I want to return to some of the issues that came up in my previous post about genre diversity in Nashville, or the lack thereof. That post, and the subsequent discussion, focused on the relatively narrow question about whether Richard Florida’s claim about Nashville becoming a world leader in music industry concentration has correlated to it becoming a world leader in musical diversity. I found that it hadn’t.
Rather than get bogged down in relatively insignificant methodological issues, I want to begin to move from this particular case to the more general issue that it raises for analyzing the geographic and social structure of music. In a nutshell, the lesson I draw is that we need to distinguish analytically between music industry dynamics and music scene dynamics. Though the two sometimes align, they often don’t, and the way they combine or diverge across multiple dimensions might generate more insight into where and why musicians cluster.
Since the centerpiece of Richard’s original post was a story (about the White Stripes moving to Nashville from Detroit), let me tell a story that illustrates the significance of music scenes vs. music industries for musician location decisions.
Nickel Creek rose to the top of the acoustic music world during their roughly 17-year history, winning Grammies, critical acclaim, and producing chart-topping records. They were mega-celebrities in Nashville, instantly recognized by fans on the street. But a few years ago they went on hiatus. Their music hadn’t been “quite as natural.” Life on the road was a life in which “stuff never happens to you.” They wanted to “get a life,” which meant living in a “creative environment” that doesn’t require you to go on the road to access it.
Since then, mandolin player Chris Thile has formed a new act, the Punch Brothers. According to the Times of London, the Punch Brothers “have intertwined bluegrass instrumentation and spontaneity in the strictures of modern classical.” Unlike Nickel Creek, however, the Punch Brothers chose to make New York City their home base.
This was a major move. Thile had lived in Nashville since he was 15. His father brought him there because Chris’s playing was in high demand. Nashville was where that demand, owing to its country music industry concentration, was the highest. This is an example of music industry dynamics at work: the opportunity for musical work in musical “heavy industry” brought Thile and his family to Nashville. To put it much too crudely: people located to jobs.
The move to Brooklyn, by contrast, seems to have been driven by the music scene. That is, people locating to people. Here is how guitarist Chris Eldridge describes NYC on the band’s blog:
“New York is amazing, and I know I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what it has to offer. Just to be in a place whose air crackles with this kind of energy is inspiring in and of itself, never mind all the incredible artists and artisans who are making incredible whatever-it-is-that-they-make. It’s great.”
In New York, rather than being recognized and stopped on the streets by teenage fans, Thile and the rest of the Punch Brothers move fluidly among the gigantic, diverse “crackling” scenes of New York. The energy seems to have been effective. A recent Village Voice feature calls the Punch Brothers “five wily, omnivorous bluegrass titans.”
This is how the piece describes a Punch Brothers show:
“But most of Thursday night’s affair, the seventh official P-Bingo Night, is given over to stunning, dexterous pop Americana, as likely to shade into the classical elegance of chamber music or the dense, fleet-fingered pomp of vintage prog as it is to evoke the bluegrass, gospel, and klezmer…”
To this, they added a cover of Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box,” as well as a performance of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity,” a song they had never heard before (the audience provided a cheat sheet).
In a rich, fast, omnivorous, energized music scene like New York, musical ideas, connections, and inspirations can occur that do not occur elsewhere. Playing Radiohead, No Diggity, and Mozart in one night makes sense. There is an audience that demands this sort of envelope pushing. There are equally diverse and demanding musicians, not all (or even most) of whom are angling for mainstream music industry ins. You cannot access this scene from afar. You have to live in it – if not year round, then enough to let it work on you and you to work on it. Though Nashville’s scene is certainly about more than the mainstream country and pop industry, it simply cannot compete with a place like New York on this level. And though New York has the most recording industry establishments in the country to boot, its scene dynamic goes beyond industry size, population, and income.
This is not about comparing New York and Nashville in particular. My point is more general: we need to think not only about music industries, but also about music scenes as a factor in attracting musicians to cities and sustaining their creativity once they’re in place. Indeed, as Florida’s recent paper shows, there is a relatively weak correlation between the location of all musicians and professional musicians, and a relatively strong correlation between professional musicians and the recording industry.
The music industry might attract seasoned and ambitious professionals (like the White Stripes), session talent, and songwriters. There is likely a symbiotic relationship between recording industry infrastructure and music scenes, as scene members work session gigs by day and clubs by night. And yet, on the other hand, there may be a negative influence whereby heavy industry concentration creates an over-professionalized environment that is not open to some kinds of musical innovation. The grunge sound of ‘90s Seattle and Olympia grew up where there were few recording studios, and the scene made a virtue out of the unprofessional sound that emerged.
We could expand this idea to envision a two-dimensional space plotting diversity of music scene vs. size of music industry. Which cities are strong in both? Which are high in one and not the other? What are the impacts of these combinations?