In addition to my health, friends and family, I had something unexpected to celebrate this past Thanksgiving: the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (DEMF) is returning to the city on July 4, 2014. DEMF’s return is good news. It promises to compliment Movement (a similar festival organized to replace a floundering DEMF in 2003) and will strengthen Detroit’s identity as the birthplace of techno music. It’s also heartening to see DEMF return to an impressive lineup of summer festivals designed to highlight metro Detroit’s vibrant music scene. These festivals are not only fun, but they provide an excellent opportunity for the region to promote itself as a creative hub for tourists and potential new businesses.

There has been plenty of discussion over the past decade on the creative class and how new economic drivers are shaping decisions on where people live and work. Since authoring The Rise of the Creative Class in 2002, Richard Florida has often been cast as the go-to expert on how cities can remain competitive in an increasingly mobile and global economy. Instead of focusing economic development on the attraction and retention of large manufacturing sites, Florida encourages cities to focus their efforts on promoting a unique sense of place in order to attract smaller, more nimble technology and creative firms. One of the best ways to create a sense of place and capture creative energy, Florida argues, is to nurture a vibrant local music scene.

R. Crumb's book Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country being sold at Detroit Jazz Fest 2009. Photo courtesy of picturepal on Flickr.

R. Crumb’s book Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country being sold at the Detroit Jazz Festival in 2009. Photo courtesy of picturepal on Flickr.

Detroit’s influence on popular music is hard to deny. The metro region has produced artists that loom large across musical genres; influencing punk, rock, techno, dance, jazz, blues, hip-hop, house and even polka. The city is also synonymous with Motown Records, which revolutionized the production and marketing of pop music.

Despite its legacy, research by Florida and his colleagues at the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI) suggests Detroit is not fully capitalizing on its local music scene. An analysis of figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis allowed MPI to develop a Metro Music Index to rank cities based on the local music scene. Nashville “Music City” Tennessee tops the list, followed by the obvious (New York City and Los Angeles) and the surprising (Rochester, New York). Detroit doesn’t crack the top 25. It comes in at 37; unable to even beat much smaller Kalamazoo, Michigan, which is ranked 8 overall when small metros are included.

What gives? It would be hard to argue that Barry Gordy’s decision to move Motown to Los Angeles in 1972 didn’t leave a hole in the region’s music economy, but Detroit’s music scene is still internationally known and is a major contributor to the regional economy. Its popularity is evident in another list compiled by MPI that ranks the popularity of music scenes. Detroit may not be particularly competitive when quantitatively compared to other metros, but it still ranks a respectable 16 on MPI’s list of most popular music cities.

A recent report by the Anderson Economic Group (AEG) adds even more weight to the idea that Detroit still boasts a major music scene. It suggests there are at least 110 recording studios and labels in Michigan, with the majority located in Detroit. The report also estimates local concert venues host 3,000 live performances each year, with an additional “40,000 to 50,000 total music days/nights each year at bars and restaurants in the Detroit metro region.” AEG suggests all that activity is driven by 2,000 independent artists working in the local scene. That is a lot of music, but it is also a lot of economic activity. AEG pegs the total economic impact of Detroit’s music scene at $1.15 billion. That is an impressive figure; one that ranks the region’s music economy as the third largest and second highest earning economy when compared to places “frequently, chosen as peer cities for Detroit in business publications and benchmark studies.”

Still, while the region can hold its head high when compared to Indianapolis, Kansas City and Cleveland, the poor showing on MPI’s list of music economies suggests Detroit’s music scene is not living up to its “Motown” moniker. Howard Hertz, a local lawyer specializing in the music industry, believes AEG’s estimated $1.15 billion value of Detroit’s music scene is accurate, but he also urges the region “to double and triple it.” Hertz suggests additional growth can be accomplished through a more concerted effort to promote the local scene and to help connect local artists with agents and major labels.

Detroit’s music scene has all the ingredients required for success, but it is not receiving the help and attention it needs to really take off. In order to fully capitalize on the popularity of music in metro Detroit, local business and civic groups can draw lessons from cities that have not only developed a brand around local music, but continue to dedicate resources to nurture and promote its local scene. Two outstanding examples are Nashville and Austin, Texas. Both cities are well known as centers of music production and live performance and both clearly recognize the potential economic benefits associated with a vibrant and well-known music scene.

An Advertisement for a country music bar on Broadway in Nashville. Photo by LarryHB on Flickr.

An Advertisement for a country music bar on Broadway in Nashville. Photo by LarryHB on Flickr.

In July 2013, the Nashville Music Council estimated the economic impact of music in Nashville to be a sizable $10 billion (nearly ten times the value of Detroit’s music economy). It is true there are elements of Nashville’s music economy that Detroit may never be able to duplicate (i.e. the number of major labels based in the city or the incredible number of songwriters that call Nashville home), but Detroit can benefit from approaching music with the same level of care and commitment as Nashville. The Nashville Chamber of Commerce (NCC) issues regular reports on the health of the local music industry that highlights progress, while also encouraging more steps that can be taken to improve the local music economy.

The steps recommended by the NCC range from ensuring easy air travel to other major music centers and clustering music related businesses together, to applying to have its Music Row designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation works to promote Nashville’s local music scene by making it easy for visitors to learn more about the city’s history and plan a trip with links to live music venues, festival schedules, local hotels, and discounts to a variety of local attractions. Instead of taking its local music scene for granted, music is the corner stone of Nashville’s efforts to promote itself as a vacation destination and an ideal location for new businesses eager to tap into its creative energy.

Austin is another city that exemplifies how a local music scene can be used to further economic development goals. Detroit is unlikely to topple Nashville as a leader in the writing and production of music, but its community of live music venues and annual festivals is reminiscent of Austin, the “Live Music Capital of the World.” As with Nashville, Austin’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau has built a dedicated website to make it easy for visitors to navigate its music scene. The site makes it easy for those interested to connect with local hotels, navigate maps of the city’s entertainment district, connect with the city via social media and to plan a trip around the Austin’s many festivals and events. In addition to making it easy for visitors, the Austin Music Office promotes local musicians and helps them connect to resources around town or across the globe.

When you compare the energy and attention cities like Nashville and Austin dedicate to promoting the local music scene with counterparts like the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau or the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation the lackluster effort of Detroit is stark. Instead of using its local music scene as a magnet for conventions, tourists and new business, Detroit’s civic and business organizations relegate the topic to a brief mention at the end of a page or as a list of nationally touring acts that overlooks a local music scene that is dynamic and unique. This is a missed opportunity to not only celebrate a $1.15 billion part of the local economy, but to attract new investment by promoting the local music scene as an illustration of a metro Detroit region that is creative and innovative.

Hopefully, AEG’s report on the strength of Detroit’s music scene will help to encourage the powers-that-be to update development and marketing efforts to better utilize the region’s music identity. Metro Detroit has all the ingredients of a vibrant local music scene; it as just become too easy to overlook them. As the region continues its efforts to diversify its economy and step ever so slightly out of the shadow of the auto industry, the music scene may offer the best opportunity for it to market itself as a destination for the creative class and the businesses that support it.

In the meantime, World Cafe’s Sense of Place: Detroit offers a wonderful place to start for those interested in learning more about a local Detroit music scene very much alive and well.

  • Carrie

    Very interesting. I would not have guessed that music brings so much money to Metro Detroit these days. It’s definitely something the city should promote. It’s definitely sad KZoo beats Detroit on a music list.