Detroit’s challenge: Using city’s musical heritage to build deeper industry

For many people throughout the world, Detroit is as synonymous with music as it is cars. Whether they’re techno enthusiasts in Berlin and Tokyo, Detroit rock fans in London, or Motown fans just about everywhere, people recognize Detroit’s musical pedigree.

And yet, the music industry here barely registers on the map, according to a study by the Martin Prosperity Institute in Toronto. The study looked at figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis to pinpoint where music professionals and businesses are clustered among U.S. metropolitan areas.

Cities such as Nashville, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Austin, Texas, were among the top.

Detroit, however, came in at No. 37.

Detroit could have done more in the past to use music as a path to economic development, in ways cities such as Nashville did, said Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Torontoand New York University and a senior editor at The Atlantic.

“Nashville has built a strong economy, one of the more vibrant and resilient in the nation, around music,” he said. “But Detroit started with many more musical assets. Nashville saw music as a business and a path to economic development. That’s the difference.”

So what would it take to boost the local music industry?

Not programs from on high, said Chris Johnston, owner of band management business Red Spot Management LLC in Ferndale. Johnston also runs DIY Street Fair and Pig and Whiskey, two outdoor Ferndale events featuring live local music.

Although it might be tempting to first look to convention bureaus and government promotional initiatives, a local music economy starts at the ground level, Johnston said, with organized events and people who attend them.

“It’s a mindset; it’s a scene thing,” Johnston said.

One problem for Detroit is that national music tours don’t do well here and some skip the city as a result.

“I’m not sure why, but it’s a tough market to do well in,” he said. “That loses a lot of jobs right there.”

A more vibrant local music industry comes from a more vibrant local economy, and Detroit’s music business went the same way its general economy did, said Patrick Anderson, CEO of Anderson Economic Group in East Lansing. Good economies attract people to go to shows, as well as the talent needed to play them.

“No question about it, if you find a place that has economic opportunities for you, and you happen to think it has a hip music scene, you’re more likely to stay there and raise a family,” he said. “Very few people will move primarily because of a music scene.”

To bolster its music industry, Detroit needs to bolster the general economy, rather than attempt to force music industry growth through top-down government and corporate funding, Anderson said.

“A lot of musicians have day jobs,” he said. “They subsidize their creative activities with day jobs. Well, you lose your day job, and it’s hard to pay for the activities. What Michigan needs is a lot more day jobs.”

Local governments might not be the best at creating scenes, but they can nurture what’s there. That’s what Austin did, said Steve Alberts, communication manager for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The city’s marquee music event, South by Southwest, or SXSW, has been a must-attend for music industry professionals since about 2002, said Joshua Glazer, an editor at electronic music magazine Urb.

But it started years before that, in 1987.

“SXSW couldn’t start in 2012. It had to be (25) years ago and grow,” Johnston at Red Spot said.

Alberts said the Austin bureau has one staffer dedicated to promoting music, and the city has a department, as well.

“When groups want to hold meetings here, we work with them to hire Austin bands for just about any event,” he said.

Mark Denson, manager of business attraction at the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., said there’s plenty in Detroit to nurture. He arranges his weeknights according to different music events going on and is never left looking in vain, he said.

He sees signs of new interest in the local music industry, and the creative class at large. A large national record label is in talks with the DEGC about opening a Detroit studio to vet and grow artists, Denson said, declining to name the label.

“This is the kind of interest we’re getting here,” he said.

The DEGC has a $2.5 million Creative Corridor Incentive Fund to help creative businesses get space in the corridor running from downtown to New Center. Some of that money has to help music businesses, such as UDetroit Cafe in Paradise Valley — formerly named Harmonie Park. Harmonie Park Media Group, a studio in the neighborhood, opened UDetroit in 2011 and broadcasts live performances on an Internet radio station.

“You can’t create cool. You can’t manufacture that, but what you can do is support what’s cropping up,” Denson said.

The DEGC plans to do more to help the small-business side of music by supporting production and distribution, performance spaces, graphic designers and equipment providers, he said.

“A lot more mainline businesses want to be where the artists are,” Denson said.

He noted the many small venues where music happens every week, such as Baker’s Keyboard Lounge and Bert’s Marketplace, plus large events like the Movement Electronic Music FestivalConcert of ColorsDowntown Hoedown and Detroit Jazz Festival.

Denson hits up music venues every day. It takes some effort, but that adds to the sense of discovery, he said.

“I go to a different music venue every day,” he said. “The entertainment scene in Detroit is not something that comes out and grabs you. It’s not neon, it’s not Times Square. You have to get out there and engage it.”

Music is among the main Detroit assets promoted by the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, said Michael O’Callaghan, executive vice president and COO, noting that the other assets are cars, gaming, culture and sports.

O’Callaghan said the convention business is picking up, and that should help boost attendance at shows. Metro Detroit is on target to have 10 multiple-hotel conventions this year, compared to four last year, he said.

Nighttime music shows are good for the local economy because people spend more money at night, O’Callaghan said.

“That kind of visitor ends up spending three times as much money as a day visitor,” he said.

Johnston at Red Spot said the music scene in Detroit is cyclical. If so, maybe Phil Salatrik is about to ride the next cycle upward.

Salatrik, whose day job is entertainment director at Cliff Bell’s, this year started a record label business, Hamtramck Recording Co. LLC. Hamtramck publishes music under two label names: Bell Hops, featuring live performances recorded at Cliff Bell’s, and Bang Town, for independent and punk rock music.

“It’s essentially a hobby,” he said. “There’s a long history of high standards for music in Detroit. People have always looked at Detroit as a hotbed of musicians.”

He expects to begin releasing music next year.

Artists are also finding help from loftier programs to complement the do-it-yourself survival ethic, such as Timmy Lampinen, who uses the stage name of Timmy Vulgar.

Lampinen has played in local punk bands since the mid-1990s.

The Kresge Foundation awarded Lampinen a $25,000 fellowship in 2010 as part of Kresge Arts in Detroit. The program, administered by the College for Creative Studies, awards grant money to local artists every year.

“I’ve worked in kitchens and restaurants to help support my music career,” Lampinen said. “I tour three weeks to a month out of the year and have come home to an eviction.”

He said the music business can’t be forced, but nurturing helps. The $25,000 grant helped stabilize his business: He used the money to pay for a tour van, equipment and equipment repairs, bills and merchandise to sell.

Lampinen still has a day job. He’s a bartender at The Painted Lady in Hamtramck, where he also dishes out his own handmade tacos.

Music centers tend to cluster in big cities and knowledge centers, such as college towns, Florida said, but it needs to be something every city looks at for economic development.

“Too many cities and regions see music and the music business as an afterthought. It is something that comes from being affluent and developed, not that contributes to development,” he said, adding that Nashville has made arts and entertainment a component of its strong economy.

And for Detroit, it’s a chance to use its strong history.

“Motown, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, the MC5, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Bob Seger, Kid Rock, Eminem, the White Stripes, electronic music pioneers — they define Detroit in the popular imagination as much as do cars and the Motor City,” Florida said.

“Music is your window to the world.”

Aug. 31, 2012 | Crain’s Detroit Business