Thursday, March 24, 2011

What makes a city a music city

It's interesting how some U.S. cities are known as music cities. Cities such as Austin, Memphis, Chicago, and New Orleans are music cities. What makes these cities music cities, whereas a city like Philadelphia is not?

To think about this, I look at the analogous situation of the theater. What makes New York a theater city? The obvious answer would be that it has Broadway, with its big time theaters. But other cities have a large theater houses, and they aren't theater cities. What New York has is not just more large theaters, but many smaller theaters off Broadway. It is this grass roots presence that makes a city a theater city. 

Any city can build a grand theater, and usually do. Philadelphia has the Kimmel Center. Does that make Philadelphia a theater city? I don't think so. When I go to the Kimmel center, I leave feeling like I just consumed high end architectural luxury, complete with high ticket price, parking garage fee.... and a night-on-the-town, dinner and drinks, dressed-up, upper-middle class consumptive attitude.  I do not like the feeling that culture costs 100 dollars per experience.

Philadelphia is not a theater town and it is not a music town, and building palaces dedicated to music and theater will not change that. When you consider what makes Austin or NYC or Memphis or Chicago music towns... it isn't that they have giant music venus (though they do)... but that the spirit of music is alive and well in all the small venues. That is where the true culture resides.

As Robert Henri says in the opening paragraph of his "The Art Spirit".... "Museums of art will not make a country an art country. But where there is the art spirit there will be precious works to fill museums."
I could also ask, what makes a city an ART city? A great museum? If you put the Metropolitan museum of art in Las Vegas... would that make Vegas the art capital of America? Sadly, I think it might... and it wouldn't take long to put a thousand room hotel over top of it, and slots in the lobby... and take a cab right from the airport.

If small venues are the key to being an art city, and if the "art spirit" is required to sustain small venues... then what exactly is that art spirit?  I'm not sure I know what the "art spirit" is in essence, but I can think of an example that seems to exemplify the art spirit. The example I have in mind is that of New Orleans, and it's small music venues.

In New Orleans, there are a lot of small music venues where many different types of bands play. Some of these places are simply bars, with an area for the musicians to stand in. The musicians play for tips, it seems, as often there is no cover charge at all. I get the impression that the proprietors support the presence of the musicians not because it profit-maximizes their business, but rather, that it is simply what they do. Having musicians play live music in your bar is just how things are done. In this regard then, the presence of the musicians is part of the culture. It is part of the culture because culture is really only made up of the things that people do without thinking about it. Culture is the unquestioned, the pervasive, the given. Culture is all those things that do not change, and thus provide a stable identity to a place. This cultural attitude toward music is exists in some cities, but not in others.

In a non-music city, the presence of musicians in bars is not a given. In a city like Philadelphia, the bar owners only use musicians if they can bring in revenue. If they can't, the bar owner will use a jukebox, PA system, or karaoke machine to pump music into their bar. And not even this is a commitment to music, because if the bar owners could make more money by not having those things, then I'm sure they would do that instead. In short, bar owners in non-music cities do not consider having live musicians to be a given. They don't have the music culture.

The commitment to music found in a music culture isn't so much something that the members of that culture consciously choose day by day. The commitment is actually simply present in the culture, and no one much questions it. It is culturally induced. This commitment is what allows the music and musicians to live and thrive in these cities.

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