A Smarter City is Possible: What I learned at Music Cities Convention

by Elizabeth Cawein

Let’s start in late October of 2015. It’s not precisely when this journey started – my earliest strategy for Music Export Memphis was written almost a year prior, and my first meetings with potential stakeholders had taken place in January – but it’s an important pin in the timeline and represents a turning point in my thinking that ultimately informed the way I approach this work.

In October of 2015, on a bit of lark, I traveled to Washington, D.C., for the first U.S. iteration of Sound Diplomacy’s Music Cities Convention. I’d read about the day-long conference in a Billboard article and was intrigued, and from there the stars sort of danced into alignment. As it turned out, my husband had a business trip in D.C. over the same weekend and perhaps most shockingly, airfare from Memphis was crazy cheap. (That NEVER happens. I know. That’s how you know the universe was involved.)

I learned a lot at MCC, about everything from music and youth development initiatives — incredible stuff like Turnaround Arts and Youth on Record — to Sister Cities partnerships — like the one between Nashville and Belfast — to government and community case studies on issues around noise ordinances, property development, transportation, affordable housing and more. But probably the greatest takeaway for me was how the conference shifted and sharpened my own thinking around what makes a Music City, and specifically what makes Memphis a Music City. Here’s a snapshot of the Top Three Moments that Broke My Brain.

The Thing You Think is The Thing is Very Often Not The Thing

The Music Cities Convention in D.C. was one super intense day absolutely packed to the gills with speakers, panels and presentations (the upcoming Memphis edition will spread over two days). By the time the beers were poured for the closing reception, my brain was at least 25% soup but I did know one thing immediately. I just spent an entire day listening to people talk about what makes a music city, and not one person brought up the two things that we get mired in the most in Memphis: tension between legacy and contemporary music promotion and music industry infrastructure. THE THING that I thought was THE THING for Memphis was quite possibly a total red herring. In my experiences up to that point, I observed a city that was constantly looking backward to its legacy and outward to the industry hub cities. I knew then that:

  • Legacy and contemporary music should go hand-in-hand when it comes to music tourism and the greater music economy. Putting a spotlight on our rich music history to bring tourists to Memphis does not preclude us from also promoting and emphasizing our contemporary identity as a music city. (In fact, it should be leveraged as our best tool to do that.) And when it comes to the music economy, we know that artists will travel from across the globe to record in our studios precisely because of the important songs and albums that came out of them. There is an obvious and symbiotic yin-and-yang here, and we have to employ smart strategies that use our legacy as a foundation to create fans of Memphis music old AND new.
  • We must adopt an assets-based narrative for Memphis as a Music City. As long as our assessment of our city is peppered with “We don’t have” and “We used to have” and “We’re not like X city in X ways,” we’ll be stuck. I’m personally just so ridiculously tired of this narrative. I want to focus on the unique assets that we do have that make us a contemporary music city. We have a fantastic ecosystem of recording studios, including many that are historic in their own right and still churning out new music. (My friend JP does a great job of telling our story as a studio city over on his blog New Memphis Beat.) We have gems like the Levitt Shell, whose team expertly curates a mix of regional and national talent to build community around live music. We have IndieMemphis, an award-winning film festival with a distinct and intentional music focus. We have Beale Street, one of America’s most iconic music streets. We have The Memphis Slim Collaboratory and independent record labels and garage rock and weird experimental music and hip-hop and NeoSoul and R&B and polished, chart-ready pop music. We have TALENT. If you just skim this article, promptly close the tab to get back to a recipe video on Facebook and forget 99% of this I hope the one thing you’ll remember is that there is no shortage of talent in Memphis. And I’m not talking about folks who can carry a tune or keep a beat okay, y’all. I’m talking about belt-it-out, stay-in-the-pocket, break-the-mold, DIY, originators of soul and inventors of cool kind of talent.


Opportunities Matter 

While it became clear to me at MCC that a city could be a Music City without being an infrastructure hub, it’s easy to understand why artists would choose to live in a hub city. There are labels and managers and publicists, and more importantly networks of The Right People who can introduce you to more of The Right People to advance your career at a national level. What we also recognize now, though, is that the internet of things (with its myriad impacts on the music business which I will avoid for now) makes it possible for artists to live and sustain a career just about anywhere. So if a city doesn’t have music industry infrastructure, what must it have? I believe the answer is opportunities. If I’m an artist choosing to live in a city that does not have those All The Right People Networks, I must be able to see that there are opportunities for me there. Those opportunities can take shape in different ways, and this principle is at the core of my work with Music Export Memphis.


This is What Smart Cities Look Like

This one’s pretty simple – at MCC I looked around the room and saw leaders from smart cities. Cities that view music as a driver for economic development, that understand that a thriving music community can’t be left to chance, that have strategies to sustain and grow their creative class and recognize the impact that has on talent attraction across the board, that know music is a business and also a mechanism for navigating life that makes us more whole as people and as communities – these are smart cities. I’m determined to live in a smarter city, and I believe that a smarter city is possible.

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