Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Music to Macon’s Ears

By Alex Pearlstein, Principal and Vice President

Have you ever been on a cross-country (or cross-state) drive playing “radio roulette” every time you enter the airspace of a new community looking for something decent to listen to? (Note: I don’t have satellite radio and my CD player is broken, but still…) 

Then, every once in a while you come into a town that has a station playing awesome stuff; the disappointment is palpable when you lose the signal. Well, I’m happy to report that the city I live in, Macon, Georgia, now has one of those stations – no worry about driving out of its airspace. It’s called The Creek FM, a for-profit venture from three local Macon entrepreneurs. This is pretty rare in that most eclectic stations playing non-mainstream formats are not-for-profits that get money from multiple sources to survive. The Creek is a purposeful attempt to put American roots music on the radio and offer hyper-local, community-focused programming serving Macon and not Faceless Corporate Interests at HQ. Caveat: if this isn’t your type of music, you’d be less excited than I was upon The Creek’s debut.

So why is this news in an economic development blog? A couple reasons: First, music is deeply engrained in the fabric and culture of Macon, Georgia. A recent Washington Post profile detailed some of this history and opportunities for tourists to experience it first-hand. Second, I think economic development should be about identifying, capturing, and leveraging the niches that make your community unique; Macon truly can stake a claim to music as an economic driver. As evidence, there are multiple live music clubs here, the CVB’s slogan incorporates music, music tourism companies are able to stay in business, we have a killer annual music festival called Bragg Jam, and a cool new project is rescuing the world-famous former studios of Capricorn Records and turning it into a mixed-use development with a music incubator run by Mercer University. A VERY progressive local economic development organization – New Town Macon – is behind the Capricorn project, compiles a CD of local artists and is doing tons of cool stuff related to parks, bike/ped systems, events, and other capacity building.

Of course, a not-so-ancillary benefit of a thriving local music economy (in my humble opinion) is that you become more competitive for young talent. Just look at Austin (writ large) or Athens, Georgia (writ small) or any number of cities that have consistently drawn young people and you’ll probably find good-to-great capacity in the local music scene. It’s not a be-all-end-all – you need much more than a few good clubs to be a talent magnet. (A major public university helps.) But it’s a start.

Certainly, cultivating a successful music economy is extremely tough, especially translating live music into actual jobs. I learned that from working in Memphis and Nashville. Memphis has the music HISTORY but not the music ECONOMY of Nashville. Similar to film, in order to build a music cluster you not only need the performance spaces, but also the full universe of specialized professionals to produce the music, digitize and distribute it, license and promote it, manage bands and songwriters, etc. An army of accountants, lawyers, engineers, marketers, and other jobs with the very particular skills needed to support a music economy is what takes a live music scene and grows it into a thriving employment sector. A music entrepreneurship program doesn’t hurt either. With the proliferation of streaming music sites and new distribution technologies, the entire business of music has been turned on its head. So you better have some folks in town who understand this, or at least what’s needed to be competitive in the new landscape, to stand a chance to sustain a music cluster for the long term.

Which brings us back to Macon. We’ve definitely got a long way to go to take music from “there’s something in our water” to “there’s something in our economy.” But a solid first step is acknowledging that music is a job-creator and making significant, sustained investments in developing a music-based economy for the region. Some in Macon whisper that “old money” at times holds Macon back from reaching its full potential. Hopefully, long-standing Maconites will be okay with music talent and some tattoos and pierced noses frequenting our streets. If they’ve got cash in their pockets from their cool new jobs, I can’t imagine anyone will much care what color their hair is.