Music: The Tool for Urban Development

Music News

We recently discussed the importance of implementing music in the development of smart cities for economic growth with Elizabeth Cawein.

To start us off, can you introduce yourself and give us a bit of your background?

I run a music PR agency, Signal Flow, and I run a music advocacy non-profit called Music Export Memphis. I founded Signal Flow in 2011—we just celebrated seven years this summer—and I started Music Export Memphis in 2015. Before I became a crazy entrepreneur and just started ‘starting things,’ I had always actually wanted to be a music journalist. I went to school for print journalism, and I have a graduate degree in music. I went to New York to try to write for a music magazine—right around the time the economy was totally falling apart.

As you can imagine, things didn’t work out, so I ended up moving back home to Memphis, and that’s kind of what started me on the trajectory that I’m on now. I started working for a music non-profit called the Memphis Music Foundation. I was doing communications and marketing work for them, dealing with how the foundation itself communicated, but also working with artist members. That ultimately led me to start Signal Flow in 2011. I was working with artists, traveling the country, and also I started taking notice of what was or wasn’t being done to tell the contemporary Memphis music story, especially around festivals and conferences. That was what inspired me to then start Music Export Memphis.

That’s certainly a lot going on in a small amount of time. Congratulations on the seven years! Why don’t we just go ahead and dive into our conversation here. Can you tell me how music can be a tool for urban development?

Thanks! Sure. I think, ultimately, music makes people want to be in a place. That’s the key for me: a connection between music and urban development. If you want to animate an empty space and show what’s possible, invite a band to perform, and invite people in to enjoy it. In Memphis, we’re actually becoming known for adaptive reuse, and for taking old abandoned spaces and turning them into cool new properties with lots of different lives, and different uses that people want to engage with. Music has been a part of quite a few of those projects. Again, music just attracts people to a space and shows what’s possible; and development, very often, quickly follows. It’s also important to note that music has all sorts of economic drivers attached to it—music intrinsically brings dollars and spending along with it.

The easiest example is live music. Live music is connected to dollars spent in food and beverage consumption. It’s connected to dollars spent on transport, whether it’s in the form of hiring a Lyft or an Uber, or taking public transportation, or mass public transportation. There are community building and social elements where we’re connecting with our neighbors. On top of that, there are economic and social benefits that are connected to live music specifically. Ultimately, I think there’s a fundamental building block of gentrification that can be applied here as well.

So, music and art make spaces cool. In turn, people gravitate towards those spaces and want to be in them. Ultimately, the end of that story is gentrification: prices go up and drive people out, which is not ideal. But, I think the important part here is the very first bit of the process—the thought that art makes spaces cool and it makes people want to be in them. That’s the key to the urban development piece of the greater puzzle.

To expand on that, would you say music can be used to attract ‘desired’ or target types of residents?

Sure, although that also depends on the type of resident you’re wanting to attract. These days, when we start talking about “desired” residents, that tends to conjure up this vision of a young tech worker who has expendable income and wants to spend a lot of it on going out and enjoying live music in the evenings. I don’t think the emphasis lies in attracting a specific potential resident demographic—as music can certainly be a tool to attract everyone, from young tech workers, to a young family, or a retiree. So, rather than thinking of attracting ‘desired residents,’ the thing that I talk about most is attracting talent.

That shifts the conversation to be about young, talented people—and gets us looking at music as a quality of life enhancement in a community. When looking for a place to live, for example, we can generalize that young, talented people look for a vibrant nightlife and a presence of a creative class. So, just having that type of amenity available is an important starting point in making a city a “desirable” living space for that kind of potential resident.

On top of that, as I mentioned, there’s also a real community-building element to music in the context of a neighborhood’s potential. In this sense, music goes beyond just being an entertainment product, a cultural offering to be consumed as part of a nightlife scene. It becomes a real quality of a given space; it’s a communal, shared activity that builds genuine connection between not just people, but neighbors—and it creates true communities where residents actually know their neighbors. That could certainly attract a really desirable type of resident and create a broader sense of belonging and community—regardless of the demographic category that fits into.

I think it’s all about recognizing your unique assets and determining strategies for the best ways to support them, grow them, and connect the nodes into a larger music ecosystem.

I completely agree. Can you think of any examples of government-subsidized programs that help to build a stronger and smarter music city?

Sure. I’ll use the idea of ‘government’ a little bit more broadly and just look at tax dollars—and there’s certainly an argument that those are one-to-one. In a lot of cities, there’s great work being done in the spheres of music, as well as in arts and culture more broadly, that is supported by tax dollars. Typically, it’s supported by hotel occupancy taxes that are collected by the city. Any time you go to a city and stay at a hotel, you’re paying a certain tax on that hotel room, sometimes called a “bed tax.” In many cities, that money is being funneled into some sort of cultural effort. If you look at it very broadly, you can see that hotel occupancy tax is used to fund tourism bureaus, which makes a ton of sense. A tourism bureau’s job is to get people to come and visit a city.

There are a couple of cities that use a portion of that hotel occupancy tax to do work in music, arts, and culture. San Antonio and San Francisco are two such cities. In San Antonio specifically, I know that they are doing some granting with that money, writing grants to smaller arts and culture organizations. In San Francisco and Seattle, certain types of taxes that are levied on lodging or entertainment—so not just hotels, but maybe an admissions tax on a ticket price for a particular music attraction or entry to a museum—those taxes actually fund music offices or similar entities that can support musicians in a lot of different ways.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the booming smart city development industry right now. With the growth of these smart cities, how do you ensure that you are building a city that matches the citizens? Or do you believe that it should work the other way around?

I think that cities are people, really. I talk a lot about the personality of Memphis, my home city. Ultimately, when I do that, I’m personifying this place, but it’s really wrapped up in our people—and that’s the personality I’m talking about. It’s this collective personality of the people who live in this city, and that’s what’s become the personality of the city. No change happens in a place without someone, a person, deciding that it should change and having an idea for how to change it. On the one hand, it’s definitely about building a city that matches its citizens, but the citizens have to be a key part of that. It can’t be a process that is divorced from the people who make up the city. So, I think it’s less about the directionality of the process and more about viewing both halves as integral parts that work together to create the whole.

It’s about building something “to match,” tailoring it based on the other part. To give an example from my world, when you’re thinking about how you can create something for artists, if you don’t have artists at the table, your entire process is pretty much already guaranteed to fail. So, I think, as we’re thinking about how we build cities “to match” citizens, so to speak, we have to have citizens at the table. It can’t be something done exclusively by a small selection of people way high up, sitting in city or urban development for example, making decisions for the broader population. It has to be a process in which citizens are actively engaged. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. So let’s look at Memphis—there’s a lot of history there. Would you say more established, historic cities tend to be a better fit for being a music hub than newer, up-and-coming cities?

I think it’s all about recognizing your unique assets and determining strategies for the best ways to support them, grow them, and connect the nodes into a larger music ecosystem. So, it’s not that one is necessarily better than the other. Both city types definitely have different assets and different challenges. For example, in Memphis, we have this awesome music legacy, but sometimes we do feel like it limits us, that it’s all we focus on. It can feel like, “Oh, we’re only known for our legacy music, or people are only talking about our historic musicians and music contributions,” and it seems like the historical or legacy aspect is the only thing that’s being promoted from our city. In turn, the folks that are in our very rich contemporary scene and who are making new music feel like their story isn’t necessarily being told. Of course, we are lucky to have such an incredible music legacy. But, in a younger city, or one that isn’t as lucky as we are to have that history in terms of its music, that city might be less caught up in its history, which is interesting. They are more open to touting and focusing on their contemporary musicians and they’re much more aware of what’s happening in the new music scene.

So, there are pros and cons to both—but it’s really just about identifying what your assets are. A city without a musical heritage can still be a music city, because music exists in every single city. Music makers exist in every city. It’s all about getting a deep understanding of those assets and how you can harness them. In the example of Memphis, we have to ask ourselves: if we are a music legacy city, how do we harness that while also still providing platforms and promotion of our new music scene? And in the case of a younger music city, that question might take on a shape of: How do we build community around our existing music scenes in order to better understand what we have, and how we can build that into a larger music ecosystem?

I’d also like to go back and just stress again the importance of making people feel represented in a really unique way, so that they feel there’s a presence of art and a cultural offer in their city that’s really tailored to them

Let’s jump back to the idea of gentrification and its effect on creatives living in a city. In creating a smart city, how would you balance that fine line between attracting creatives who make a district evolve into being “cool” versus the point when it becomes too expensive and unaffordable for a creative or a music professional to be able to survive in?

I presume we’re talking about the strictest definition of a smart city, in terms of information technology-oriented data measurement. Hopefully, that lends itself to being able to predict some trends—specifically in gentrification as well as development—and to put protections in place for our creative class. On a broader level, I think we’re at least in a place now where we all kind of recognize what that order of operations is, which is what I talked about earlier: artist moves into a space, that space becomes cool, artist get priced out. We understand that those are the building blocks. We know how gentrification works now, and we understand the value artists bring to our communities and the ways specifically that they’re at risk, which I think is really important.

I would hope that a smart city—a truly smart city, that’s been driven by this kind of deeper understanding of data and measurement—is able to predict a little bit better the “at-risk” communities where that’s likely to occur. Once those at-risk communities are identified, there are options in terms of further action steps that can be taken—like intentionally working with organizations that provide solutions for these type of problems. That would include some stipulation that would keep rents low, or essentially put some protections in place to ensure artists are able to keep living and/or working in a certain neighborhood, where they have historically lived and worked, even as it’s developed. At that point, it’s a matter of looking to leadership—city governments—to put policies in place to protect certain areas as “cultural districts,” or some sort of similar designation.

If we can get to a place where our data can predict those “at-risk” communities early enough to get through the red tape that’s necessary to put those “cultural district” protections in place, that would be the best iteration of a smart city that I can think of—especially as it relates to music, arts, and culture.

Art Space is a great example. It uses low-income housing tax credits to create living spaces designated specifically for artists, and they are in desirable areas of town. So, this is not like, you know, “We’re building this building of condos for artists out in the suburbs.” Rather, we’re going to put them directly in the areas of town that they’ve helped make cool, and we’re going to create these multi-unit buildings to house those artists at an affordable rate, using the low-income housing tax credit..

Memphis has an extremely strong cultural identity, especially regarding music. Do you have any advice or insight on how other cities can build a similar cultural identity?

Sure. I think it’s probably more about how cities can recognize and nurture their cultural identity, because it’s definitely not something that you build from scratch or inject into a community—it really already exists. So, again, it’s a matter of going back to the question of, “What are our assets?” It’s about really looking at an asset map, figuring out what we have to offer; if it’s specifically in music, then thinking about that. For example: What are the values of our community when it comes to music? What’s the source of civic pride? I think a lot of the things in Memphis that I can point to as being a very important part of our culture are great sources of civic pride. Of course, there’s the chicken versus egg question there—as in, do we have civic pride in those elements because they’re part of our culture, or is it our culture because it’s what makes us proud?

If you’re looking to build an identity around that, where something really doesn’t exist, then that’s something that you can look at. What are the elements of life in our city, in our community that make our citizens proud? And then, of course, how does the community express itself through music, through art, through food? All those are important elements of culture. If there are people in a space, those expressions exist. So, it’s a matter of just finding them, and understanding the unique cultural output of your particular city, compared to nowhere else. That’s something I stress and harp on a lot—that it’s really not about “We’re the next Austin,” or “We’re the next LA.” It’s about really, truly looking inward.  Putting your blinders on, excluding everything else, and just looking internally—and thinking about what those unique assets are that exist specifically in your city.

It involves looking for trends as well. Maybe you didn’t even realize that your city has a particular genre that’s really thriving there. Maybe you’ve got a really great punk scene, but you just weren’t aware of that, because you didn’t go looking and start recognizing the trend. And so, I think finding those trends can be an important part of recognizing and understanding that cultural identity so that you can nurture it.

To expand on that a bit, how much would you say the industry of a city—whether it’s biotech or a silicon valley development city—has an effect on your cultural identity? Let’s take the instance of Amazon for example, where a company brings these massive headquarter campuses into a city—does that totally change the dynamic or the cultural identity of those cities?

That’s an interesting question. Part of me says it can, because particularly, in the case of Amazon, you’re talking about injecting thousands and thousands of people into a city. You’re not necessarily talking about a company coming in and hiring from within that city, but they’re hiring nationally, bringing in new blood. They’re bringing new people into that space—so that movement can’t help but change the space to an extent. And I think that happens over time, but if you have more of a certain type of person with a certain type of value set, it’s no different than politics. It’s a certain type of people with certain values moving into a space, and that city will be more likely to swing blue or red.

That can be true for culture as well. If you have an influx of millennials, for example, or an influx of young people who really value a live music scene, you will begin to see that growth and associated economic impact within that setting. That’s also of course connected to how much expendable income these people have. So, if you’re talking about a company, or an industry generally that is a higher wage industry, where your employees are going to have a higher expendable income, I think that is certainly going to make a difference in culture.

I mean, food feels like the easiest example here. When you have a larger portion of your community with a higher expendable income, you are going to start to see that in your fine dining. That feels like it would be the place that it would start to show up. If there’s a marketplace for fine dining, then your fine dining options are going to grow, because there are going to be entrepreneurs who want to slot themselves into that marketplace, and who see that there’s a community of people who want it. And that can be true for other cultural elements as well.

If we can get to a place where our data can predict those “at-risk” communities early enough to get through the red tape that’s necessary to put those “cultural district” protections in place, that would be the best iteration of a smart city that I can think of—especially as it relates to music, arts, and culture

In terms of the age of a city’s population, what effect does that have on a city’s capability of becoming a strong music city?

You know, I’m going to sound like a hypocrite because I’ve talked so much about youth already in this conversation, and attracting talented young people, but I don’t necessarily think the youthfulness of a city is directly tied to its capability of being a strong music city. And I say that because there are different types of music cities. Every city’s personality is different and every music city’s personality is different. There’s definitely no doubt that young people have always been innovators when it comes to music. When you look across the pop music canon particularly, a lot of those breakthrough moments in music since the 1950s—since the invention of rock and roll—came from people under 30.

But that doesn’t mean an older population, on average, can’t be found in a thriving music city. Again, I think it’s more about the particular assets in your city and how you nurture and sustain them—whatever the age and demographic makeup is. So, if it’s a younger city, there are going to be different values around what’s important—and also, what’s desirable—just from a capitalistic perspective. What do they want to spend money on? And I think that if you have an older population, those values might be slightly different, but it’s just a matter of being aware of them and working to use that knowledge to build your music ecosystem.

One thing all these age groups have in common though, and that we’ve seen an uptick on—particularly in the last decade—is that spending on experiences is up across all age groups. You see that from millennials to boomers and everything in between. People are more willing to spend money nowadays on experiences than anything else. That’s critical here, because music falls into that category almost exclusively. If people are going out to a live music event, that is an experience. We find that no matter your age, people are willing to spend money on that.

So, it comes down to a difference of scale. That older population is maybe going to be in a better position to support, say, a performing arts center bringing in artists with $70 to $100 ticket pricing. Your younger audience might be more likely to support a club scene with a $5 or $10 cover. But, that will bring in different types of bands, and open up different types of opportunities than maybe a performing arts center kind of scene would. So, there are opportunities with communities of all ages, and there are opportunities for music cities to look different depending on what that demographic makeup is.

In today’s IoT age, data rules everything. Can you think of any ways that collecting data from observing the music people stream in different cities could lead to the creation of relevant smart city services?

Yes, I love this idea. The first thing that comes to mind for me is music programming at the neighborhood level that speaks directly to the tastes and interests of that neighborhood. There are myriad benefits that could come from something like this. If you’re able to assess with true data the exact music tastes and music interests of a particular neighborhood, and you’re able to program artists, say, an open-air concert maybe in a small park that exists within that neighborhood. If you’re doing that intentionally with that data in mind, knowing that you’re programming music that is of interest to the majority of folks in this neighborhood, more people will come out, more will be interested. They’ll feel represented, that they’re in a sense being heard. They’ll feel that programming has been tailored to them, that it is created truly for them. That builds community, and increases public safety.

That’s really an important element for something like this. People don’t consider the way that music, particularly live music events like this example, can actually have other public health benefits. Public safety is a big one, particularly if you really drill down and look at it on the neighborhood level. Getting people out to just meet their neighbors and have a conversation is going to increase public safety. You know your neighbors, you’ve got an eye on their house, you are aware of the comings and goings of the neighborhood, and crime could potentially decrease because of that. So that’s one example.

I’d also like to go back and just stress again the importance of making people feel represented in a really unique way, so that they feel there’s a presence of art and a cultural offer in their city that’s really tailored to them. That’s certainly a problem that we run into in a lot of spaces—that there’s music, art, and culture happening that doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s for me. In different cities, that takes on different meaning. But, a lot of people may feel that way, so something like that could present a unique opportunity to create an environment that has a high level of inclusion.

Can you think of any real-world examples of smart city development initiatives that bring innovation on both a broader level of a city’s infrastructure like in transportation, as well as on the level of a city’s music economy? In other words, do you think it’s possible for such initiatives to meet at a crossroads between form and function?

Earlier this week, I was doing some research and I stumbled on an interesting story. It was about an initiative that, I believe, was on the Tube in London. London has been known for a long time for its busking scheme, where they license buskers who perform music in almost all of the London Underground stations. But, this story was specifically around classical music, and the calming effect that it has on people. So the idea was, if we have people performing classical music in these public transport stations, in this case specifically on the Underground, that it will reduce what they referred to as antisocial behavior. Specifically, it’ll reduce the number of incidents of violence in public transportation. I can’t remember the exact statistic, but what I remember reading in the article was that it had been so overwhelmingly successful, that they were increasing the amount of musicians they were putting into this scheme.

I found that to be really fascinating, because to me that’s a really great example of what we’re talking about here. The artists are being paid, so you have something that is investing directly into the music ecosystem by employing artists. That’s kind of step one: making sure that musicians have ways to make money, which is central to them being able to stay in a city. So it’s paying the artists and musicians to come and play in this space, but it’s also having a real public benefit. There are some ideas that trickle down from that, which are harder to measure. Certainly, it’s easy to measure an increase or decrease in incidents of violence or antisocial behavior. That’s something that they can absolutely benchmark, as those things are reported and documented.

I think it’s a little harder to document some of the more intangibles that come with that—like confidence in that public transportation system, in being able to ride safely, and the likelihood (or increased likelihood) of someone choosing to take public transportation. Obviously, in a city that is so driven by public transport, that’s maybe a bit of a stretch. But, I think that those are the types of data points that I would be interested in—is it even realistic to gather them. Just through a program like that, where musicians are playing and ultimately that leads to more people taking that public transportation—because they feel safer. Certainly, that’s the goal. I don’t think it’s an overreach to say that’s the goal, that people feel safer. But, that it could increase our use of that piece of infrastructure seems like a really cool intersection of the two things to me.

On a personal level, can you give us one work or life hack that you use on a daily basis to keep yourself motivated and to achieve success?

This is such a great question, and I really wish that I had a great answer for this. But, I’ve never been great at the life hacks. I’m really old school. I use probably the most tedious methods to do a lot of things. I actually have a physical planner that I still use, a spiral-bound planner. But, I think that, to me, what feels like a life hack—although that’s probably a strong phrase—but something that I do every day that I think is really, really important for me, is actually just exercise. I don’t think I ever would have assessed this maybe 10, or even five years ago. But, every day that I get older, I am able to see more how that time (which is usually 30 minutes to an hour for me every day) clears my head. I have my best ideas, I sort of work through everything. The way that it resets my brain for my day is completely invaluable, and I actually just don’t think that I would be able to work the amount of hours that I work and execute at the level I execute if I wasn’t taking that time every day to just unpack my head and get a little bit distracted. I’m actually training for a half marathon right now—this is my fourth year to run this particular one. I like to do stuff like that because it gives me a goal to work toward. My brain would not be what it is without that time every day. So, I think that’s my life hack: just exercise.


Elizabeth Cawein is a publicist, public relations strategist and a music advocate. She holds a B.A. in journalism from Murray State University and an M.A. in contemporary music from Brunel University. She is the founded Signal Flow PR  in 2011, a music public relations agency. She also founded a music advocacy not-for-profit called Music Export Memphis in 2015 that creates opportunities for economic development through music and culture. She is passionate about music, art, culture, and what it means to be a music city.

Keep up with Elizabeth on LinkedIn.

Illustration by Damian Dideńko

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