The Economics of Local Music (part 1)

Support Local Music

This is such an interesting topic for me if only for the reason that it seems like no one really knows or has studied how the whole field of music in particular regions actually impact their local communities.  One of my biggest criticisms of the whole “Pop Music versus Classical Music” debate revolve specifically around this issue and I think that a healthy understanding of what happens at the local level of music is crucial for making any claims about how one industry’s techniques (e.g. Pop Music) can influence another (e.g. Classical Music).

I think this may be one of several blog posts focusing on this issue, since I think there are some incredibly complex set of circumstance and conditions that will need to be explored and explained adequately.  The fact that there seems to be so little research on the impact of local music on their communities makes such an analysis difficult but there seems to be alot of disparate studies done on different aspects of this that we can start to piece together some insights.

First though, there are at least two different senses of what “local music” actually means.  Definitions matter!  The most obvious meaning of local music is the population of musicians within a defined geographic region.  Usually this is a city or township, though larger regions (e.g. The East Coast or Pacific Northwest) often get discussed.  There are complicating issues with regards to what constitutes a musician within a region.  For example, a band based in, say, Louisville Kentucky and that primarily performs in that city would be a group of local musicians.  But then there are more regional, national or international musicians that will also perform in the city.

The further the breadth of the artist, the less tied economically speaking the artist is to any particular region.  Some touring artists may rarely or never perform in their hometown.  Many touring artists hit a similar touring circuit, so even if the artist may not be based in a city, he or she may regularly perform there as part of that circuit.

Similarly, if a big name artist (either regional, national or international) performs in a city, there may very well be non-local audience members that come to the performance.  I know that I’ve sometimes driven a few hours to see a musician that happened to be playing in a city relatively nearby but not in Louisville.

The only real ‘constant’ within the local music scene are the venues-these are obviously not mobile units so are tied to a specific geographic locale.  Obviously venues come and go and there are some specific cases where a ‘venue’ might be a roving one.  I’ve run a ‘venue’ that I’ve invariably called “The Chello Shed” which has been in at least four different physical locations and two cities as a home base and has presented events in many more locations.  It was something of a hybrid between a venue and a presenting organization, but is still just a minor type of exception.

So we have, within a local music context, these three indispensable things:

  1. Musicians
  2. Audience
  3. Venues

The first two can be further defined as being either:

  1. Local
  2. Non-Local

While the third, venues, are primarily local in nature for the purposes of considering economic impact.

There are obviously many other secondary aspects to local music culture that are indispensable for the local music scene.  Musicians need instruments and equipment which can either be bought locally or non-locally.  Orchestras need program books that can be printed either locally or non-locally.  Recording studios and Record stores can be local or non-local.  But by far, the most pertinent thing is the product of musicians itself.  The music being performed by musicians can either be local or non-local.  And this can mean very different things for different kinds of organizations and can have a very different economic consequences in local communities.

The music being played will also determine, to a large extent, what venues a musician can secure and most importantly: what kind or how big an audience can be had!

So, for musicians, the product produced can be either:

  1. Local Music
  2. Non-local Music

Since I’m going to stick to local musicians as opposed to non-local musicians, we have this separation due to product:

  1. Local Musicians performing Local Music (most often local original bands)
  2. Local Musicians performing non-Local Music (e.g. Orchestras, Cover Bands)

Group 2 is by far the largest group.  And many of the world music ensembles and other smaller classical ensembles will fit into it as well (though there are a few exceptions).

Another distinction between different musical products is whether it is a new composition or an old one.

  1. New Music
  2. Old Music

This is probably the trickiest distinction of all since New Music is only new once and eventually becomes old depending on what your personal half-life clock is for calling a song or composition “old.”  It will also differ dependent on the type of ensemble–an Orchestra can perform a piece written by Philip Glass 20 or more years ago and still call it “New Music” while a cover band playing a prog rock tune by Yes written 20 or more years ago would more than likely not be considered to be covering a “new” tune.

But I think that on the whole, we have this understanding that “New Music” means recently written works as opposed to old classics or standards.  Original bands are almost invariably playing mostly “New Music” While Cover bands and Orchestras mostly play “Old Music.”  New Music ensembles like The Kronos Quartet, Bang on a Can or Eighth Blackbird would be the classical music ensemble equivalents to Original bands with regards to the playing of “New Music.”

One of the most contentious distinctions, especially for those of us who have had the pleasure of being involved in one of the “Covers vs Originals” debates is who actually wrote the music for the musicians.  Original bands have the moniker precisely because they usually write their own material and this is where the New Music Ensembles in the Classical world generally fail since so much of their repertoire is written by another composer.

The perennial “Covers vs Originals” debate is rarely informed, though, by the fact that until the age of Rock and Roll, most of the most famous pop artists were constantly performing music written for them.  And even many of the big superstars of today perform songs written for them.  Michael Jackson was one of the most prominent exceptions.

So this distinction, for lack of better phrases, would be:

  1. Self-written Music
  2. Non-Self-written Music

I hesitate to make the distinction “Original Music” and “Cover Music” because there is that other sense of “Original” that I feel like far too many “Original bands” never really achieve and I have heard some of the most and creative performances and recordings of Covers that wold almost constitute being far more “Original” than many “Original bands” could ever achieve.

I think that in the next installment of this series of posts I will talk about how many of these distinctions tend to be grouped together in specific music making contexts and in specific types and genres of music groups, as well as to start talking about what these mean for the economic impact of local music and communities.  In the end, to ‘Support Local Music’ can really mean so many different things to different sub-groups of the local population.

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3 thoughts on “The Economics of Local Music (part 1)

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