Shain Shapiro, president and founder of Sound Diplomacy, on the importance of fostering music in the city and the economic value of night-time industries, writes Lewis Duncan
“The policies that govern our built environment are not fit for purpose to support culture,” says Shain Shapiro, founder and president of Sound Diplomacy.
We are speaking about what a city needs to foster a successful music industry – something Shapiro knows better than anyone. His consultancy advises city governments and property developers on the cultural economy, and after this interview for The Developer podcast, Shapiro is on his way to address the UN conference on music and social equity.
Despite the growing profile of Sound Diplomacy’s work, however, Shapiro says: “The debate is broken.
“The average age of a UK councillor is over 60,” Shapiro says, far removed from the rhythms in the clubs they govern.
For policy to be successful, Shapiro says, officers must be agnostic to musical style. One person’s noise is another’s music, Shapiro adds, with a reminder that the two most popular genres are drill and metal.
As such, music clubs are too often seen as nuisance venues, and not, as Shapiro argues, incubator spaces for the next Ed Sheeran or Stormzy, with all the value to the economy a hit single brings: “We have a licensing system that is based on stopping things from happening rather than managing things when they happen. This creates tension where a music venue is seen as a nuisance and anti-social behaviour premises. It’s not seen as an innovation hub,” he says.
Danny Keir, Global Head of Business Development, Sound Diplomacy
Miriam Delogu, Project Lead, The Circle
Clarisse Tavin, Group Manager, Major Programmes and Projects, City of London Corporation
Akil Scafe-Smith, Founder, Resolve Collective
Emma Warren, Author, Make Some Space: Tuning into Total Refreshment Centre
But music is an ecosystem, and it has specific needs in order to thrive, says Shapiro.
“If we lose a music venue, how does that impact other areas of the ecosystem? Does that mean that there’s going to be less kids playing violin at school? Or less people listening to music on Spotify?”
Sound Diplomacy found that 35% of music venues in London had closed in 2016, and music education is also in steep decline, with an equivalent drop in those studying A-levels, especially in poorer areas.
This results in a diminished talent pool where, “you can only learn music if you have money”, Shapiro says. In fact, if you provide the right infrastructure, a hit single can come from anywhere.
Mapping cultural ecosystems can, according to Shapiro, “help understand how the community ticks and what the music industry needs”.
“You know the venue capacity that’s needed; recording studio requirements; what types of music are underserved; what types of music are over-served. That translates into the type of venue you would be outfitting and the leasing agreement with the prospective operator.”
“If we lose a music venue, does that mean less kids playing violin at school? Or less people listening to music on Spotify?”
Sound Diplomacy has recently released a manual to demonstrate how music can be a driver of economic growth and social cohesion in cities. The consultancy also helped in the creation of London’s night czar in 2016, a post now held by Amy Lamé, and the Night Time Commission, researching London’s night-time economy. A current focus is on meanwhile space and music activity, and not letting the fire go out once development is complete. For this, community engagement is critical, as well as joined-up, top-down oversight.
“There should be a public post in every city, a music officer – London has one. Their role should be about translating the role of music, and measuring its impact internally.”
While on paper, councils say they want the cultural vibrancy of music venues, in reality they are concerned about encouraging people to gather. Shapiro contends, “Drill music isn’t going to kill you, it may not be your cup of tea but it can also empower people to express themselves in a way that will get them off thinking knife crime is a way forward.”
“The government tries to criminalise the type of music that they’re using to express themselves, their drill music. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Sound Diplomacy emphasises positive action, and tells developers that the person listening to drill music today is your Help to Buy or build-to-rent tenant tomorrow.
“You should be fostering your potential customer base for as long a possible – music is a great way to do that.”
“The government tries to criminalise the type of music that they’re using to express themselves, their drill music. It doesn’t make any sense”
A simple step is celebrating the music a city has to offer.
“In Manchester, we’re working on a music tourism strategy for them right now. Liverpool has done a very good job at that lately but they didn’t use to. Coventry as the City of Culture is also [focusing on] music,” says Shapiro.
By celebrating all forms of music, a healthier ecosystem can emerge, and a profitable one too, “[Music] costs quite a lot of money to create, but its value lasts for a long time.” When translated into yield and the economics of property, “it doesn’t fit”, he admits.
“If I go to a developer and say we want to create a music venue, usually we have to present a model that uses music to get people through the door. It can be a safer investment, but it’s not an immediate yield. Literally building [a venue] is expensive and operating it is expensive.”
But Shapiro praises “more culture-focused, nuanced developers” that are open to learning how a music venue can support culture and community. Sound Diplomacy will look at Section 106 obligations to see what the area would benefit from, and shares that information. Shapiro wants the community to make decisions in order to help change the narrative.
“Why can’t there be a cultural or music conservation area?”
“We do cultural audits for developers to help them understand the local community... Once you bring people together to talk about music in a non-threatening way... you’ll see it’s not that bad,” says Shapiro.
Another trend is to outfit the public realm with outdoor venues, “so that street performers can plug directly into the mains and that also controls noise levels. Building in sunken amphitheatres so people can sit offers performance opportunities, too”.
“We need to have a nuanced conversation about what creates a genuine place.”
In addition, Shapiro believes radical policies such as music venues being designated as conservation areas, would make a big difference.
“Why can’t there be a cultural or music conservation area? That’s a particular hot topic in Cardiff because a venue was closed that could have potentially been saved,” says Shapiro.
“I think that the local plans of cities need to recognise music and music venues more bluntly, deliberately and internationally. You need the intentionality that you already get in Liverpool and Manchester.”
“Manchester had a nightmare until Sacha Lord founded the Warehouse project,” says Shapiro, referencing the 2006 initiative that includes an instalment payment plan for tickets. Lord holds the position of ‘night czar’ in Greater Manchester.
The term ‘music venue’ is very loaded as Shapiro sees it. With denser cities and communities around noise-making premises, promoting venues as part of a mixed-use developments is one solution to solving the stigma.
Grime music “is about the built environment! People are rhyming about the buildings around them... and now it’s worth billions and billions”
“There may not be a role but you should still ask that question because music cuts through everything. In the US we do a lot of work in cities where we’re actually talking about race but we’re just doing it through music.”
A current project is the The Standard, a venue in Waltham Forest that was closed and will now reopen as part of a development. “It will be surrounded by housing and that’s OK,” says Shapiro. “I know of 10 or 15 music venue projects happening around the country right now, and we’ve got two venues written into the Section 106 agreements.”
As for developers, Shapiro says they should find it easy to embrace grime music. “It’s about the built environment! People are rhyming about the buildings around them because they grew up in council estates in south and north London,” says Shapiro.
“It’s experiential music about London,” he adds. “Now it’s a global phenomenon worth billions and billions.”
Listen to the podcast by clicking on the link and sign up to The Developer Weekly to be updated when new episodes go online.
Danny Keir, global head of business development at Sound Diplomacy, will be talking about cultural vibrancy and music at the Festival of Place on 9 July.