People Behind the Plans: Shain Shapiro on Taylor Swift and the Benefits of a Music Policy for Your City

About This Episode

When it comes to essential services and the stakeholders of a city, music and the people who make up a music ecosystem may not always be mentioned in the same breath as utilities and schools or residents and businesses. But music can enhance the quality of life and plays an important role in generating prosperity for people, organizations, and cities as a whole when it coexists harmoniously among its neighbors. Shain Shapiro has dedicated the last decade to helping cities embrace the value of music and plan for it with thoughtful policies. He wrote about his experience in his debut book, This Must Be the Place: How Music Can Make Your City Better.

In this episode, Shapiro joins host Meghan Stromberg to discuss how planners can champion music policy in cities, as well as a case study of an American city that took a strategic approach to incorporating music in its long-term plan.

Episode Transcript

Shain Shapiro: Intentional planning, when it comes to music, is incorporating the needs of music more as a proactive part of planning rather than, “Let’s build something, and let’s get a band in there.” A music policy is really about data and evidence gathering so that music can be incorporated into decisions that are already being made in cities around design, planning, economic development, tourism and so on.


Meghan Stromberg: Cities have many identities. There are college towns, tech hubs, gateway communities and financial capitals. A few, like Nashville and Austin, have defined themselves as music cities and built whole economies around that identity. Shain Shapiro believes every city is a music city. And his debut book, This Must Be the Place: How Music Can Make Your City Better, describes what cities stand to gain by embracing their musical identity with the rigor and investment they usually devote to planning, community building and policy making.


Welcome to People Behind the Plans. I’m your host, Meghan Stromberg, editor in chief at the American Planning Association. Our guest today is Shain Shapiro, founder and executive chairman of Sound Diplomacy, a research and strategy consulting firm working to drive economic and social growth, resilience and sustainability by prioritizing music and cities. Shain is also the founder and executive director of the Center for Music Ecosystems, a research and development organization dedicated to understanding, advancing and enriching music ecosystems and increasing their role and impact on the economic and social development of communities. Today we’re talking to Shain about why music needs official city policies and how without those policies, music can be unintentionally stifled. We’ll also learn what role planners can play in elevating music in their cities and get his advice on how to engage communities in making places that embrace music.


Shain, welcome to the podcast.


Shain Shapiro: Thanks for having me.


Meghan Stromberg: For many of us, our background has a big influence on our careers and our passions. I’m curious to hear your backstory and understand what drew you not just to music, but to the niche of advocating for music policy and strategy in governments.


Shain Shapiro: Well, thank you again. I think my background is that I’m obsessed with music, and I’m obsessed with the built environment. And I’m a big nerd. But I’ve never worked any other job. I’ve always worked in the music industry in one way or another. So when I was a teenager, I was working in a music venue, and I was working in a record store. And over time I did different jobs in the music industry.


But cities fascinate me. Place fascinates me. I’m always walking down the street and going, “Well, why is that building that way? Why is that road that way?” Every single thing that exists in the city was decided by someone at some point. My best friend, he’s a senior planner at a local authority here. And we’ve always talked about this kind of stuff, and kind of over the years, the merging of music and planning from someone who knows very little about planning and knows a little bit about music kind of came together. And now I’m chair of a consultancy that’s been around for 10 years, trying to embed music and culture and nighttime economy into how cities think about the built environment and growth. And now been about four years writing a book about it all.


I don’t understand how someone could live without music. To me it sounds a bit stereotypical, but my day starts and ends with music. Everything about me is music. The way I think about the world, the clothes I wear. Even in some places, the food I eat is driven by the music that has come into my life in one way or another. So I always wanted to try to share my love of music with others, and that’s manifested itself into this niche that we’re talking about here.


Meghan Stromberg: Well, I love that you are able to do something and work in a field that you’re so passionate about. I’m wondering if you started your day with music, what did you start with?


Shain Shapiro: That’s a good question. A little bit of St. Paul & the Broken Bones from Birmingham, Alabama. They’re a really good band. And a ‘70s bluegrass act called Old & In the Way — which is kind of how my knees feel right now — which had Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead and David Grisman, who’s a famous mandolin player. And other than being on calls, I’ve been listening to music all day.


Meghan Stromberg: It’s a good way to pass the time in between calls. So you’re working to blaze a new trail for music in local government and city management. Why do you think now is the right time to make a case for music as a matter of policy?


Shain Shapiro: Well, first off, we are all competing against each other for the same thing, which is people, workers and talent. COVID is this incredible case study about why music matters. First off, if it didn’t, then we probably wouldn’t have relied on it so much to get us through some of the challenging times that we had. And at the same time, it’s opened up these opportunities for our communities to attract workers that don’t need to be in major cities. And the idea of touting communities’ quality-of-life offer usually revolves around two or three things, which is green space or nature, food and beverage and culture — and obviously health and safety. Music is one of these things that is never seen as deliberate or intentional in a city. It’s something that just kind of happens alongside. And if you flip it on its head, and you kind of take a strategic look at music in all its forms and functions — everything from festivals to kids singing in a choir to churches on Sunday — everything can be understood. And if you understand something, then you can use it better to meet some of the objectives.


Now, I believe that all communities have a better opportunity to attract the talent that they want because you don’t have to flock to a major city as much. And it’s a lot cheaper to live in Tulsa than it is to live in Austin — even though I’m a big fan of both of those cities. But music is something that is part of that kind of wheelhouse that you look into to say, “How do I better understand what I have, and how I can maximize it to then improve the life of people that live there, but also hopefully attract newcomers as well?”


Meghan Stromberg: What do some of those policies look like?


Shain Shapiro: Music is always governed by things that have nothing to do with it. There aren’t that many communities that have music policies for music purposes. Music tends to be governed by environmental health, Sound and noise. Or housing, in terms of land use and zoning. Or some sort of cultural or entertainment district. Or alcohol and liquor. And alcohol and liquor is so inextricably tied to, especially, live music that it really governs what can and cannot happen related to music. So, a music policy is essentially an understanding of music for music’s sake.


So, one of the policies we have looked at, that I’ve worked on in the U.K., that does exist in San Francisco and a few other places as well, is a land use policy and building code policy called the agent of change. And all that means is that if you are developing something, then you have to mitigate the impact that your development will have on a certain swath of your neighbors in a certain square footage. So, if you’re a block of apartments being built next to a music venue, the apartments need to be properly noise attenuated, or the balconies need to be on the other side or so on. Same as if you’re a music venue being built in a residential neighborhood. And that is everything. And that actually comes from an agricultural policy in the U.K. where people were moving next to pig farms and complaining about the smell.


Shain Shapiro: Yeah, it’s not specifically a music policy, but it can be incorporated as that. this is an intentional way to think about how we are building the places we’re going to need everything from the materials used, how public squares are designed with cable underneath the paving ways to limit sound and allow for street performances or sunken amphitheaters.  Intentional planning, when it comes to music, is incorporating the needs of music more as a proactive part of planning rather than, “Let’s build something, and let’s get a band in there.”


Meghan Stromberg: It’s planning ahead for companionable coexistence, right? But also being very intentional about making sure to incorporate music into designs and make a space for it.


Shain Shapiro: Where appropriate, right? A music strategy, we always say, is where music shouldn’t be as much as where it should. In our consulting work for the mayor of London around music and nighttime economy, we found that 80 percent of noise complaints were residential So we always joked like, “Well, the best way we can stop noise complaints is to ban homes.” But that’s not going to go over well.


Meghan Stromberg: That’s not going to go over well.


Shain Shapiro: So, we’re like, well, maybe we should think about at least where new homes are being built, that they’re built properly. It’s the same with economic development. So, on the economic development side of planning, having a register or an audit of your music and cultural infrastructure — knowing where everything is, literally everything, every studio, every rehearsal space, every venue — allows you to understand what is missing or what there may be overcapacity of, and that can help design economic development policy to attract people to set up or expand businesses. A music policy is really about data and evidence gathering so that music can be incorporated into decisions that are already being made in cities around design, planning, economic development, tourism and so on.


Meghan Stromberg: It’s just one other factor to be considered in a holistic and comprehensive view of what makes a city or a place a great place.


Shain Shapiro: Yeah, but it’s one of the things that unites us all. And one person’s music is another person’s noise, we always say. So, it can cause consternation, or it can cause community affray, and no one wants that. Anytime someone makes a noise complaint, it costs someone money, usually the taxpayer — especially if the police have to be called. So, it’s about how modern, equitable, properly planned cities should be. It’s not about making music better than anything else. Really, it’s about treating music like everything else and trying to bring it down a little bit so that it’s just another thing that we look at proactively.


Meghan Stromberg: Shain, the arts are constantly fighting for recognition in local and national budgets. Planners know that public art can be an important tool in community building, but sometimes they struggle to gain support for it. As somebody who believes in the economic, social and intellectual power of music, how do you make the case to the city councils, school boards and community members that music is an important and necessary part of a city’s budget?


Shain Shapiro: Well, first, gather data and evidence to demonstrate the economic value of music. That really is the work that Sound Diplomacy does. And it is an economic analysis of what we would call the music ecosystem. So that’s not just the industry or live music or festivals, but it’s everything. And you can even measure the social impact of music as well.


Often music and other forms of nonprofit arts — and this a bit of a generalization — but they have different challenges that they face. There are some parts of the music ecosystem that are more commercially driven, that may not need support, but may need some regulatory, infrastructural support. That doesn’t cost money. That’s political capital. Whereas the more nonprofit sector, whether it be through concert halls or education, we work on producing cost-benefit analyses to demonstrate how a community can make money through music. There are a number of ways that communities can make money through music, usually by expanding the tax base. That’s the objective, right?


It’s a bit of a challenging conversation for me. I’m Canadian. I live in the U.K., but I spend a lot of time working in the U.S. and in lots of other countries. I’m not American, so I come at it from a different perspective. The amount of money that gets spent without people realizing that it gets spent in the United States in cities is astonishing.


Meghan Stromberg: Tell me what you mean by that.


Shain Shapiro: Look at hotel tax allocation, right? I know that in some places there’s 1 percent for public art. Austin has a new program, which is part-funded through the additional tax that has been levied to redevelop the convention center. The hotel tax is just going directly into marketing. I find that questionable simply because if we invested — and this is a generalization, because I know that lots of places do this — but if we looked at a structure where we could measure investing in new talent development to produce more tourism products in a place — because again, you want to increase the shoulder nights, you want to try to get people to stay longer.


How many articles have I read about the Taylor Swift-ification [of Nashville] with people completely missing the point that Taylor Swift just didn’t come out of thin air? And that whole ecosystem didn’t just appear as a superstar, that there’s decades of work that went into that. And again, this is an example of music driving significant indirect economic growth and development in the city. I just think hotel taxes could be more imaginative.


Another example is in liquor tax regulations. Texas is the only state that has a music office, a proper music office. Now Tennessee is building one. North Carolina is building one. Oklahoma has one tied to music. There are a few others that do lots of amazing things, but Texas’ one has been around a lot longer and is kind of the model. And they created a rebate program where if you put on independent original music, I think it’s three days a week, then you can get a rebate of up to $100,000 on your liquor duty over a period of time. So, you essentially get up to $100,000, which is a lot, off the alcohol and liquor tax that you pay. So this is an incentive to put on more local music because if you put on more local music, theoretically you’ll sell more beer, but also you get a tax break.


So, what we’re trying to do is come up with imaginative ways to raise capital in communities without it being down to that either it comes out of a capital fund or it comes out of a foundation. Cities should think seriously about employing an individual within their municipal local authority to be responsible for music. A music officer is kind of the position, and I do believe that putting one position is a very cost-effective way to maximize these kinds of opportunities in cities.


Meghan Stromberg: It sounds like a pretty complex ecosystem, as you called it. Where would planners start if they know that they have sort of this organic flowering of music in their city or in their community? What might they start with to support it and look at imaginative ways to fund it later?


Shain Shapiro: All planners need to do is recognize that it exists and write [into their plans and policies] that it exists. That’s the most important thing. In a city’s long-term strategic plan, for example, the words need to be in there as terms of a strategic priority or one of the strategic priorities. [And it is not just] live entertainment but also education, the value of music in health, social care, inequity, and other things.


The second thing is that planners need to simply recognize when music needs to be involved in a planning approval. So, if there’s a mixed-use development that’s being built or something that will involve music, that they have an understanding that that will require a specialist. Often the mistakes happen when there’s a lack of recognition. It’s very rarely out of someone being anti-music. Very few people are anti-music.


When planners are designing plans, looking into zoning overlays, or how communities’ land use will be governed, just having a base recognition that music is of importance is hugely important because if something’s not written in policy, it doesn’t exist, right? Cities that want to take this seriously might consider commissioning a music audit or a music strategy—and that involves data and evidence gathering to help make the decisions they need to make. And then usually the direction comes from that.


Meghan Stromberg: I actually want to talk to you about a place where you did a music audit that really mirrors some of the challenges and processes that planners face. Huntsville, Alabama, is a center of technology, national defense, and is about the same distance from Nashville and Atlanta — both music cities in their own right. But the mayor commissioned your firm to conduct a music audit and craft a strategy for the city. It turned out that one of the biggest challenges was winning over the community and gaining their support. What were some of the concerns that people raised during that process?


Shain Shapiro: First off, you had to convince the community that this was something that was worth doing. Musicians in Huntsville at the time, for the most part, weren’t really listened to at a city level. I don’t think this was a deliberate snub. It just was the case. Huntsville, like any other city, is home to a lot of emerging artists who are trying to develop their careers. And developing your career in this industry is hard. It’s really hard and very competitive and very cutthroat. And we had to explain that this kind of work doesn’t have singular application to everybody all the time, right? This is a holistic piece of work. We had to win everybody over about the money that was being spent.


Meghan Stromberg: It’s frustrating.


Shain Shapiro: We have to be held to a higher esteem because of the suspicion. I get that. And Huntsville, like any other city, has structural and systemic issues of inequity and racism. And really it came down to just dogged research, and that dogged research and showing the evidence that we were gathering over 16 months built trust. And having some community advocates. So, we worked hard at the beginning of the process to build a steering committee. That’s now much more official. The city has a music board that advises the city music officer, but at the beginning it was just a group of people that knew that this was the right thing to do.


Meghan Stromberg: You must have gone out to the community and listened to their concerns. And I’m wondering how those showed up in the strategy.


Shain Shapiro: Yeah, extensively. For all the work that Sound Diplomacy does in communities, we do researched roundtables, a community survey, and usually have a steering committee.  In Huntsville, 2,000 people filled out the survey. It’s not just musicians. “How much music do you see?” “What do you go to?” “What do you want?” — to identify demand, which is what led to one of the infrastructure projects that the city embarked upon from the study.


Meghan Stromberg: What was the project?


Shain Shapiro: It’s a new amphitheater called the Orion Amphitheater that opened last year. I think it’s one of the best new venues in America. It’s run independently by a local firm that is a subsidiary of a British company. And it was funded and built for $40 million by the city.


Shain Shapiro:  The survey told us that a lot of people were going to Nashville and going to Atlanta and to Tuscaloosa, to see shows. We had to demonstrate that there was critical mass in Huntsville and that the types of artists that people would expect would play in Huntsville the data demonstrated that, and one of the recommendations of the study was essentially to reinforce something that the city wanted to do anyways, which was build an amphitheater.


The amphitheater was part of a 10-year capital infrastructure plan, which included the minor league baseball stadium. So, the amphitheater and the study was part of the city’s long-term, quality-of-life investment. And the minor league baseball stadium cost about that. And that sounds like a lot of money, but it’s not a lot of money when you’re talking about these 8,000-capacity, purpose-built amphitheater. And it was designed by artists. So, the company that runs it is led by a guy named Ben Lovett, who’s in the band Mumford & Sons, and he was the one who led on the design of the amphitheater because he’s played hundreds of them. So, the idea was create a place that artists want to play, that audiences want to go to. Then you can differentiate Huntsville just as it has in aerospace and engineering.


And in addition to that, the city has been working on their rezoning plan to be more music friendly. And there’s a full-time music officer who works in the Department of Planning and Economic Development.


Meghan Stromberg: I love the idea of the two facilities that you talked about costing roughly the same amount of money. A sports facility and a music facility, basically parallel investments. It puts music at the same level as a sports venue.


Shain Shapiro: It’s a facility that we’re really proud of. And I recommend everyone to go to a gig there because it’ll be better, I promise, than most of the gigs you’ve ever been to in terms of sound and customer experience. But it’s going to take time to prove if we were right. I don’t know. The city has invested a lot of money. The promoter is committed to a certain amount of shows a year. Plus, the amphitheater doesn’t close like other amphitheaters and is only open 20 days a year. They have to do several hundred community events as well as part of their contract. That was part of the deal. So there’s yoga on the stage. There’s a food market. They had an ice rink in the winter last year. It’s a community venue.


Red Rocks was our inspiration, how people exercise at Red Rocks during the day, right? They run up and down the stairs because it’s part of a national park. That’s the mentality that I want music to be incorporated into, you know? Yeah, it’s not solely about the music. It’s about how the music makes the place better, as I always say. And there’s a whole neighborhood called MidCity Huntsville, where the amphitheater is in, and that’s a whole new redevelopment. And they have Trader Joe’s there, which was a big deal for Huntsville, Alabama, trust me. There’s like a line outside when it opens. Most of the residential has been sold in that development, and there’s a whole new downtown with the standard stuff: shops and restaurants and bars. And there’s a Topgolf facility, which was before the amphitheater. Music is part of a wider quality-of-life strategy, but it is incorporated in at the same level as anything else.


Meghan Stromberg: Well, it really sounds like Huntsville is going to be a place to watch, and I’m curious to see what some of the outcomes of those planning efforts and investments will be. And congratulations on your book.


Shain Shapiro: Thank you. It’s taken a while. I really hope people read it. It’s meant to be accessible. It’s not technical. I wanted to write something that I knew anyone could understand.


Meghan Stromberg: Well, thanks again, Shain. It was really fun to talk to you today.


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