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Communities’ Underinvested, Underappreciated Economic Engine: Music

It’s a fast-growing, multibillion-dollar industry that provides lots of jobs and consists mostly of small businesses. But it’s poorly understood by economic developers.

Huntsville's Orion Ampitheater
An artist’s rendering of a concert being held at Huntsville, Ala.’s Orion Ampitheater, which is scheduled to open in May; the city invested more than $40 million in the venue as part of music-focused economic development plan. (City of Huntsville)
One thing that brings us together is music. It is one of the only things in our lives that we don’t need to live but can’t live without. Whether it is attending a concert or festival, listening to the radio in the car, watching a show on Netflix, or attending a sports event, music is there.

With music, however, what is most important to us is what we hear — the song, the concert, how it made the movie more suspenseful — and not the process of creating it. In enjoying or absorbing the music, we ignore the infrastructure, be it physical or human, that is required to ensure that the music reaches our ears. Instruments had to be made, the venue had to be built, those involved required education to learn to play or produce, T-shirts and album sleeves had to be designed, and so on. These are not just actions; these are jobs.

Yet this disconnect is about much more than ignoring the process while enjoying the end result, and this is not specific to music. Few of us understand how planes fly, but we are happy to get on them. Same goes for food production. But when it comes to aviation, agribusiness or just about any other industry, communities all over the United States compete for factories, production facilities and entrepreneurs. This is, for the most part, not the case with music. In fact, music is often conspicuously absent in workforce development policy, because most policymakers lack an understanding of how the music ecosystem works.

Music is a complex, multifaceted business. There is no singular point of sale nor single path of production, dissemination or consumption. Most of the jobs in the music economy are behind the scenes — production, logistics, hospitality and the like, and music is not, exclusively, a business of manufacturing. One song could be owned by dozens of people, creating complicated revenue streams and arrangements. Moreover, much of the growth of the sector is through streaming, not physical reproduction. That makes it hard to see.

As a result, traditional economic development strategies lack a thorough understanding of the business and how to attract it. Many communities invest in a single venue, such as a concert hall, or something ephemeral, such as a festival, but few understand basic data about their sector — where it is, how much it is worth, how it complements the wider economy. And while festivals are welcome, if there are no music education programs in the adjacent public school, the disconnect is made worse. No artist is born famous, and everyone comes from somewhere.

When one thinks of a city that markets itself as a “music city,” it is one that deliberately and intentionally uses music to promote itself, attract jobs or celebrate heritage. One would tend to think of Nashville, which owns the trademark “Nashville Music City,” or New Orleans, or Austin. But music is everywhere. And it is one of America’s fastest-growing industries. In 2021, the global recorded-music market grew by 18.4 percent, to $26.4 billion. Ticket sales are projected to exceed pre-pandemic levels this year, and over $5 billion has been invested in music copyrights, prompting them to be seen as “a red-hot asset class.” Globally, music revenue is expected to grow to $131 billion by 2030, according to Goldman Sachs. Music instrument sales are at an all-time high. Still, as a workforce to be developed, it is remarkably absent across America.

This is changing. In some places, music as a job creator, talent attractor and retainer is being taken far more seriously. There are a number of reasons for this. For one thing, the ability to work from anywhere creates an opportunity for far more communities to attract a creative workforce, and a thriving music and cultural offer is one requirement for communities aiming to attract companies and jobs. Huntsville, Ala., for example, has embarked on a music and economic development plan, which has led to the creation of a city-funded “music officer” position, the appointment of a music advisory board with the same civic impact as any other economic development board, and the investment of over $40 million in a new amphitheater due to open on May 13. In Fort Worth, Texas, music has become embedded in a push to more strongly link workforce development — particularly young entrepreneurs — and tourism, so much so that a music office has been funded through the city’s convention and visitors bureau. In Indiana, Greater Fort Wayne Inc., the region’s economic development engine, has listed making Fort Wayne a “Music City” as one of its strategic priorities.

This is also impacting how cities and states deploy American Rescue Plan Act funding. Music — and the wider creative economy — meets a number of ARPA objectives. The vast majority of the music sector consists of small businesses, employing fewer than 10 people, and is active across lower-income and disadvantaged communities. As a result, many places have used ARPA funding to recognize the importance of music as a driver of economic development. Tulsa, Okla., created Play Tulsa Music, to retain talent and invest in local performances. Delaware has granted $1 million in ARPA funds to the Delaware Arts Alliance to support its work across music and the creative economy. Battle Creek, Mich., has committed $347,000 from its ARPA allocation to a music-led Cultural Council.

But these are exceptions, rather than the norm. Most investment directed to music, arts and culture is still provided as in the form of grants and directed to nonprofit associations. Music, as a workforce, remains undervalued, underinvested and poorly understood. Few economic developers are exploring, in a deliberate and intentional way, how music can improve their communities and create jobs. This is despite the fact that the music industry is growing faster than most other sectors and its output is one that all of us, no matter who we are, consume all the time. The time is right for a change. And it sounds good.

Shain Shapiro is the founder and executive director of the Center For Music Ecosystems, a global nonprofit dedicated to enhancing the economic role of music in communities, registered in Alabama and Estonia. He is also the founder and chair of Sound Diplomacy, which advises on growing music, culture, leisure and hospitality in communities.



Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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