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Placemakers: Why Midsize Cities Are The Next Music Hubs [Kyle Bylin]

IMG_2325Hypebot contributor Kyle Bylin writes about the rise of midsize cities. He believes these places are the next platforms for music ideas. Local residents are choosing to build their businesses where they live rather than relocating to pursue their dreams. These small businesses, fused with state personality and pride, are poised to reshape the music landscape in the coming decades.

By Kyle Bylin | @kylebylin

I. No Place Like Home

Four years ago, I boarded a flight from Los Angeles, California to Fargo, North Dakota that transformed my life.

Prior to moving to Los Angeles, I had lived in Fargo after I graduated from college. I stocked the grocery shelves of Target by day and blogged about the music business for Hypebot by night. Eventually, I got promoted to news editor of the blog and was able to quit the grind of my day job, and after eleven months in my new position at Hypebot, I received an offer from Billboard to become a chart manager in their Los Angeles office. Although I had never even visited California, once I accepted the job, I made the 1,700-mile move to the sunny, southern Golden State metropolis. For the next couple of years, I only returned to Fargo to visit my family at Christmas. I didn't have any reason or desire to visit unless there was going to be a warm, home-cooked meal and a glowing evergreen tree surrounded by towers of presents.

Fast forward to my life-changing flight from LA to Fargo. I happened to sit next to a businessman who shared my connecting flight from Minneapolis, MN. We talked about what we did for work and why we were on our way to Fargo. Coincidentally, we both worked in user experience for large companies. He shared with me that Fargo had experienced a boom of startup and creative activity in recent years. There were mobile application and drone software development companies popping up, as well as a plethora of craft breweries and gourmet restaurants opening their doors.

Perhaps he sensed my skepticism that Fargo could actually be a hotbed of activity, because he assured me that I could read about the city's newfound acclaim for myself in a news story in the Seattle Times. We exchanged email addresses with a promise to grab coffee together in the coming week. Later that day, he sent me the link to the article, which, sure enough, corroborated his praises of Fargo’s new enterprises, and during my time in town, I got to see it for myself. I spent the next few months booking meetings with local entrepreneurs and attending popular events, such as 1 Million Cups of Coffee and Fargo TEDx. Every person that I met introduced me to the next one I “just had to meet,” which opened up all kinds of opportunities.

I thought long and hard about staying in Fargo, but ultimately, I resisted. After all, I worked in the music business because it had always been my dream to do so, and I still had a few more things that I wanted to do before I moved on. In the end, heading back to California, I told myself that holding off would only give the community more time to develop, so I could return in a few years, possibly with a job waiting for me.

Living in California, when people learned that I grew up on a small farm in North Dakota, they always expected me to confess that I'd experienced a "major culture shock" when I relocated. But that was not the case. While I was in college, I had lived in Minneapolis. The millions of people didn't bother me. My culture shock actually occurred in reverse; when I went back to Fargo, with its friendly people and slower pace, I realized that friendships and relationships did not have to be so difficult to manage. You didn't have to live and die by Google Calendar. This revelation caused me to seriously reconsider whether I wanted my life to be easier to enjoy.

A few months later, I moved to Sunnyvale, California and joined a music technology company. It's a story for a different essay, but suffice it to say, I learned that the chasm between Los Angeles and Silicon Valley is greater than most people understand. The business of music could not be more different from the industry of technology. The two exist at opposite ends of the spectrum. Music is just data to most people that develop technology—they could be paid to create any other website or app—whereas the artists and the creatives that empower them would rather die than wear a suit.

While working in Silicon Valley, I still daydreamed about moving back to Fargo and working on a book project. I followed a blog called Emerging Prairie that posted news stories and company updates. I started to imagine a city that empowered me to build ideas, crowding out the need to live in California to chase my dreams.

One year later, I lost my job. A thought occurred to me that I couldn't stop thinking: "If this is happening in Fargo, it's happening everywhere." Suddenly, I felt called to take a long road trip.

II. Music Cities Convention

Later that month, I flew to Washington, DC to attend the Future of Music Policy Summit. I arrived a couple of days early because I wanted time to visit as many national monuments and famous museums as I could. As luck would have it, I learned that there would be a Music Cities Convention hosted the day before the event. I signed up to attend because I had always been interested in the role that music plays in local economies and communities. This decision turned out to be an important one because that event is still one of the most influential educations of my career.

Now, in the course of my work, I've attended dozens of music business and technology industry conferences in the past ten years. Quickly, I learned that pretty much the same people discuss the same topics at every event. I've sat in the audience, listening closely to every single word, only to find that none of them were worth writing down, because no one said anything unique or interesting. I never walked away from a panel with the impression that a panelist had shared a big idea that changed or challenged the way that I thought about music or technology. My role as a reporter at these events implied that I'd document what people said—I hadn’t been hired to judge each executive’s performance, like Simon Cowell or Howie Mandell on America's Got Talent. But every time a startup founder pitched their new company or product instead of answering a direct question or adding to the conversation, I felt like buzzing them off the stage and sending them back to their hometown. People would make the same points over and over again each year, like a talking doll, each time the moderator pulled their cord.

Once you have attended a few conferences, you start to roam the hallways and strike up conversations. It's way better than attending panels. People are less guarded and more honest when they step down from the stage. They will share gossip and talk shop rather than speaking from their standard notecards. These executives will always say a company or product is disruptive and innovative on stage. They'll croon about the founding team. They'll make a sweeping statement about how a brief moment with one of their kids or some other young person confirmed their belief that this thing would be the future. In the hallway, however, people will tell you that the company is burning money and losing traction. They’ll say that they'll be out of business by next year. They’ll tell you that eventually, they'll be acquired by a big company, like Apple or Google, for an undisclosed sum, and disguise their failure in a broiler plate, corporate-speak press release, like everyone else.

Here's the thing: the music business is a small, tight-knit community. No one wants to burn bridges. For all they know, they could lose their job and have to approach that startup for a consulting gig in the next couple of months. The great thing about the hallway is that it’s also where you get to catch up with all of your friends and connections; it’s why conferences are still worth the hassle to most attendees.

After working in music technology for many years, I also grew tired of creating websites and apps that existed on a screen. I spent hundreds of hours trying to help my team figure out what product to develop and determining if people understood how to navigate them. I converted survey results into colorful charts and graphs, distilled interview transcripts into pull quotes and fan profiles, and translated the complexities of human behavior into executive summaries and PowerPoint presentations. I loved my job as a user researcher and I felt like I was good at it. But the reality is that user interfaces get redesigned and updated all the time. I helped my team draw lines in the sand before the next wave crashed into the shore, washing away all of the time and energy that we spent on the user research and product design. At a certain point, I realized that spending my waking hours on the placement of clickable menus and buttons, that shifted slightly or disappeared completely with each new app update, felt wasteful.

Considering all of this, what I loved about Music Cities Convention’s programming was that it focused exclusively on local communities and musical culture. It featured people from Madison and New Orleans, among many others, who wanted to support and develop the music talent and resources that existed where they lived. They wanted to make their city the best place to be a working musician and experience music for everyone involved, whether long-time residents or one-time visitors.

None of the panelists on the stage talked about helping artists make money from a website or app. They wanted to figure out how to help musicians make a sustainable living where they already lived and created music, right now. Musicians didn't need to wait until they raised the next round of venture capital or added several million paying users. They didn't need to join another platform, create a new profile, upload their music, or tell their fans to sign up. Instead, passionate officials and dedicated founders decided to use their cities as a platform for their music ideas. Rather than create another reason for people to get sucked into their smartphone screens, they developed non-profit record labels, community radio stations, all-ages venues, artist development programs, and so much more. People were talking about music and why it mattered to society. They explored how music fit into their city's identity and the lives of the people who lived there, as well as what they needed to do to nurture and develop their local scenes and artists. I'd never heard anyone discuss or debate these topics at SF MusicTech Summit, Digital Music Forum, or anywhere else.

I felt inspired and emboldened by these music cities and placemakers. I realized that I wanted to build cities with rock and roll, like Starship, rather than apps with hook cycles, or any of the other bullshit ways that technology companies addict you to their products. I thought, "How do I sign up?"

III. The Placemakers

After the Music Cities Convention, sitting in my closet-sized Sunnyvale apartment, I plotted my road trip to the emerging music and technology hubs. I wanted to understand what life beyond Silicon Valley looked like and see what these places felt like in person. Would I fall completely in love with a city and instantly feel like I was home? What if I learned important things about myself that I didn’t know?

First, I drove my Nissan Altima from Sunnyvale to the Grand Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns. Both were absolutely breathtaking, mind-bending, and exhilarating. Next, I went to Austin and Memphis, followed by Nashville and Madison. I ate platters of barbeque and drank mugs of craft beer. Then, I returned to North Dakota to celebrate Christmas. Afterwards, I drove to Omaha, Des Moines, and Chicago. I visited technology libraries, artist collectives, and famous pizza shops. Of course, I circled back to Madison for cheese curds on my way home. Then, I traveled to Missoula, Boise, Salt Lake City, and Denver. Lastly, I went to Austin for South by Southwest, and then back to Boise for Treefort Music Fest.

In every city, I found businesses that had been started by people who loved where they lived. I visited craft breweries, indie bookstores, art galleries, vintage arcades, and co-working spaces that glowed with state personality and pride. As I suspected, the wave of economic development and urban revitalization that I had discovered in Fargo had also been occurring in other cities across the country.

However, the most remarkable thing that happened on my entire road trip occurred in Boise. I walked into Trailhead, a local co-working space, and struck up a conversation with the front desk person, Matt. He gave me a tour of the building and, upon learning about my trip, he offered to grab lunch with me. After talking for a while, he said that he’d try to recommend me as a speaker for one of the panels at Treefort Music Fest. A few days after my visit, he confirmed my invitation, gave me a free pass to the entire festival, and invited me to stay at his house when I came back to town.

Treefort Music Fest surprised and delighted me. It transformed over thirty of Boise's downtown establishments into music venues. I hopped from indie artist showcases to live book and poetry readings to standup comedy performances. I watched short films and music documentaries and attended several panels about Idaho history. The food truck vendors served flavorful and remarkable meals, twisting conventional staples like a Sloppy Joe into a gourmet sandwich. Needless to say, I fell in love with Boise—it was like the Fargo of Idaho, a big city with a small-town feel. The only real difference was that Boise is surrounded by snowcapped mountains and Fargo by vast stretches of flat prairie.

Once Treefort Music Fest ended, I returned to Fargo to finish Song Stories, a dream project turned published book in January of 2017 that had inched along email by email in the backdrop of this grand adventure.

I haven't moved to Boise (yet) but it still plucks on my heartstrings. Nowadays, what I wonder is: what if the future of music relies on cities and humans rather than devices and apps? What if the people who want to work in music decided to create their ideas where they live rather than relocating to music industry hubs? What if more people started their own local music businesses and tried to revive those that had been gobbled up and swept away by corporations?

The conversation about the music industry's future has focused on platform and streaming wars for a long time. Every company wants to be the device, service, headphone, or speaker that plays the song. Every artist desires to be the one featured on the radio station or curated playlist. But then what? People eventually leave their houses and get out of their cars, looking for a music concert or event happening where they live. There are companies trying to connect whatever is playing in people's homes and cars with a show that they will purchase a ticket to see. Event promoters, talent buyers, ticketing companies, and concert venues are fighting over this money. This is also an important story. Some people suspect that Liberty Media, the parent company of Sirrus XM which recently bought Pandora, wants to be a full stack provider, taking a piece of each transaction, from music subscription to artist listening activity to ticket purchase.

My feeling is that there are exciting, interesting things that are occurring outside these music news headlines. More people are discovering the activity happening in their own home states, like I did, and considering a return to the cities they left because they thought they had to in order to pursue their dreams.

These people will start their own Treefort Music Fest. They will build music businesses and concert experiences for their cities, oozing with state pride and local personality. Most of the industry events and publications will totally miss this surge of local entrepreneurial activity.

Unfortunately, local residents in any city will tell you that their elected officials, small business operators, and regional acts don't always make the best choices when it comes to developing their own music scene. No one is going to roll out red carpet or issue a business loan if you decide to create your long-cherished music idea in your hometown. But even so, Music Cities Convention is full of people who have determined that music is important to their cities, and that they aren’t going to wait for someone to save their scenes with a website or app, claiming to foster local music discovery.

Because of this, I strongly encourage you to take an interest in what's happening in your home state and city. There is more going on than your family and friends may realize. Talk to the people who sit next to you on the airplane, train, or Uber ride. You never know who they are or who they know, or how valuable that info could be. If you're a young professional or college student who has always wanted to work in the music business, you shouldn't write off the place you currently live or were previously from.

Here’s my newest favorite question to ask: What would you build if you deeply understood why the people in your city love and enjoy music, and the role that it plays in their everyday lives? Build your music idea for them. Use your city as your platform. Don’t worry about the rest.

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Kyle Bylin is the author of Song Stories: Music That Shaped Our Identities and Changed Our Lives.

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