Is Huntsville heading to becoming Music City? Or perhaps Music City II?
Not directly, but the Rocket City moniker could have some company.
“We believe Huntsville is the Rocket City but it is also a music city,” Shain Shapiro said. “It’s a creative city. We think music can complement the existing branding and tourism market.”
Shapiro is the founder and president of Sound Diplomacy, a London-based company, that, according to its website “gives governments and businesses keys to the toolbox so they can unlock all of its benefits.”
As is well known, Sound Diplomacy was contracted by the Huntsville City Council to perform a music audit. The intensive process took 14 months to complete and cost the city $165,000. It was the company’s first published strategy in the United State. Shapiro said they have completed studies in Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and across Europe. They’re now performing studies in the U.S. for Muscle Shoals, Branson, Mo., St. Augustine, Fla., New Orleans, New York City, Fort Worth, Texas and San Diego. Cities that Huntsville was used for comparison included Nashville, Durham, N.C., Boulder, Colo. and Chattanooga.
Why perform a music audit?
“There were a lot of questions why we were spending the money to do this,” said Shane Davis, the City of Huntsville Director of Urban Development. “One, we wanted to find if we were relevant. Can we be relevant in this sector? Sound Diplomacy’s work showed we can be very relevant if we put a focus and some effort into it.”
What the process produced was thorough and impressive, so much so that Huntsville City of Council President Devyn Keith had a message for Davis, who originally brought the plan to the council.
“You were right,” said Council President Devyn Keith. “Money well spent. If you don’t know, I was the knucklehead who voted against this. I am now the one who is eating crow.”
What the audit provided was a look at the impact of Huntsville’s current music scene and a strategy to grow it in the future. The audit provided 47 recommendations, which were ranked in three tiers. Shapiro said it’s the second most recommendations his company has presented to a city, trailing an Australian city’s 49 recommendations.
A music city concept is not a definition, it is a process.”
“Music is a great driving force,” said Dennis Madsen, Manager of Urban and Long-Range Planning for Huntsville. “A music city concept is not a definition, it is a process. It’s how we use our music ecosystem and how we’re able to advance our area. Music is also infrastructure. We have a lot of infrastructure here. We also have. As you look across the board, we are very progressive already.
Obviously, with a process of this magnitude, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle stressed that this is not an overnight process. The first tier recommends completion within two years, the second tier should be finished within three years and the final tier projects are much more complex with a longer timeline. Some from each tier could never be attempted.
“It’s going to take a lot of work,” Battle said. “It will not be quick, it won’t be just happening next year. It will be happening over a number of years. Right now, this gives us a strategy. This assesses where we are today and gives us a strategy to go into the future.”
So where does the strategy start?
Actually, the best way to start is to analyze the past and present of music in Huntsville.
“You guys have incredible talent here, that’s the most important asset,” Shapiro said. “I wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t great music here.”
Shapiro added that while the “music industry in Huntsville is incredibly rich but it requires a little more infrastructure.”
To that point, the first recommendation is for Huntsville to appoint a music officer. Or, as Shapiro described it, “when someone calls Huntsville for music, there will someone there to answer.”
While extremely important, that is just one of 19 Tier 1 recommendations. That’s not to say they are the most important, they are simply the first part of a recommended plan.
“The recommendations that Sound Diplomacy has provided, they’re very good,” Davis said. “Some of them are what I call low-hanging fruits, some of them are very far out (and) we’ll have to do a lot of work to get to. That’s why they’ve kind of prioritized them to get us going.”
After providing the City Council will an overview of the plan, Shapiro was asked about the importance of a proposed amphitheater in executing the plan.
“I think that every city needs a big draw or a couple of big draws – whether it’s a stadium, a large concert hall or an amphitheater,” Shapiro said. “A lot of times artists play in cities because they tell their agent, ‘I want to play there.’ They need a facility that is exciting to play. There is a great opportunity in this area because there are a lot of amphitheaters but they haven’t been designed with the customer experience in mind as much. If the amphitheater. If it becomes the type of thing where artists say ‘I want to play here,’ it will become incredibly important from a tourism angle in Huntsville.”
Mayor Battle agrees and points to the Von Braun Music Hall, now under construction.
“The more top quality venues we have for artists to perform, the better,” said Battle. “The VBC’s new music hall will be able to accommodate up to 1,200 people and it will be programmed to have indoor music events year-round.”
Who are the musicians in your neighborhood?
But this survey is not just about big events. It’s about events that travel all the way down to neighborhood festival. It’s about education and linking Huntsville to other music-rich communities. It’s about tourism dollars and quality of life better for Huntsville citizens.
“We talk a lot about economic and workplace development,” said Madsen. “This is really another creative way about thinking about workforce retention, workplace development. It’s really kind of a 21st-century approach to ensuring there’s a lot of cultural amenities in this community. A thriving music scene is incentive for people to relocate, industries to develop, for creative license.”
In this case, it’s all tied together by music.
“We got into this because music is kind of a common denominator – it goes across age, wealth, race and class,” Battle said. “It’s something that adds to your quality of life that you have in your community. If you look at two of our competitors out there, they’re known for their music scenes. Austin, Texas, Nashville, Tennessee, both known for their music scenes. This is a place where we can use something that is a very common denominator, that our citizens use, plus citizens from outside the area will come in to listen to. Some of the best and brightest, this is something that makes them think, ‘Wow, this gives you the ‘cool’ place factor.’