In late June 2016, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Media and Entertainment invited the city’s influential music professionals to a convening that aimed to learn more about the challenges and opportunities facing industry leaders and identify areas the City could lend a hand. Many of the challenges set out by the music community were perhaps unsurprising – high cost of living for musicians, low levels of music education and the loss of recording studios and rehearsal space at the hands of real estate developers were just some of the recurring topics. What was surprising, however, was the announcement that the Mayor’s Office would be putting out a request for proposals for an economic study of music industry in the Big Apple – something that has never been done before. In fact, the City-led convening focused on the music ecosystem itself was a first for NYC, at least in recent history. While the economic impact and related implications of creative industries as a whole have been studied in New York City, music has not received the same critical eye nor support. And for a city that has been given birth to genres ranging from Hip Hop to Salsa and musical stars from Biggie Smalls to Barbra Streisand – many think it’s about time.
There is no doubt that New York City is a hub for entertainment and creative industries. The city’s relationship with music innovation goes back over 100 years; a cosmopolitan port populated by immigrants made for a natural home for cultural commodities. The city saw the opening of the Metropolitan Opera House in 1883 with French composer Charles Gounod’s Faust, starring Swedish singer Christina Nilsson; in 1891, famed Russian composer Tchaikovsky inaugurated Carnegie Hall and, just one year later, Sissieretta Jones became the first African-American singer to perform at the legendary venue.
In the same year, Czech composer and conductor Antonín Dvořák was appointed the Director of the National Conservatory of Music, encouraging musicians and audiences alike to embrace African-American and Native American music as the foundation for a truly American sound. Meanwhile, the popular music scene, characterized by Folk sounds and what would later be known as Ragtime, was coming together in what’s still referred to as Tin Pan Alley. West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues saw music publishers cluster to create and print sheet music, and songwriters flock there to get their hands on the latest hits – an overwhelming majority of both types of music makers were Jewish Eastern European immigrants.
Sounds Like Big Business
“New York has always been a place people aspire to come to,” says Jon Vanhala, co-founder of media strategy firm Crossfade Partners and former Head of Digital and Business at Universal Music Group’s NYC HQ. “Because of its size, it attracts a creative mentality; people who are eccentric that may not slot into their hometowns. You’re allowed to be yourself [here] and that’s actually one of the biggest tricks of this town – it encourages you to be unique.” This melting pot tradition lives on today and, since the advent of Tin Pan Alley, not only has New York City become a generator of genres and a launcher of stars, but the home to the business of music. From New York Jazz and Blues to Disco, Rock and Hip Hop, the Big Apple has spurred out musical styles that have gone on to global domination, so it’s perhaps no surprise that record companies, and more recently, music technology businesses have flocked to the city.
“Frankly, you can’t compare [other American cities] to the businesses that are here in volumes in terms of their staff and the physical floor space that they occupy. You have Warner Music Group’s global headquarters in New York City, you have Sony Music’s global headquarters in New York City, you have at least 40-50% of Universal Music’s operation in New York City… Fast forward to what is going to define the music industry, where’s Spotify’s US headquarters? New York. Where is SoundCloud’s US headquarters? New York. Look at the hundreds of people Pandora employs in New York City. YouTube has a significant music team in New York City…” says Justin Kalifowitz, CEO of Downtown Music Publishing and founder of the New York Is Music lobby group which estimates there are around 100,000 New Yorkers employed by the music industry.
“When we started New York Is Music, it was really a response to this notion that there wasn’t anyone at the City or State level focused on music. There was no conversation happening the way you’d see partnerships between the government and other industries for economic, social and cultural benefits,” continues Kalifowitz. While the business side of music continues to thrive in the city, and young creatives still aspire to make it there, there seems to have been a missed opportunity on the policy side which largely focused on the film, TV and advertising sectors of the creative industries.
Musicians’ Right to the City
New York is Music has played a central role in lobbying for tax credits for music production in the city, in a bid to engage policymakers with the economic opportunities the industry provides, while re-branding NYC as hotbed for music-making. “The legislation has been passed in both chambers; that’s incredible! These people did not know if music was an industry three years ago, and now there’s a very, very meaningful economic development strategy that they’ve championed at the city level after 12 years of [only] championing what came to be a very significant film and TV program,” Kalifowitz explains, adding that City Hall is creating a special music industry liaison position.
This, perhaps, comes in response to the perception that other American cities are vying for the title of the US capital of music and, alarmingly to many music professionals in New York, that these cities are able to attract more and more musical talent. Nashville has branded itself ‘Music City USA’, Atlanta is cementing itself as the home of Hip Hop, Miami has captured Latin music and LA is capitalizing on Hollywood to spur a Pop music mecca. Most importantly, these competing cities offer much more affordable conditions for songwriters, musicians and producers to live, create and perform in.
“Yes, people always came from different places to New York, but it didn’t have to be that you had to be a trust fund kid to make music here. Now you kind of have to,” says Melvin Gibbs, lauded bassist and President of the Content Creators Coalition as we meet in his Brooklyn loft. The price of real estate in New York is notoriously high, with average rent reaching over US $3000 according to latest statistics, and tenants of both commercial and residential spaces are continuously being priced out as landlords look for a bigger profit margin. And with a more affluent class moving into what are transitioning into becoming the trendiest neighborhoods in the city, day-to-day and lifestyle expenses also become out of reach.
“If somebody’s going offer you a million dollars for your house and you can buy one in Atlanta for a quarter of that, you might decide to move. And a lot of people did that. They think ‘Should I stay here and pay for a $10 latte, or should I go where there’s a Walmart?’” continues Gibbs, recalling the construction of Manhattan Plaza in the late 1970s; two affordable skyscrapers built in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood especially for performing artists. “I don’t think we need to change the city; I just think we need to cater better to the creative community to make it affordable for them to both record and perform,” adds Justin Shukat, President of Primary Wave Entertainment.
The Changing Geography of New York City’s Sounds
Even the business of music is suffering at the hands of rising real estate, as studios and live music venues close across the city to make way for tenants that can pay top dollar rentals. “The bottom line is really very simple. You don’t have a scene without a piece of real estate to anchor it; without a venue or a club,” says Gibbs. “We’ve lost some classic [venues] over the last 10 years; the Cutting Room, CBGB’s, the Wetlands…” says Shukat, referring to three iconic live music venues which came to a close or relocated primarily due to gentrification and consequent affordability issues.
Benji Rogers, Founder of Pledge Music, an NYC-based music crowdfunding and campaigning platform, and Dot BlockChain Music, the first industry attempt to implement blockchain technology within music distribution, has seen firsthand the ever-growing effects of gentrification. “We’ve saved maybe three or four venues from shutting down via Pledge Music, but the reason they’re closing down hasn’t gone away. Some landlords are increasing rents by 80% because they want them out – when you have space on street, it’s very valuable. Look at how many banks there are; every corner is a Chase or a Bank of America and they end up competing with each other and pushing up prices for everyone else,” he explains.
“Hip Hop came out of the South Bronx, one of the city’s poorest areas. Then you have the likes of the Ramones, from Queens, creating the Punk Rock scene from another poor area. But now, the poor and, in fact, the middle class are getting kicked out. And if you just have a bunch of rich people and a bunch of poor people, you’re not really going to get a [creative] fertilization, you’re going to get exploitation. Music comes out of community,” continues Gibbs.
However, and despite a feeling of fatigue among some of the musical eco-system in the city, there continues to be an attempt to nurture the scene. Founder of the once-illustrious College Media Journal (CMJ) and its associated multi-venue annual music festival, Robert ‘Bobby’ Haber, explains that New York City has an unrivaled live music infrastructure. Though CMJ is on hiatus, Haber has recently inaugurated a different music and tech festival which takes advantage of the city’s legacy as a creative and collaborative place. “Mondo serves two needs really: to celebrate New York as the music capital of the world and, what is to me, the start-up tech capital of the United States,” he says. “Now, San Francisco might have a problem with that, and LA and Austin, but in my opinion Brooklyn, and especially Dumbo, as well as the Lower East Side, are real hotbeds of Pop culture and communication tech start-ups.”
Indeed, many echo the notion that New York’s creative infrastructure is not necessarily weakening at the hands of gentrification and related financial issues, but it is being restructured and redistributed around the city. 2016’s Mondo took advantage of New York University – the largest private university in the United States – to convene music makers and tech innovators. But, as Haber explains, one must look beyond the skyscrapers that characterize Manhattan to really gauge the city’s musical standing and as such, Mondo’s musical schedule could be caught in 15 venues around New York. “Beyond Williamsburg, Bushwick and downtown Brooklyn are exploding. Then you have Ridgewood in Queens, which is still somewhat affordable, also attracting musicians and artists,” he explains.
Similarly, Christian Cedras, CEO at Big House Publishing notes that “the way we consume music is changing and that change extends to making music, as well as where live music lives. Kids these days prefer an alternative experience, so you’ll find rooftop gigs, popup venues and warehouses replacing the traditional club or bar. Bushwick and Washington Heights are really happening.” Nevertheless, Big House Publishing remain committed to the hustle and bustle of Manhattan when it comes to creating and distributing music, working with Digital Daruma to establish Five to One Media – a top-of-the-line music studio focused on collaborative approaches to songwriting and music production, with a strong focus on artist development.
“I’ve seen a huge shift outside of Manhattan. That’s where the music industry used to be, so that’s where musicians and audiences went. Period. End of story. And there’s now it’s almost the opposite, so, so many people live in Brooklyn,” says Diane Eber, Associate Producer at BRIC Arts in Brooklyn where she works on performing arts and the annual Celebrate Brooklyn festival. The former Warner Music Group exec also attributes the changing geography of New York’s music scene to the digital age. “A lot of Manhattan’s big studios have closed down but then I also know of a lot of smaller, amazing studios that have opened up especially because the technical aspect is so digitalized now, you don’t necessarily need the same space. Technology has opened up music production and democratized the industry.”
Singer, Songwriter, Self-Promoter
With geography becoming less relevant in the music industry, the processes of music production – from artist development to distribution – too are changing. So does the old New York adage of “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” still ring true? “Publishers today have become the new development houses with the Artists and Repertoire [function] gone from the labels,” explains Krista Retto, Co-Founder of Big House Publishing, suggesting that proximity, density and subsequent collaboration make New York City a good place to nurture talent. “The access and the ability to find and listen to music from your phone or computer at a much higher level has changed the job of an A&R person having to go out to a venue to really get the sense of seeing someone perform live,” concurs Justin Shukat. “But I don’t think that’s changed the mindset of an audience wanting to see, hear and connect with a particular artist in a live venue.” What has changed, however, are the expectations both the industry and audiences have from artists. No longer is it enough to tote a guitar and call yourself a singer-songwriter, waiting to be discovered. Instead an artist must play many roles to stake their claim in the Big Apple, and with affordability issues plaguing musicians, that’s no easy feat.
“You have to be wearing all hats, otherwise you’re going have to quit your career,” says Francis Mercier, an electronic dance music DJ, referring to the self-promotion, event organizing, bookings and marketing outreach he conducts daily for himself. “It’s a double-edged sword. You don’t want come to New York because it’s super expensive and super competitive, but you want come to New York because it motivates you and engages you to do more than just make cool music in your home or studio. There are a lot of musicians here and a lot of venues – it’s an open market; if you can’t deliver, another artist can and will.” It’s a challenge that, according to Diane Eber, can become some musicians’ downfall. “Some artists just want to make art and they never got into business because they’re not good at promoting themselves. They’re good at making incredible music and so it’s sad when they get lost.” Singer-songwriter Jay Stolar agrees: “You’ll meet record company executives that say ‘You know, this is really good but let’s talk when you have a million plays on YouTube.’ It’s definitely pretty cut-throat, I think there a lot of bands and artists here in New York that are isolated especially because of how expensive the city is.”
Despite New York City’s urban challenges seeping into the music industry, there is no doubt that the city will remain both attractive and inspirational for musician from across the States, and indeed a dream destination for artists from around the world. “It might be just a different dream, you know, for a different type of musician,” concedes Melvin Gibbs, who goes on to explain that opportunities for musicians to nurture their art still exist. “For better or worse, a lot of very important musicians have transitioned into being academics and teachers. The difference is, when I was a kid, all those same guys taught us for free in the community.” Nevertheless, Gibbs continues to fight for musicians’ rights to the city as a campaigner and lobbyist for the industry at large, along with many other music professionals.
The Beat Goes On
New York Is Music, for example, is rolling out Sound Thinking – a musical educational program to be implemented in public schools, while teaming up with others to form NYC3 Creative Community to continue their lobby for tax credits and other incentives. Meanwhile, Mondo is “looking to shine a light on New York as the world capital of music,” by hoping to channel a portion of the 60 million annual tourists towards a music-driven exploration of the city, as Bobby Haber explains, adding that the organization prides itself on looking after the artists it works with.
And, thanks to the efforts of a music scene unwilling to relinquish their city’s position as an inspirational hotbed – a home for creativity and creation – the local government seems to be finally heeding their calls.
Alongside the commissioning of an in-depth economic study of the music industry and considering the implementation of tax credits for the art form, the City of New York is making strides in connecting to music scene for mutual benefit and support. “The fact that, within the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, there is a person focused on music and understanding and engaging with those that are working in the industry, and how to foster and build a community that drives both creative value and economic value, is a great first step,” says Jon Vanhala. Diane Eber and BRIC Arts have already felt the move to embrace music as a cultural and economic priority when the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment not only sponsored their annual Jazz Fest, but made the tickets for opening night free.
“What you are seeing in other music cities that are on the rise is the cultivation of a partnership between government agencies and the industry and that’s something that’s really in its infancy here in New York. If we get it right, I think there’s incredible opportunity for continued growth; if we get it wrong, the private sector here is strong enough to keep flourishing. Most people in the music industry are die hard New Yorkers,” says Justin Kalifowitz.
Indeed, a sense of hometown pride appears again and again among different strata in the industry, from indie artists to record label executives, and it’s coupled with a determination to keep the city at the forefront of music – and to keep music at the forefront of the city. This loyalty to the city and its musical output, it seems, is rooted within the unparalleled cosmopolitanism only New York City can offer. “I’m not American,” says seasoned Haitian music publisher Christian Cedras, “But I feel like a New Yorker.”
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