Why we need more Smart Music Cities

Sound Diplomacy*

Music Cities as sustainable cities

All cities have musical talent, from the streets to the arenas. Music can be heard anywhere from speakers in shopping malls to metro stations, hospitals and car parks. It is one of the drivers of cities’ night time economies around the globe, providing tens of thousands of jobs and billions in monetary contributions. However, only a few cities have strategies to plan, manage, develop and exploit their musical talent. Those cities are Music Cities. They have a structured framework to regulate, license and permit music, events and other musical initiatives. They prioritise music education and policies to manage risk associated with music, from noise to safety. Music Cities can be small towns, metropolitan areas, countries or regions, and they explore the role of music at both the local and master planning stages. They create economic opportunities through music, attract a highly skilled workforce and improve logistics, all while increasing their cultural offer. Planning a Music City is, in essence, planning an open, progressive and sustainable city.


The master planning process in Music Cities looks at how music and other culture impacts development, whether through town centres, business districts, regeneration projects or singular buildings. Our first event, Music Cities Convention, was born in 2015 under the slogan “a strong and sustainable music industry is the most efficient way to build, maintain and expand vibrant and economically prosperous cities”. The conversation has become more important over the past two years, and now it has expanded into two other events exploring music and urbanism in specific sectors[1].


Certainly, Music Cities are Smart Cities for their capacity to improve quality of life, investment in intelligent infrastructure and proactive city management. However, Music Cities must go one step forward and improve data mining and analytics to help realize the vision of urban planners and developers through music. Big data analytics from the music industry have to be included in city music strategies to justify the value of music placemaking to governments and organisations. As cities move to become Smart Cities and use data-driven analysis and strategies, more local music industry data should be shared to improve our city systems.



Changing the perception of music: from nuisance to advantage


Many cities are currently getting smarter by incorporating music into urban planning. Let’s take, for instance, affordable housing, which is a planning challenge for every growing city. Housing demand by low-income creative professionals is growing across cities and regions, but poor working conditions and irregular income streams particularly affect music artists. Even though it is widely recognised that artist communities have a positive impact on cities, and that most of them are struggling to make ends meet, artists are often treated as gentrification agents by city analysts and displaced residents.


Fostering and retaining artistic communities is a challenge in larger metropolitan areas, where both waiting lists for subsidized housing and the cost of living are experiencing a staggering growth. In 2015, the Mayor of New York City announced plans to provide 1,500 units of affordable housing reserved exclusively for low-income creatives[2], joining previous efforts of the city and other US municipalities using tax credits to fund artist housing. Despite the good intentions of these measures, tax-subsidized housing for artists discriminates certain creative workers (i.e. those with a poor or inexistent portfolio), and eventually promotes less diversity in the communities it hosts[3]. On the other hand, independent organisations such as Artspace[4] in the US, and Artscape[5] in Toronto, Canada, are paving the way for creative placemaking based on mixed-use developments. As an example, the project Artscape Distillery Studios in Toronto has revitalised an area where other developers had failed before, this time using arts and culture as a catalyst. By placing artist work and living units above venues, for instance, Artscape promotes the coexistence of vibrant daytime and nighttime uses and environments, enabling affordable artist housing units to coexist with regular condominium projects.


The music industry fuels the economy of a city’s most overlooked economy, the night time economy. Some local governments are now engaging in the nighttime economy conversation after realising urban governors should plan the nighttime and daytime accordingly. In its pursuit to become a truly 24-hour city, Amsterdam is innovating licensing and zoning by moving nightclubs and entertainment districts to city fringes. Seven nightclubs in the Dutch capital now have 24-hour licenses, mostly thanks to the city’s dedicated Night Mayor, Mirik Milan, who lobbies the Amsterdam government on behalf of the night time industries. However, just because nightclubs have 24-hour licenses, it doesn’t mean the streets are constantly crammed with revellers. The new nightclubs are relatively far from residential areas and well-connected through public transportation (and the ubiquitous Dutch bike culture). Also, because they can come and leave at any time, there are fewer peaks of environmental noise. In the daytime, these venues promote alternative uses that benefit the neighbourhood at large. Take ‘De School’, a former technical school-turned-nightclub operating under a 24-hour license since 2015. This Amsterdam venue hosts music sessions in the evening and late nights, but it is also home to a restaurant, a café, a gym, and different rental spaces. Encouraging mixed-use spaces and extended-hour licenses can increase harmony between daytime and nighttime uses. This helps the coexistence of music in the community, but it also brings music closer to citizens who wouldn’t visit a venue in the first place. 


Where there isn’t a possibility to relocate entertainment districts and music spaces to the city limits, some key advice in regulation may assist noise bylaw changes and the repurposing of land use. The ‘Agent of Change’ principle puts the responsibility for noise management measures on the “agent of change”, whether it’s the incoming individual or business. This could be a resident moving into a flat near an existing music venue, or a developer that is building a new music venue near an existing residential building. The principle has already been adopted in parts of Australia, UK and the United States and is proving successful. This principle assists in better planning and better developments, and is a key tool for the sustainable coexistence of music and people in cities.

Music strategies for better urbanism


A smart city without a music strategy is overlooking the potential benefits of music to its citizens and its cultural offering. Every city, town and region should have a music policy and a music office, with all sectors contributing for constant improvement. A music strategy contributes to smart cities with primary data collection, indicators and an infrastructure framework. It supports cross-pollination for music workers and, by extension, the creative industries. The more bridges built across sectors, the smarter and more sustainable a Music City will become. Governance is a fundamental piece in the design of a sustainable Music City, from the local administrations to the industry and citizens’ representative bodies, all of whom must work together to better support the city’s needs and goals.


Mapping the existing music spaces, places and organisations is the first step towards assisting in the development of a Music City strategy. Mapping music venues, for instance, helps to focus on smaller, more diverse interventions wherever they are most needed. The Mayor of London’s Music Venues Taskforce produced a Grassroots Music Venues Rescue Plan after detecting 35 per cent of the capital’s venues had shut down between 2007 and 2015. Grassroots music venues are extremely important to the sustainability of the industry. However, threats from the development and planning sector, in addition to residents and other cultural spaces, undermine this importance.  Thanks to the monitoring of the existing venues, and the joint efforts from the industry and the Greater London Authority, London is preserving and growing one of its most recognised assets: its musical culture. Intelligent investment in development pathways, such as music education and grassroots music venues, are a step forward for any city to create sustainable smart cities and smart citizens of the future.


Nevertheless, the investment in smart strategies such as a Music City strategy is not yet a priority for most governments. While our work aims to change this, the ‘music urbanism’ practices happening around the world are mostly a product of experimentation, community experiences and the inborn music from our cultures. For instance, an analysis on the music urbanism of Tehran[6] shows how the spaces in which people gather distinguish citizens by their musical taste, among other traits. Traditional Persian music listeners can be almost exclusively found in the tea houses of the capital, located alongside markets, while the younger upper and middle classes meet at Northern cafés and listen to contemporary music. Commercial pop can be heard blasting through the cars of Tehran’s youth across town, and people have accepted these sounds as part of their city’s urbanism. Meanwhile, in Madrid, a living lab initiative developed Semilla Boombox[7], a collaborative music service designed for the public space. Tested in different European cities, Boombox can reproduce a common Spotify playlist fed by anyone near the device logging into its built-in wifi, and users can even vote for which song will be played next. The device has served different projects, encouraging social cohesion and youth participation by using music in public spaces. Finally, in cities around the world, street musicians can earn an income while creating a positive experience for passersby. Although busking is supported through different programmes and championed by associations, government participation is primarily limited to regulation. More needs to be done to better protect and grow the presence of music in our cities.


All in all, music makes cities better, but very few are taking advantage of it. We are now building smarter cities, and Music City strategies should be pivotal in designing the integrated, sustainable and vibrant urban models of the future.

*Sound Diplomacy is trusted worldwide to create and deliver strategies that increase the value of music ecosystems.

[1] http://www.musiccitiesevents.com/

[2] https://consequenceofsound.net/2015/02/new-york-city-to-build-affordable-housing-for-musicians-and-artists/

[3] http://www.startribune.com/housing-for-low-income-artists-predominantly-serves-white-people-study-says/380333711/

[4] http://www.artspace.org

[5] http://www.torontoartscape.org

[6] Shaker Ardekani, R. (2016). Tracing musical tastes in Tehran: How urbanism selects its sound. Cogent Social Sciences, 2(1), 1132093. https://doi.org/10.1080/23311886.2015.1132093

[7] http://intermediae.es/project/semilla/page/semilla_boombox



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