More details about Huntsville ‘music audit’ revealed

By Matt Wake mwake@al.com

The microphone kept feeding back. A video intro malfunctioned. It took more than 25 minutes to get to the information many of the people in this packed, volleyball-court-sized room had come to hear.

OK, so the open forum Wednesday night, regarding the $165,000 “music audit” the City of Huntsville has contracted London firm Sound Diplomacy to conduct, didn’t get off to the smoothest of starts.

But eventually the meeting provided some welcome clarity about the audit, which is intended to help make Huntsville a place where musicians can be more successful and people who love music (and the companies that employ them) want to be.

More than 200 local musicians, fans, venue employees, songwriters and entertainment media showed up for Wednesday’s forum, held at Yellowhammer Brewing’s Lost Highway Bierhall. Inside it was standing room only. Many other attendees spilled out onto a back patio at Yellowhammer, one of the city’s top craft-beer makers.

After the music audit was announced in April one of the questions frequently voiced on social media has been: Why bring in a European firm to evaluate Huntsville’s local music scene?

At Wednesday’s forum, Sound Diplomacy rep Katja Hermes answered that question. “Usually it’s a good thing to bring people from outside to do these kinds of audits,” Hermes said. “It’s just very important to have this outside perspective and not have biases because it really helps to have this objective view, to see what’s out there. What are the challenges? What are your assets? And then really develop an action plan and recommendations for the city.”

According to Sound Diplomacy’s Azucena Mico, the firm is currently “conducting research and comparing cities which we believe have similar characteristics to Huntsville and analyzing their music spaces, their transport situation, their community situation, to compare it to Huntsville and find best practices there.”

Both Mico, from Spain, and Hermes, from Germany, spoke professionally and effectively Wednesday. It seemed like the forum might’ve gotten off to a better start if their presentation opened the meeting, instead of following contextual (and well meaning) passages from several other speakers.

Sound Diplomacy’s past work has ranged from larger cities such as London and Vancouver as well as smaller European towns.

In Huntsville, the firm is focused on inventorying the city’s musical assets, everything ranging from musicians and venues to media and production support to even public transport and parking. This inventory is being compiled in hopes of helping the city use its current assets (both public and private) more efficiently and develop a more-informed idea of what needs to be added to the mix.

Early into the Huntsville audit, Sound Diplomacy has noted strengths including local talent, the city’s continuing growth (and opportunities that come with that, including sponsorship possiblities), and music-friendly initiatives including the entertainment district zoning.

However, the noise ordinance that’s impacted downtown venues would probably not fall into the latter category. Sound Diplomacy’s initial Huntsville research has turned up other challenges to building up the musical economy here. These include, Mico said Wednesday: branding issues (namely, “the city’s reputation is not directly related to entertainment”); a live scene more focused on cover songs than original tunes; a gap in mid-sized venues; and (with shifts and challenges in 21st century text-based media) difficulty for music lovers to find out “what’s going on” with local live shows.

“We’ve seen that the music community in general operates in silos,” Mico said, “and they don’t really interact.” But she added “this is just the first step,” and that at a smaller, roundtable meeting of invited music pros held earlier Wednesday “by the end, all the attendants passed their contacts to each of them.”

As Sound Diplomacy continued more intimate roundtable meetings Thursday, at Lowe Mill’s Tangled String Studios, some participants who left Wednesday’s forum skeptical were more optimistic about the music audit and its possible impact, after meeting with Hermes and Mico directly.

At Wednesday’s open forum, Shawn Patrick, of planned talent incubator The 7-2, said, “We can’t make every musician happy. But we can create an ecosystem that will value musicians, make sure musicians get paid, especially ones that write and perform their own music. That’s very important to grow a culture. It doesn’t mean everyone can be a star. But you don’t have to be a star to make a living making music.”

An audience Q&A session later in the Wednesday forum evoked those public comments sections at city council meetings. Some input was insightful. Others, eye-roll-inducing. One older tie-dye-clad musician in the audience asserted “access to capital is our problem” and that it takes “$400,000 to make a good album” – perhaps unfamiliar with the fact Nirvana recorded their debut LP for around 600 bucks.

During the Q&A, more than one attendee voiced concerns over fair compensation for local musicians. “The industry is broken,” one audience member said, when handed the microphone. “Everyone expects music to be free,” before claiming to have made only $20 from a past local gig.

Asked by Patrick to speak to this subject, local rap scene veteran Codie G, part of The 7-2’s leadership, said: “You have to build a demand. You don’t get participation awards in the music industry. So just because you’re performing and touring and putting money into your career doesn’t mean that the consumer has to come and support you. That’s just the way this thing works.”

Earlier, after some video technical difficulties, the forum began with a speech by Tennessee-based music philanthropist Aubrey Preston. Preston’s Americana Music Triangle project is a Southern roots-music tourism-oriented website. Wednesday at Yellowhammer, he waxed about music being “the most universal language of the world” before giving a less esoteric reasoning for a music audit: “Millennials, they’re choosing ‘where do I want to live’ first and ‘who do I want to work for’ second, in that order. So, if you want to compete as a city and get the strongest talent in the future, you’re going to have to have that quality of life that includes culture, music. And if you look around, the cities that are doing that and are getting the best talent. And when you have the best talent you get the highest paying jobs and you create an ecosystem that really helps everything thrive.”

Later at the open-forum, Preston said that while physical music sales and associated income for musicians are a shadow of what they once were, “What is encouraging is the live experience market is coming up. And to have live experiences, what do you have to have? You have to have environments that will attract people to them and the market will develop and live musicians can get paid more. The live money will be good in the future, but only if you have a great environment for musicians.”

A top local musician who attended a Thursday roundtable meeting Sound Diplomacy held with local artists, told me much of that conversation involved creating a better experience at local venues – topics such as better sound (including venues providing sound engineers more often), shorter sets (that don’t require a band to play copious covers to fill out four-hour time-slots). As well as tax breaks and subsidizing that might help make better live music experiences possible.

Sound Diplomacy’s music audit is contracted for a 14-month period. During that time the firm is also auditing Muscle Shoals/Florence. There would appear to be significant potential for symbioses between history rich and currently resurgent Shoals music, which produced FAME Studios, The Swampers, etc., and Huntsville, projected to be Alabama’s largest city in a matter of years. At Wednesday’s forum Tuscumbia Kerry Underwood implored, “If you want to embrace the music industry, the Shoals has a history like no other.”

Preceding Mico and Hermes’ presentation Wednesday night, Huntsville Urban and Economic Development Director Shane Davis spoke. “There’s some things we think we’ve done really, really well,” Davis said, regarding city government. “Job creation, over 30,000 jobs. Infrastructure, we’ve got a good handle on that. The one thing we’re keying-in on is quality of life. Quality of life is very important for our city. We want to be a music friendly city from a policy standpoint.”

There’s no denying the Huntsville music community showed up in a big way for Wednesday’s forum. However, there seemed to be a decided lack of attendees under the age of 25. Connecting with the young local indie bands and hip-hop acts that play house parties and Lowe Mill events, and the students attending nearby colleges like UAH, Alabama A&M, Calhoun Community College and Oakwood University could prove key in Sound Diplomacy’s audit. As well as to keeping Huntsville music fresh and growing its future.

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