand, when and where we want it, yet policies to pay those who create the music often do not exist. We need music. We need infrastructure. We do not put them together.

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Shain Shapiro is chairman of Sound Diplomacy and executive director of the Center for Music Ecosystems.

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