Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Virtual Geography Convention 2013: Denton, Texas’ music scene as an economic cluster and its broader implications on the city’s economy

Welcome to the Virtual Geography Convention 2013!  If you have a presentation or blog post you wished published please contact me at catholicgauze [at] gmail [dot] com!  

Michael Seman is presenting "What if Hewlett and Packard Had Started a Band Instead?" at the Association of American Geographers conference.  The presentation is about Denton, Texas’ music scene as an economic cluster and its broader implications on the city’s economy.

His slides and notes are below.  Many thanks to Michael for contributing to the blog!

Cover Slide
I woke up in a van on a side street in Chicago. It was mid July and by 9 in the morning already uncomfortably hot, but I was on tour, so that’s the way it goes. As I made my way to the Wallgreens across the street to “take a shower,” I thought to myself, is this really any different from my friend’s sister who slept under her desk while helping to launch a startup in Silicon Valley? I mean… What if Hewlett and Packard had started a band instead? Are music scenes economic clusters? Are bands similar to firms and the scenes they exist in cauldrons of innovation?

Slide 1
I’m certainly not the first person to consider music scenes as economic clusters. Some have acknowledged them as cogs in the larger music industry. Others, including myself, have placed them into the framework of urban economics, but only tangentially acknowledging their clustering traits. Still others have examined the structural dynamics of scenes, but without addressing them through an economic lens. Do music scenes operate as economic clusters similar in nature to Silicon Valley or the California wine industry? Do they fit into Porter’s definition of an economic cluster? According to O’Connor and some of my key informants, music scenes often don’t share similar structural traits, so is it safe to assume that they can fit into an economic theory?

Slide 2
My research is ongoing, but I wanted to share some of my finding so far. For the past eight years I have been embedded in Denton, Texas’ music scene as an active participant. The scene is recognized nationally and internationally and at any give time is estimated to have more than 100 bands in operation – pretty good for a city of 100,000 forty miles north of Dallas.

As the diagram shows, Denton’s music scene has multiple linkages within the music industry, but also across differing industries, such as design, moving media, and retail. However, to truly illustrate the linkages in the scene it would be almost illegible to display as it is not uncommon for say one to be a graphic designer, play in multiple bands, and operate as an entrepreneur, running a record label and promoting shows. As with many indie music scenes, division of labor is reaching mythological status. In addition, many interviewees noted that the broader Denton music scene is a collection of genre-defined micro-scenes that interact with each other like a collection of Ven Diagrams. For this research, along with standard businesses like recording studios and screen printers, I consider bands as firms and the primary focus of the cluster.

There is a geographic hybridity to the scene that speaks to the difficulty of establishing cluster boundaries. The scene is geographically clustered in the downtown core of the city but there are strong ties with locations nationally and internationally. A good example of this is the record label Bella Union, which is based in the UK, but has signed five bands from Denton, essentially operating as a local label. Additionally many bands have strong connections to booking agents, other bands, and venues across the country.

In addition to the boundaries of Denton’s music scene being difficult to assess from purely quantitative means, the majority of the musicians who comprise the scene would be largely invisible as they do not self-report as musicians. The best example of this is Chris Flemmons. His critically acclaimed band, The Baptist Generals is on one of the largest quasi-indie record labels in the world and he is arguably the highest profile musician in the scene, yet he never self-reports to the Census as a musician, instead relying on his work in film production as a means to identify.

Slide 3
Placing the music scene into Porter’s diamond helps to explain what locational advantages make Denton’s music scene competitive.

The most important factor inputs are the untraded interdependencies that exist in Denton. The University of North Texas and its high competitive music and art programs attract, in some cases train, and supply the human capital across all the firms involved. These dependencies extend to the physical infrastructure as well as a wealth of rental housing clustered in the downtown core near the university serves as cheap housing, rehearsal, and performance space.

In related and supporting industries, there are a wealth of capable, locally based suppliers including several instrument stores and music-based pawn shops and due to University students looking to take on projects for their portfolios, a multitude of screen printers, recording engineers, graphic designers, photographers, and filmmakers who provide professional products and services at little to no cost.

In terms of bands, the demand conditions are also met with local customers (often other band members) that are sophisticated in their musical taste and expect a certain level of performance from other performers. One interviewee summed it up when he said that, “Denton is one of the worst places to play for bands because everyone in the audience is probably in bands, and those bands are probably better than yours.” While a generalization, most interviewees had similar thoughts, however most were tempered with the corresponding observation that the Denton music scene was very supportive of bands who were striving to innovate and testing new things at shows. Unusual local demand and the power of differentiation comes in the form of the scene’s fervent support of some of Denton’s micro-scenes like the Americana one resulting in bands such as the Baptist Generals, Centro-matic, and Slobberbone finding international success.

In some ways, this also speaks to the validity of consumption base economic development theory in that a sophisticated rabid audience fosters the development of a local product until it becomes an export product on foreign markets. In that light, are bands all that different that craft beers? Is REM the New Belgium Brewing of Athens?

What was hard to resolve was the level of competition amongst firms. Outside of one person, everyone… label owners, venue owners, studio owners, band members… said Denton’s music scene was extremely cooperative and denied any competitive spirit or rivalries whatsoever. This is in line with the structural element noted in Athens, Georgia’s prolific scene in the 1980’s and calls into consideration Porter’s suggestion that for an economy to advance, vigorous local rivalry must develop.

Slide 4
Now that that we’ve briefly reviewed the locational influences on Denton’s music scene that give it a competitive advantage, the question is does the music scene capitalize on those influences in the same way as an traditional economic cluster? Does Denton’s music scene have a competitive advantage in productivity, innovation, and new business formation?

Productivity… The music scene has access to specialized inputs and employees and operates in what one interviewee referred to as an “atmosphere of information.” There is no shortage of highly-skilled musicians to play in bands as a result of the untraded interdependency of the University of North Texas. This wealth of human capital is the reason why there are more than 100 bands at any given time and also breeds a large and diverse pool of specialized instruments and other tools that circulate amongst band members and the local pawn shops. Additionally, as mentioned before, professional level marketing and recording services are also available.

The atmosphere of information facilitates knowledge spillovers amongst scene members to help educate one another on specific gear choices, touring info, and recording techniques. An interesting point about this is where the knowledge transfer takes place. It is not uncommon for bands to share members to the degree wherein several interviewees noted something to the effect of “everyone plays in five different bands.” These band members are also employed in the venues, studios, or are entrepreneurs. There is also a Silicon Valley-eque “Wagon Wheel” of Denton, Dan’s Silverleaf bar that cuts across all of the micro-scenes. However, in true Jane Jacobs fashion, the concentration of the scene around the downtown core and the fluid interchange of band members provides for a knowledge spillover that most interviewees claimed is pervasive from Dan’s to other venues to the local Kroger grocery store.

This density also breeds complementarities, mostly in the form of marketing with bands co-hosting shows, venues working with bands and entrepreneurs to host mini-festivals, the City working with bands and entrepreneurs to host festivals and garner press for the scene.

Slide 5
Innovation… the clustering of Denton’s music scene offers advantages in innovation. Participants from across all sectors routinely discuss and share information concerning “new technological, operating, or delivery possibilities” and “new buyer needs” resulting in decisions in how to record, release, and market music. Experimentation without large costs or commitment can also take place as bands often share and interchange members until a project gains traction in house shows, moves up to clubs, while finding a voice that propels it beyond the scene. Recording engineers learning their craft and developing new techniques record bands in their homes or rehearsal spaces until moving on to opening their own studios. In the case of one venue, it was able to operate as a DIY space while booking local bands largely ignored by other venues until it became legitimate. Across the board, no interviewees noted that Denton’s music scene hindered innovation. I attribute this to the micro-scene effect. It should also be noted that regardless of gender, the barriers to entry into the scene were low.

Slide 6
Denton’s music scene has fostered a healthy amount of new business formation. All interviewees noted that there are ample inputs for business formation within the scene. The local scene also provides a healthy market to launch new firms and firm creation does not just come from within, as some members of the scene moved to Denton specifically to be a part of it and develop their own firms. New businesses include, but are not limited to… The Baptist Generals, Sarah Jaffe, Neon Indian, Midlake, Brave Combo, LZX Industries, Amandalus Film, Pan Ector Industries, Paschall Bar (Midlake-owned), Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios, The Echo Lab, Redwood Recording Studios, The Panhandle House, 35 Denton Music Festival (w/$2M economic impact), and Little d Guitars.

Slide 7
Although still sifting through my data, results lean towards Denton’s music scene functioning as an economic cluster. It has locational advantages that help it excel in productivity, innovation, and new business formation. But there are several characteristics different than standard clusters. For example, UNT’s music school is not at all involved in the music scene outside of attracting students to Denton. Many noted that there was a palpable distance between the school and the scene. In terms of structural items found in successful high-tech centers in the United States, there was not a single, lasting “incendiary event” or “visionary leader,” but versions of both that manifest cyclically. Local government has only recently addressed the music scene and has been unsupportive of it in the past.

Perhaps the most interesting value of Denton’s music scene to the city’s economy is beyond its role as an industry. Not only are many of my interviewees employed in creative occupations outside of music, all of them migrated to and remained in Denton due to the city’s music culture. Additionally, companies such as the advertising firm Swash Labs with 9 employees and GSATI with more than 20 remained and relocated respectively to Denton due to the creative milieu fostered by the music scene.

We are now in a post-recessionary time of DIY urban economics. Educated, savvy, empowered artists from organic scenes continue to claim places at the cultural-policy table. At the same time, the music industry is undergoing a massive sea change and the possibility of a Hewlett and Packard-like success has all but evaporated except for carefully manufactured pop acts that usually come by way of Los Angeles, New York, Nashville, or Atlanta. Despite this, music scenes like Denton’s are growing in productivity and sophistication. Taking a page from Elizabeth Currid-Hackett’s work, music scenes are industries in their own right, help to brand cities, serve as catalysts for their redevelopment, and are amenities attracting skilled, highly-educated human capital. Leveraging them for economic development is a low cost way to benefit one’s city, while supporting the community of artists within it.

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