Musical Economy

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Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a summit put on by the big thinkers at We Are City. The annual summit invites local culture makers to "amplify city improvement conversations throughout Indianapolis and challenge(s) local leaders to think innovatively and act boldly." The day was filled with people from around the country presenting about their "work and play in the trenches and front lines of city-building." What does this mean? We were treated to nine speakers talking about the cool stuff they're doing in their cities, from DIY creative spaces to the Gowanus Sponge Park, and then got invited to take that same creative/entrepreneurial/renegade spirit while we work to create the community that we want to live in.

One of the speakers, Michael Seman studies how, as the economy moves from manufacturing toward service and technology, new forms of economy take hold when creative resources are plentiful. He's a doctoral student in Denton, TX, and has studied that city and its creative and economically thriving music scene. At We Are City, his lecture was "What if Hewlett and Packard had Started a Band Instead?"and he described how a number of factors made it possible for Denton, TX's diverse music scene to create a musical and a financial boom, not just of musicians, but of niche industries that sprung up around the area's bands - printers, videographers, music venues, recording engineers, instrument dealers. Originally, all the niche industries were started to serve the music industry in Denton, but a lot of them have gone on to become stand-alone businesses, making videos, t-shirts and a number of other things beyond Denton.

Essentially, Seman described how Denton, TX is a lot like Silicon Valley - only smaller and with music instead of technology. Denton's music scene functioned with a start-up mentality, with musicians playing in five different bands, sharing resources, marketing each other and crafting their enterprises with their community.

And he closed by asking if a Denton-like boom could happen in Indianapolis, making mention of Joyful Noise Recordings, Asthmatic Kitty Records and My Old Kentucky Blog, locals who aren't just doing good work for Indianapolis, they're exporting their products and shining a light on the city.

It's a good question. But it's not the first time that I've heard chatter like this. In the mid-1990s, some rock magazine proclaimed Indianapolis as "the next Seattle". In the early 2000s, Indianapolis was called the "next Austin". 

Maybe we're not the "next someplace else". Maybe we're too large - and not collegiate enough - to have the music economy serve as a major economic development tool that redefines the city like it has in Denton or perhaps Omaha, NE. But I do know that culture has helped areas of our city in significant ways - look at Fountain Square or Mass Ave, where redevelopment followed creativity.

Indianapolis has a lot of assets, including the people mentioned by Seman and many others. Musical Family Tree provides a hub for musicians. The DIY and underground scenes create interesting events and opportunities. We're close to Bloomington (and their Jacobs School of Music), Ball State and Purdue. And there is a lot of talent at our own Indianapolis colleges - Butler, University of Indianapolis, IUPUI, Marian, Martin.

I don't expect Indianapolis' leaders to create a multi-decade economic plan around indie music like the one that took us from the Pan Am Games to the Super Bowl. But I would love it if they would take our creative scenes more seriously and use them as economic drivers. One of Seman's big points is that, for Denton, the music scene didn't just lead to jobs in bands or recording studios or print shops, it also attracted talented folks who had no interest in playing music. Educators, graphic designers, non-profit staff and many other very valuable and talented people like music. And I want to see more of that talent in my city. I want to see the tide of creativity to start flowing in and not out.

So, what should our city do - from the mayor's office to our front porches - to improve our support of music in our city? What steps will help us harness the creativity that is here and transform that into a boom?

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