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Urban Contexts: Music Cities Convention, Brighton

Music Cities Convention
Shane Homan
| July 7, 2015

Assoc Professor Shane Homan, Monash University

Melbourne’s Shane Homan reports on an inaugural gathering of global music cities held in May this year. Ten cities including Adelaide and Melbourne shared their initiatives, learnings, and the benefits of placing music at the centre of a city’s life. Read Shane’s informative Convention roundup here.

 As the fevered debates about Richard Florida’s diagnosis for how culture can fix ailing cities recede, the role of the city is under intense examination in other ways. Melbourne City Council is hosting its first annual music cities symposium in November 2015. The Music Cities Convention franchise established by Martin Elbourne (the Great Escape) and Shain Shapiro (Sound Diplomacy) had its first gathering in Brighton, England on 13 May, with ‘120 delegates, 13 presentations, 2 panels and 50 cities represented’. The list of short presentations on music cities was impressive, including Barcelona, Liverpool, Mannheim, Groningen, Addis Ababa, Capetown, Berlin and Montreal. Two Australian cities were represented through short analyses of Adelaide (Becc Bates, SA Music Development Office and David Grice, Musitec) and Melbourne (Patrick Donovan, Music Victoria).

The Adelaide (Bates/Grice) and Melbourne (Donovan) presentations brought into focus the Australian experience in relation to global trends and contexts. Adelaide is a global example in its decision to properly investigate the needs of local industry prior to government involvement, and in building the evidence for regulatory, planning and funding changes. It is clear that Melbourne is at the forefront of change in planning legislation: the introduction of the Agent of Change principle in venue legislation, in particular, was regarded enviously by other city representatives (the Victorian government has also set aside funds in the current budget for assisting venues with soundproofing and other amenity issues as part of its Music Works package).

The diversity of cities on display reinforced for me the need for each city to play to its strengths (what economists would call comparative advantage). For Mannheim and Groningen, strong educational networks have provided the basis for further investment in popular music, with a keen interest in ‘cluster management’ and targeted ‘talent support’. Where high youth populations were once regarded as a series of ‘problems’ for governments, Montreal and Groningen viewed this an opportunity to reinforce the existing points of youth music consumption (festivals), youth education, and the provision of new creative spaces within their cities.

Planning and building codes were identified by nearly all speakers as sources of ongoing concern. Mark Davyd (Music Venues Trust) reported a 38% loss of London’s venues in a recent audit, accompanied by a reduction in the length of UK tours. Local context is less important here, in the face of a global rise in land use battles, where gentrification and developer largesse continually trumps the values and heritage of existing venues. Amidst the triumphant detail of Montreal’s ‘Cultural Metropolis Plan’, the fact that the ‘real estate economic benefits’ of an established ‘Creative Quarter’ amounted to ‘$1.5b’ was presented without irony. Beyond Melbourne’s Agent of Change legislation (still to be tested), the presentations reinforced the lack of a decisive and compelling narrative that can be used in the chambers of government. In a few instances, heritage discourses were proposed, mainly of use in preserving ‘iconic’ venues.

(there is a need for) a decisive and compelling narrative that can be used in the chambers of government.

The presentation from Berlin reminded the gathering that other parts of a city’s music ecology cannot be neglected. As part of its ‘Smart City Berlin’ initiatives, the city seeks to be ‘Europe’s start up hub’ for cultural businesses, through successful businesses such as Soundcloud. Its Music Board has also established a ‘one stop shop’ for grants.

Dave Haslam’s presentation was a fiery warning that not everything can be left to regulation. In stating that those who established Manchester’s The Hacienda ‘didn’t have a business plan’, Haslam believed that places like Manchester were leaning towards ‘massive development’ (such as the redeveloped Manchester Print Works) as misplaced faith in the fabrication of scenes. This question has never gone away: what is the right mix of government assistance, and when do you need studied ignorance/indifference to allow marginal scenes, genres and ‘unorganised fun’ to develop? Haslam’s speech sparked a brief discussion about the right mix of regulation/enabling/deregulation.

The day was capped by Amy Terril (Music Canada)’s explanation of her Mastering of a Music City report (read Chris Bowen’s story on their report here). This proved to be a useful summary of the strategies discussed throughout the day, where the U.S. and Canada are leading with innovative administration and advocacy. Terrill urged the gathering to ‘tailor your message to your audience’, where an ‘engaged state leader’ can lead to ‘political enlightenment’.  We know such leaders are rare; in their absence, the challenge in Australian contexts is to ensure that the social and cultural is not lost in the present doubling down on economic outcomes. The European emphasis on small music businesses and start-ups is understandable, given their higher arts and cultural enterprise budgets. This is an area where Australian music cities could investigate further.

More information at the Music Cities Convention website.

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