Marketing, city-planning professionals discuss what it means to be a ‘music city’

John Melendez

The music venues and artists that bring crowds of community members together every night were looked at through a wider lense of the far-reaching effects of being considered a music city.

On Friday, a panel of music, marketing and city planning professionals gathered to talk about music as a city’s identity and its use as a tool for social and economic urban growth. The four-person panel featured Elizabeth Cawein, Kara Elliott-Ortega, Matthew Kowal and Nick Mattera.

Cawein, director and founder of Signal Flow PR and Music Export Memphis, a nonprofit that supports Memphis musicians and culture facilitated the discussion and began the session by asking what the term “music city” means.

Coming from a city-planning background, Elliott-Ortega, chief of arts and culture for the city of Boston, answered the question from the artist and consumer perspective.

“A music city would be a place where music makers could see a future for themselves and enough opportunities in it that they can stick around and make a living,” Elliott-Ortega said. “Where you know the cool places to go to actually see something or to meet other musicians or to be embedded in the scene.”

The group also talked about the economics of being a music city and how music can serve as a tool for talent retention and workforce development. Kowal, president and co-founder of Majestic Collaborations, a consultation company that partners with brands, artists and nonprofits to design safe and sustainable gatherings like festivals, said future urban innovations will be informed by arts and culture.

“We’re going to see a lot more interest in arts and music not just being a seasoning, but really one of the important things that we treasure as as society,” Kowal said.

Cawein asked the panel how music can play a role in the well-being and civic pride of a city’s community members.

Mattera, senior director of consumer marketing for Brand USA, a marketing organization dedicated to increasing international visitation to the United States, shared his experience working for Las Vegas tourism and said it was considered a music city by tourists but not by locals because the local talent was not really taken into consideration.  

“That civic pride is really important because you can't be a music city until the people in your city believe that you are,” Mattera said.

When asked about some of the challenges the panelists had faced in building their vision of a music city, Elliott-Ortega said for the city of Boston, real estate pressure is the biggest issue. In the first question of the question and answer portion, an attendee spoke about Austin’s transformation from a creative city to a tech-fueled city and how to balance issues of gentrification. Cawein called that the million-dollar question.

“You have to have city-owned property because things will just keep escalating,” Elliott-Ortega said. “There really needs to be a shift in how wealth is being controlled. If there's an increase in tech companies or creative industries bringing people, it’s a good opportunity for the city or for advocates to say ‘This is what it means to play ball here.’”