Strengthening Communities Through Music: Local Spins’ Address to the Michigan Municipal League
This is part of the presentation that Local Spins publisher John Sinkevics made to the Michigan Municipal League convention on Oct. 20, 2022 in urging city officials from across the state to make music a priority in creation of policies, programs and conditions that foster vibrant music scenes, and support musicians and music venues.
BUILDING VIBRANT “MUSIC CITIES”
I’m John Sinkevics, and I’m the editor and publisher of the Local Spins website and online publication that’s covered and showcased the region’s music scene for 10 years. We publish feature stories on bands, concert and album reviews, photo galleries, festival recaps, podcasts and more. Prior to that, I worked as a reporter, editor and music critic for The Grand Rapids Press for three decades.
I should point out that I spent several years early in my career covering Grand Rapids City Hall, so I’m quite familiar with municipal governance and administration, not to mention late-night budget meetings and raucous public hearings. Fortunately, I survived all that and took refuge in something less confrontational and controversial: music and the arts, although there are certainly issues of concern in that realm as well.
Speaking of music, those who know me, know that I love telling jokes about musicians. And of course, some of these anecdotes refer to the financial plight of those trying to scrape by in the music business.
There’s the one about the folk singer who’s performed for years, barely keeping his head above water & barely getting paid. One day, wins $1 million in the lottery, so the TV reporter ask him: “What are you going to do now”? He responds: “I’ll just keep gigging until the money’s gone.” Then there’s this one: What do you call a bass player – maybe a cello player – without a girlfriend? Homeless. Or how do you get a guitarist off your porch? Pay him or her for the pizza. Or – and I promise this is the last one – What’s the difference between a folk guitarist and a large pizza? A large pizza can feed a family of four.
While these jokes are certainly amusing, it’s no joke that many career Michigan musicians – especially after a stifling COVID-19 pandemic – continue struggling to get by and support their art, even though we just witnessed one of the busiest, liveliest summers for live music ever across the Great Lakes State.
Many of the state’s musicians, performers and live music venues are still working to return to pre-pandemic levels – but I firmly believe cities, big and small, can help them not only get there but go well beyond that and, in the process, help these cities themselves become more vibrant and more inclusive while boosting their profile as destination places. In other words, “MUSIC CITIES.”
So in addition to overseeing Local Spins, I’m president of the nonprofit Michigan Music Alliance, which offers educational opportunities and workshops to give Michigan musicians the tools they need to create successful businesses out of their careers, along with performance opportunities and referrals to mental health assistance and other resources.
This spring, a Michigan Music Alliance survey of the state’s music community revealed that the top three obstacles facing musicians relate to their financial security: 1) finding balance between the artistic side and business, 2) creating enough income to support their art; and and 3) something just as basic: finding gigs and performance opportunities.
One frustrated musician put it this way: “I think the No. 1 thing holding all of us back is lack of fair pay for the work we do” while another argued there’s “a lack of venues with a focus on live music” making it difficult to land performances with “solid pay and promotion.”
But let’s be clear here: This is not just a problem for musicians. This affects each and every one of us, because music and the arts form the very lifeblood of our culture and society and our well-being, and if musicians are suffering and aren’t provided the resources they need to continue showcasing their craft, we all suffer by losing out on the experience, the beauty, the uplifting nature & healing power of music, not to mention economic benefits.
Beyond all that, research shows that music helps people manage stress, improve communication, promote physical rehabilitation, even alleviates pain and enhance memory – although I have to admit my wife will remind me quite frequently that I can never remember the names of songs that are answers on Jeopardy.
One thing I do remember and all Michiganders remember and point to proudly: Michigan has been a hotbed for groundbreaking and influential music for 75 years and more. Think about it, Detroit is the birthplace of Motown and the city where soulful, R&B greats such as The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Steve Wonder and Berry Gordy started their careers and captivated the world. The same goes for rock ‘n’ roll, with stars like Iggy Pop and the Stooges, The MC5, Alice Cooper, Bob Seger, Mitch Ryder, Jack White and so many more, and hip hop with Eminem, Big Sean and others, and electronic music with the annual Movement festival, and blues with John Lee Hooker, Thornetta Davis and Larry McCray.
All of that has spread statewide, with current bluegrass superstars like Billy Strings from Muir in Ionia County, and folk/Americana acts like The Accidentals from Traverse City, The War & Treaty from Albion and rock band Greta Van Fleet from Frankenmuth. You may not be aware of this but Billy Strings and The War & Treaty, both coming from small Michigan towns, just won major awards from the American Music Association in Nashville, outpolling giant names in the business, and have become major national stars in their own right. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
I’d also argue that cities such as Grand Rapids and Detroit are poised to join music meccas such as Austin and Seattle when it comes to robust music scenes. They just need a little push. Grand Rapids recently was listed by Rent.com as the 30th best American city for musicians to live and work in, and another study ranked Detroit as the 35th best music city. So why shouldn’t Grand Rapids or Detroit or other Michigan cities rank in the Top 10?
It’s only a matter of time in my view, provided we get the right boost not only from the government quarter but also from music industry executives who are always keeping a close eye on which cities and regions are hot, up-and-coming players in the market. Success breeds success, and in the music business, that means more concert bookings in cities and at venues that draw consistent, ticket-buying audiences.
Let’s also be clear that music already provides a huge economic impact on the state of Michigan: The Michigan Independent Venue and Promoter Association estimates that this creative sector generates $13.9 billion a year of economic impact across the state, directly contributing to 121,000 jobs.
Even more impressive: For every dollar spent on a concert ticket, $12 in additional economic impact gets generated at restaurants, hotels, retail establishments and transportation services. That’s 12 times what concertgoers spend to buy tickets for the shows they attend — and Michigan venues host thousands of concerts ever year.
This doesn’t even count music festivals which have exploded in popularity over the past 10 years and all the free outdoor shows that draw thousands of people to downtown areas in cities big and small across the state every summer.
Let me give you an example: My website Local Spins publishes a listing called the Free Outdoor Community Concerts guide, which happens to be the third most popular feature on the website. That listing for 2022 included more than 140 concert series featuring Michigan artists, performing in towns like Ada, Lowell, Zeeland, St. Joseph, Northport, Rockford, Roscommon, Ludington, Grand Rapids, Albion, Battle Creek, Big Rapids, Clare, Grand Haven, Holland, Hartford, Lake Orion, Muskegon, St. Johns, you name it. I attend many of and thousands of people – we’re talking diverse audiences of all ages, families, tourists – are flooding these outdoor downtown venues on weeknights to listen to every imaginable style of music, all unleashed by Michigan artists.
The Local Spins listing of music festivals, our second most popular feature has upwards of nearly 100 music festivals across Michigan running from mid-May to early October, with more added every year. Music lovers absolutely love the camaraderie and community feeling of spending a full weekend with other fans, and getting a chance to see dozens of their favorite performers amid Michigan’s meadows and woods or in urban settings.
The economic impact of these community concerts and music festivals is immeasurable, or at least, it hasn’t specifically been measured to my knowledge. But I know it’s considerable, whether you’re talking beer sales or restaurant patronage or camping gear purchases, and I also know that these concert series in particular provide thousands of musicians with needed income in the summer.
Then there’s the importance of promoting diversity, something that music does better than almost anything else in our lives. Cities seeking to unite their communities, spotlight talented artists and heal divisions often lean on musicians to provide that inspiration, whether it’s hosting Hispanic, African-American, Asian-American or Polish ethnic festivals or booking musicians of all genres from rock to hip hop to blues for concert series and special events. Music is the fabric of our lives and it oozes inclusiveness, something that’s critical to drawing audiences eager to support a wide variety of artists not just those playing one style of music. This is especially true during an era where the populace seems so divided.
Michigan has the diverse talent and the fan base to rival any state, but perhaps we don’t always have the will or the time or the resources to make music a priority in decision-making when it comes to economic development and program support. But it should be.
Just before I left the Grand Rapids Press, I oversaw a journalism project aimed at identifying what creates a vibrant urban area that attracts young professionals and makes a city a true destination place. One of the findings showed that many young people leaving college these days choose the city where they want to live BEFORE they choose the job they want or the company for whom they’d like to work. Young professionals, tourists and convention-goers crave the vitality of core city areas created by a robust live music scene. I think all of us have experienced this. I’m not going to mention the city, but I traveled with a group of college friends last fall to a major city in another state for a weekend that included an afternoon football game. Afterward, we were all bitterly disappointed at the surprising lack of live music options in the evening, making me realize that Grand Rapids and Detroit – and other communities across this state – stand head and shoulders above other regions when it comes to the musical talent and the live music offerings we have year-round.
Music is a life-changing experience for many and a community-building magic wand, so to speak, and I believe it’s critical during these troubled times that cities step up to spotlight and invest time and resources to boost musical art wherever we can.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Interestingly, a recent Canadian study created what it calls “a roadmap” to create MUSIC CITIES around the world – strategies that can applied to cities large and small – and I found their recommendations conclusions right on target. The report is called “Mastering of a Music City” and it was created by an executive with Music Canada, a communications consultant and researchers from the University of Toronto and University of Westminster. (The full report available here. San Antonio also produced a 2018 report on the same subject. Read their conclusions here.)
I’ll just run through a few of their recommendations and then close with a few of my own suggestions and observations as they relate to cities in Michigan.
First, because government policies do directly affect music businesses, these researchers concluded that departments responsible for business licensing, liquor control and public safety work directly with the music community to identify issues that restrict their growth. This includes making sure that transportation planning and parking zones better account for the needs and concerns of music venues – and I personally know this is an issue for many smaller venues. It’s something as simple identifying and creating short-term parking for loading and unloading for bands setting up for a gig.
Another key recommendation: Cities should designate a music officer or create a music office that’s the single point of contact for venues and those in the music community. I know Grand Rapids City Manager Mark Washington recognizes the value of this because he came to Michigan from Austin, which is undisputably the “Live Music Capital of the World.”
Setting up a music advisory board with representatives from the music community can help guide officials, target issues and spark collaboration with key players. The study also suggests conducting a NEEDS ASSESSMENT to ID priorities and outline improvements as well as an inventory of a community’s existing venues, rehearsal spaces & recording studios. (Scott Hammontree of Grand Rapids’ The Intersection said he’s heard of cities that have created an “Entertainment/Nightlife Committee” with advisory councils that work as a conduit between those venues and artists and the city. They work to identify issues facing both the musicians and the venues and find ways to work together to address issues like zoning, ordinances, etc.)
The bottom line and I love this quote: “Music should be recognized as a commercial industry.” That means one that’s deserving of consideration when it comes to economic development and just as importantly as a tourism draw – which means working closely with tourism agencies and even creating a specific “MUSIC CITY BRAND” for your community.
I’ve sort of extrapolated from this with a few of my humble suggestions that I’ll share with you:
1/ If your city doesn’t already host a concert series start one. And if you do, start another one. I know several communities that host three or four or more each week during summer. Financial sponsors LOVE getting involved, especially if they get name recognition and banners, or a booth at the concert sites. It gives them a platform to show community spirit and gives musicians another source of income. Just important, businesses near these concert sites benefit from the additional traffic. I’d also suggest starting them early in the evening, so that established venues can host post-parties or provide meeting spots for fans after the concerts have wrapped up.
2/ Whenever you’re planning a major celebration, art exhibition, ethnic festival or sports event, make sure you include bars, venues and nightclubs in your conversations to see how they can enhance these celebrations. As I’ve pointed out, many are still trying to recover from the COVID pandemic shutdown and it’s critical that these events boost rather than detract from their businesses.
3/ Consider economic development incentives that might draw new venues or a music industry presence to your communities. Whether it’s a music industry convention, a vinyl pressing plant, a music publisher, music academies, a record label or developing a thriving artist collective such as Detroit’s Assemble Sound, encouraging the music industry sector to set up shop in Michigan cities would further put the state on the music map.
4/ Educating and supporting young artists/musicians: I’d add that building a stronger music education component into programming would also create the next generation of talented music stars. We have plenty of young talent in this state, but we need to give them the resources and the assistance to help them take the next step. We need to foster up-and-coming talent and diverse forms of music, and that means making sure that small venues, all-ages venues and smaller performing spaces where these artists often get their start have the resources and financial ability to survive and thrive.
It’s really all about making music a priority in decision-making because its popularity cuts across all income and age levels, and embodies all cultures. Michigan is poised to become a music mecca and I do sincerely believe members of the Michigan Municipal League can play a vital role in making that happen, and help create more MUSIC CITIES in this state.
Copyright 2022, Spins on Music LLC