Op-ed: The bumpy road to becoming Alabama’s premier music town began with a music audit.
This post was originally posted by Shain Shapiro for the Brookings Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking’s Placemaking Postcard series.
Huntsville, Ala. has tremendous musical talent and heritage, but is not as well known as its neighboring towns for craftsmanship. As a mid-tier market between Atlanta, Nashville, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala., Huntsville’s music economy has historically been overlooked, and many investors have been skeptical of the midsize city’s ability to support large-scale investments in music infrastructure, such as outdoor lecture halls or large multi-purpose halls.
In April 2018, the City Council decided to change this misconception by initiating a creative place-making process called a “Music Audit” to help Huntsville become Alabama’s first “Music City.” The city accomplished this feat through a four-year equity and economic development strategy, offering lessons for other markets interested in embracing this creative place-making quest.
“CITIES OF MUSIC” AND THE INTERSECTION BETWEEN CREATIVE PLACEMAKING AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
A “Music City” is defined as a city that incorporates music as a tool in its philosophy of collective governance through economic development, education, tourism and overall quality of life. Well-known examples include places like Austin, Texas, and Nashville, but both big cities and small towns can become music cities with the right infrastructure and governance mechanisms in place. The economic benefits of becoming a music city are sometimes overlooked, but research indicates that a tourism boom driven by the entertainment industry can generate local job growth and generate multi-billion dollar positive financial impacts.
To help cities drive this economic, social, and cultural growth, my organization, Sound Diplomacy, works with officials to conduct “music audits” that comprehensively assess their existing music ecosystem. A music audit involves an in-depth look at the role of music in city services, initiatives and disciplines, including workforce development, quality of life and investment priorities, to understand where strengths and weaknesses lie, and what connections can be improved to leverage music to produce socio-economic benefits for residents.
THE BUMPY ROAD TO BECOME ALABAMA’S FIRST MUSIC TOWN
Huntsville first became interested in the music audit process as part of its talent attraction strategy; the city wanted to encourage larger-scale, mixed-use developments to liven up its downtown and downtown neighborhoods. By the time they approached Sound Diplomacy in 2018, that goal had been in the works for some time – with plans dating back to 2014 to turn the demolished Madison Square Mall into a mixed-use development with a climbing gym, public park and open-air amphitheater.
In 2017, the city and the private sector approached a multinational venue operator to operate the amphitheater, but Huntsville — as a mid-tier market with a little-known music economy — was not seen as a place that could produce the returns needed to meet the investment required to build and operate such a facility. The city needed to know more about what, if anything, would be best for the residents of Huntsville by accepting such an investment. Instead of moving forward immediately with the amphitheater, the City Council, led by Mayor Tommy Battle, decided to embark on what was at the time the largest listening exercise specific to music. and American culture.
MUSIC AS A FAIR AND SOMETIMES CONTROVERSIAL PURSUIT
Huntsville’s music audit process began controversially. The first meeting in June 2018 was overcrowded and at times hostile. Indeed, music and access to it – whether as an artist, businessperson or consumer – can tell a much deeper story about how communities actually hold together.
A community’s access to music is impacted by education, opportunity, structural racism, redlining, etc. Instruments cost money and many do not have access to them. Some schools prioritize music while others have eliminated it from their curriculum. Some genres receive public investment, while others are viewed with suspicion, overregulated and discriminated against. This was the case in Huntsville, as in most American cities.
To determine what type of amphitheater could best meet such challenges, these inequalities would require some serious unpacking. To this end, Sound Diplomacy conducted 14 months of community engagement, during which more than 2,000 people responded to a survey and more than 100 stakeholders participated in interviews and roundtables. Common issues raised by respondents included the lack of representation of artists in civic discussions and the need to invest in venues of varying sizes so that artists can utilize smaller venues as their careers progress.
In addition to community engagement, we conducted an economic mapping exercise and found that at the time of our analysis, music contributed $139 million to the city’s economy and supported 1,471 jobs at over 150 businesses. related to music. We then conducted a regulatory review and found that licensing, authorizations and other municipal functions demonstrated for music businesses were a barrier for members of low-income and minority communities due to an opaque process, excessive costs and bureaucratic complexities.
To address these challenges and develop Huntsville’s economic potential as a music city, we have proposed 47 recommendations for the city to adopt. These included the establishment of a music office as a municipal department; provide free assistance to artists and music professionals; rethink municipal tax incentives; and launch a host of other investments in workforce development and culture. (The full list of recommendations can be found here.)
THE BENEFITS OF CHOOSING TO PRIORITIZE MUSIC
In 2019, City Council unanimously approved a plan to adopt the recommendations in all five city wards over a five-year period. Since then, the city has implemented a wave of music-related community development projects: it created a music council, hired a full-time music manager, and expanded its library’s music programs. New halls and studios have opened and the downtown concert hall has also been renovated.
In 2019, plans for the amphitheater at the former Madison Square Mall site were refined, an operator was confirmed, and last May the Orion Amphitheater opened as an outdoor amphitheater for a capacity of 8,000 people in the MidCity neighborhood of Huntsville. Its design, operation, and philosophy are community-led, not corporate-controlled. It is managed locally and independently, giving priority to local traders, suppliers and partners. On the same weekend it opened, Brooks and Dunn sold out a concert at the renovated Mars Music Hall downtown, demonstrating the additive nature of music – if the community strategizes to take it forward.
Huntsville is now the fastest growing city in Alabama, surpassing Birmingham in 2021. Last May, it was named the best city in America to live. Its downtown continues to expand and large companies continue to invest. Although its success has not been exclusively influenced by music, Huntsville’s effort to reimagine the role it could play in shaping the community’s identity and economy is undoubtedly an element key to its history.
Shain Shapiro is president of Sound Diplomacy and executive director of the Center for Music Ecosystems.