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Building an Economy-Size Conversation 

"Is it as much about diversity as it is about a group being authentic and relevant?" SmallBox's Jeb Banner asked.

Sitting on a stool in front of 30 members of Indy's music community, the DJ nodded his head as he absorbed the question. "Well, I think we first have to define what the 'it' is. What is the it?"

Banner clarified, "I guess I'm asking do we create diversity by responding to a political push or are we doing it in an authentic way?"

click to enlarge Music Council members include, clockwise from upper left corner, Jeb Banner of Small Box, Sarah Ross of Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, John Beeler of Asthmatic Kitty, and Malina Jeffers of Mosaic City.
  • Music Council members include, clockwise from upper left corner, Jeb Banner of Small Box, Sarah Ross of Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, John Beeler of Asthmatic Kitty, and Malina Jeffers of Mosaic City.

"You should be the diversity instead of trying to create it in a space you control so you can pat yourself on the back," he responded. The conversation continued as questions drifted between community, authenticity, place, and even Insane Clown Posse.

For policy wonks, exchanges like these may not seem like a conventional approach to economic development. But for the Music Council and its Green Room speaker series, questions and conversations are the tools to help Indy's music scene grow.

The most recent Green Room held at the Speak Easy featured local DJ Kyle Long and New York-based Jace Clayton (DJ /rupture) and welcomed about 30 stakeholders from the city's music community. Michael Kaufmann moderated the talk, which explored topics ranging from race to plug-ins sprinkled with Sufi poetry. The conversation was fluid, comfortable and open -- just what the council hopes for.

"From the beginning, the council's purpose has been to bring up questions of the music scene: How can we help it grow, and help artists?" Abby Goldsmith of General Public Collective explains. "It isn't meant to set guidelines or rules. It really is to have open discussion and collaboration and hope that better things will come of it."

The council itself was born out of a conversation surrounding Super Bowl XLVI's Indy Music Project, a compilation of 46 tracks showcasing an array of Indiana artists from Jafar Idris to Stereo Deluxe. Jeb Banner recalls sitting at Hubbard and Cravens with John Beeler and Michael Kaufmann discussing the need for a group to help build the city's music scene.

"We all were working together and realized that we had a lot of music," John Beeler of Asthmatic Kitty says. "[The Indy Music Project] was a small thing right? But we got thousands of viewers accessing it at bars on their phones. And that's really when we said we should do more."

A Cultural Collaboration

What began as a small dialogue has grown to a citywide conversation involving many of the who's who of Indy's music community, including Jordan School for the Arts' Ronald Caltabiano, Indy Chamber of Commerce President Michael Huber, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Sarah Ross, My Old Kentucky Blog's Craig Lile and Mosaic City's Malina Simone Jeffers to name a few. (See here for full list of council members)

The council could be best described as a jam session: a place where people combine ideas together to see what happens. "All of us involved have our own specific visions," Banner explains. "We bring people together that have a similar intent, and then see what happens when they can share resources ... we don't know where it's going, and I think that's OK."

According to Malina Simone Jeffers, the council is simply trying to let Indianapolis know that it exists and that there is a group of professionals that care about the local music scene. "We're in an advocacy phase ... willing to volunteer to make it grow and bring professional resources we might have to support something," she says. "We're listening; we want to know what musicians want; what does the city need?"

In other words, the council's approach is to listen first, and then bring resources to bear according to the city's own musical DNA. It doesn't claim to speak on behalf of anyone, but many of the members do share a common vision with the Indianapolis' music community. They want to see the music scene thrive, and hopefully build up the city's economy in the process.  

click to enlarge Craig Lile of My Old Kentucky Blog and Do317, Michaul Kaufmann of Eskenazi Health, and Abby Goldsmith of General Public Collective represent Indianapolis' diverse music community.
  • Craig Lile of My Old Kentucky Blog and Do317, Michaul Kaufmann of Eskenazi Health, and Abby Goldsmith of General Public Collective represent Indianapolis' diverse music community.

 "I don't think we'll see SXSW, but I think we'll see a small, sustainable robust music economy," Beeler says. "Plus it can help retain talent for Lilly, Anthem and ExactTarget. [A lot of] young talent, they love local bands, or they want to start their own bands on time off."

Avid music enthusiast and Indy Chamber of Commerce President Michael Huber agrees. "It is more about talent attraction and to stem the tide of university graduates that grow up in central Indiana, go to college, do well and then leave." He continues, "But it's gotta be real. You've gotta create a strong music community with artists, venues, sponsors and businesses. And then you also have to have a strong narrative:  If you want to come to Indianapolis, it's going to be more affordable than Chicago or Denver, and you're going to have no less a cultural experience."

Other cities across the country have used music as an economic driver. Nashville, Austin, L.A. and New York come to mind. But there are second-tier cities that have developed music clusters of their own in recent years. Urbanist Michael Seman points to Omaha, Nebraska, and Denton, Texas, as cities that developed prolific music scenes that resulted in wider economic impact.

In the 1990s Omaha's music scene was relatively unknown, small and disorganized save Bright Eyes, Cursive and The Faith. It was comprised of hopeful DIYers, working to make their own way in a city with little infrastructure for music. But through the collective efforts of the local music community and with light-touch support from the city, Omaha has since gained national prominence as an Indie rock hot spot.

Using Saddle Creek Records as an operating base, friends Robb Nansel, Jason Kulbel and Rachel Jacobsen catalyzed Omaha's musical renaissance by spearheading an effort to create a much-needed multipurpose venue in the city. Called the Slowdown, the venue now hosts three to four shows a week alongside "all sorts of fun [activities]." Named Esquire's 2008 Club of the Year, it has helped attract national acts as well as businesses such as Urban Outfitters and American Apparel to the once-blighted city block it now calls home.

The effort was so successful, in fact, that one city developer told NPR that "those three friends ... have brought at least $100 million in value to the city."

Like Indianapolis, Omaha's musical awakening was born from a dialogue, which grew into an economy-sized conversation.

The Rise of the Creative Class

The link between music and economic development is part of a wider trend sparked by urban studies theorist Richard Florida. In his book Rise of the Creative Class, Florida argues that companies are increasingly interested in hiring creative types, and that for cities to continue to prosper they need to attract these people to their locales. He calls this group the creative class, which he defines as a well-educated segment of society involved in creating new forms. Everyone from engineers to musicians is part of this class.

The way Florida's model is supposed to work is that companies seek a high density of these creatives, cities hunt for companies, and the creative class hunts for a city to call home. All things being equal, cities can grow by building up the Bohemian amenities that appeal to the creative class thus attracting talent and business. Food, music and green scenes all tend to draw creative types.

Florida's thinking has helped shaped the trajectory of cities like Omaha and Denton, as well as larger music meccas like Austin, Texas.

Citing Florida's thesis, Austin Music People -- a consortium helping to drive Austin's music economy -- believes one of the reasons for the city's continued growth is its ability to attract the creative class. As the "live music capital of the world," Austin's experience economy generates more than $1.6 billion every year. And according to Austin Music People, the city's creative climate has attracted further investments in creative industries such as technology, gaming and design.

The State of Play

Even though Indy's music scene is brimming below the radar of most national spectators, it still has strong potential to grow into a regionally recognized music cluster and contribute to the city's growth. The Metro Music Index, which measures the concentration of music jobs and businesses in a city, ranked Indianapolis 18th in the nation.

Indianapolis has anchors such as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Asthmatic Kitty, Joyful Noise Recordings, MOKB, Musical Family Tree, and Secretly Canadian Distribution in Bloomington. It has attracted regional attention from Cataracts and WarmFest. Moreover, the city benefits from nearby colleges that help feed the scene: Butler, Franklin College, IU, IUPUI, University of Indianapolis, Anderson University, Marian, Ball State, and Martin to name a few.

Websites and local labels enrich the Indianapolis music scene, providing both content and conversation for music fans.
  • Websites and local labels enrich the Indianapolis music scene, providing both content and conversation for music fans.

And with an estimated 500 active bands, the city is home to a wealth of talent. "There are a lot of great small bands," says Beeler. "I see a lot of these house parties starting up being just as crucial as some of the warehouses down in Bloomington."

All told, there is simply a lot of musical activity in Indianapolis, especially regarding Indie Rock. "If you sliced and diced the country, Indy has a disproportionate influence on the nation's independent music scene because of Secretly Canadian, Joyful Noise and [Asthmatic Kitty]," Beeler says.

But the scene isn't inhibited by the number of actors as much as the level of interaction. "From my perspective it is fairly fragmented. I feel like there are pockets -- the psychedelic rock scene, singer-songwriter, hip-hop -- that don't interact much," Goldsmith explains. "There are those who have bridged those gaps, but it still feels fairly private and fragmented."

That fragmentation is less about musical collaboration and more about information sharing. "We don't need to have a country-rap-bluegrass-indie band. It is fragmented and part of that is OK," Beeler says. "But for me: How do you copyright your music? How do you license it to a commercial? How do you find a guitarist? How do you write songs?"

Even with the city's vast musical resources, it lacks the business infrastructure to support and grow its asset base. That lack of infrastructure, according to Jeffers, is problematic in the short-term: "We may not be moving as fast as the artists are, so the challenge might be losing talent."

At the same time, Beeler sees this as an opportunity for the music economy to mature organically. "So we're looking for studios, musicians, publicists ... we need all those things. We need to have not just people who do them but people that can do them affordably." He continues, "And the way you get that is by not being good at it. I want to see us have that phase of not being good at things, and then have that ecosystem evolve." Right now many musicians have to work service jobs to make ends meet, potential consumers have trouble accessing local music, and the music business infrastructure is anemic.

click to enlarge Fountain Square has emerged as a thriving spot to see local music, thanks to a high concentration of venues.
  • Fountain Square has emerged as a thriving spot to see local music, thanks to a high concentration of venues.

One potential means of strengthening the local music ecosystem would be by developing a music district. "You can look at Indiana Avenue as a great local precedent for creating a neighborhood with music. I'd love to create a neighborhood where you can hear music walking down the street at all hours," Beeler says. Through the late 1950s, Indiana Avenue's vibrant jazz club scene is where icons like David Baker, Wes Montgomery and Freddie Hubbard cut their teeth before going national.

With General Public Collective, Radio Radio, White Rabbit Cabaret, Do317, (formerly) Cataracts Music Festival and other local institutions, Fountain Square is already well equipped to be the central musical district for the city. "There is an opportunity to build Fountain Square as a music district or some kind of hub--which is happening organically--but how can we put a little gasoline on that and be known in central Indiana and beyond as a resource?" Banner asks.

The dream of seeing a vibrant music district won't be without its difficulties, though. For one, geography alone wouldn't necessarily build up the music economy unless it came with the appropriate business infrastructure. Furthermore, the scene's current fragmentation could inhibit the possibility of a music district.  "I think one big challenge is dissolving some of those membranes that have separated us," Beeler says. But it's challenges like this that the Council can assist with by facilitating discussion. "If we're going to focus on Fountain Square as a music district, can we get bluegrass down here and music education down here as well?"

Cataracts Music Festival, which moved from Fountain Square to Garfield Park in 2013, provides the opportunity for exposure to local musical talent. - RACHEL ENNEKING
  • Rachel Enneking
  • Cataracts Music Festival, which moved from Fountain Square to Garfield Park in 2013, provides the opportunity for exposure to local musical talent.

As the city's music scene evolves, the Music Council will be there with a pocket full of questions to help till the soil and bring resources to bear where needed. "What is the DNA of the scene? What is its potential? What do we want to be known for? How do we attract the right audience, the right labels and create a nurturing environment?" Banner asks. "I don't have the answer to those questions. We aren't looking to be too prescriptive."

As a final word, Beeler sums up the enlightened self-interest that captures the heart of what's going on in the city: "My interest is selfish because I love good music, and I love Indianapolis, and I hope we just have more good music come out of here."

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About The Author

Wesley Cate

Wesley Cate

Wesley is a relationally driven researcher. He loves asking questions and discovering new insights with people. He is a professor at the University of Indianapolis. He has a music degree from Anderson University and a master’s in international relations from UIndy.

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