Economic Development

Tune Towns

Cities hear money in the sound of music.
by | May 2006

Call up Seattle City Hall these days and the first sound you hear may be a guitar strumming out an Irish air--or a high-stepping accordion, or perhaps some pleasant piano. When callers are put on hold, they get to listen to one of about a dozen recordings by local musicians that the city now plays through its switchboard. If they like what they hear, they can buy compact discs through the city's Web site.

"It used to be that callers would hear mainstream instrumental music chosen by the phone service people," says Lori Patrick, of Seattle's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs. "So the concept isn't new, but it's a way to promote our local musicians."

In an era when tens of millions of Americans have music constantly streaming from their iPods into their skulls, exposing them to more sound hardly seems like the most pressing civic endeavor. But many cities believe that showcasing homegrown talent will provide a distinctive regional identity that they can market--and bring in some big bucks.

That's why the city of Omaha stepped in when the local indie label Saddle Creek Records was squabbling with neighbors over plans to build a large bar and concert venue. The mayor's office shepherded Saddle Creek toward a location north of downtown where no one would object to loud patrons spilling out at 1 a.m. City officials welcomed Saddle Creek with plenty of tax breaks in hopes that the venue, which will include apartments and a two-screen movie theater, would provide the right anchor for the redevelopment of an area now being called NoDo.

In Des Moines, the city has just set up a music commission, which acts much the way film commissions traditionally do--helping artists and managers cut through red tape when they're working on a project. "The city is involved in a lot of decisions that affect the music industry," says Fritz Junker, chairman of the Des Moines commission, "from zoning to ordinances to cost for support services such as police and street closures."

Junker says his ambition is to move beyond logistical support toward finding ways of growing the local music economy. In March, he sent a representative down to Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest Festival, hoping to drum up support and attention for the Des Moines sound among the thousands of music industry and media representatives gathered there.

Not surprisingly, Austin and other cities that trade heavily in music are doing the most to promote their local scenes. City officials in the Texas capital are constantly thinking about music. In fact, musicians play at the opening of every council meeting.

After some of them complained about getting nabbed for tickets while unloading their gear along Sixth Street, Austin's nightclub row, the city set up a special loading zone, giving permits to clubs that lend them out to players. "We're always trying to find ways to do things to make the city processes better for music," says Jim Butler, whose city title--manager of creative industries development--speaks volumes.

The cable music channel that Austin operated for a decade has been outsourced, but Nashville is keeping its musicians on the airwaves. That city now produces a monthly program on XM satellite radio featuring local sons and daughters. Conventioneers there are given the chance to record in a studio where Elvis Presley once laid down some tracks, then to hear their efforts played over the PA system at the Wild Horse Saloon.

Assuming they'd rather listen to people with talent, the convention bureau in Nashville, like its counterpart in Austin, helps meeting planners book bands for their gatherings, encouraging them to think beyond the jazz trio playing background music at the reception. "This is a great gig for a musician," says Rose Reyes, of the Austin CVB, "to show up on a Monday at 4 in the afternoon."

If cities want to provide work for musicians, musicians are glad for the help. Carolina Dhaens, who manages a salsa band featured on Seattle's phone system, says the exposure and support offered by the city has been "fantastic. We've had people jokingly say, 'I'm going to have to call the city, just to be put on hold.'"

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