THE BLOG

Making Music History Work For The Present

12/21/2015 04:13 EST | Updated 12/21/2016 05:12 EST
James Atkinson Photography via Getty Images

Written by Amy Terrill, VP Public Affairs at Music Canada.

Worldwide, cities are trying to sort out how music fits into broader discussions of preservation and historical designation. What is music's place in our heritage? How important is its preservation?

As venues and recording studios in many cities face pressure from encroaching development and rising property values, a dialogue on best practices and historical importance is emerging in cities large and small. Cities like London and Nashville are struggling to stem the bleeding. Earlier this year, we set out to study what makes a music city. Our global research shows that some of the best loved music cities around the world are struggling to maintain their music spaces. And while the solutions are not as evident as the problems, a recognition of music history may be part of the answer.

According to Kaitlin Wainright, the Director of Programming at Heritage Toronto, music adds value to our cultural heritage and lived experience. She points out that everyone has their own stories relating to a place or event. There is no single story line, which is what makes music history so compelling and so rich, to so many people. And yet, Wainright says, there are few cities that do current and past music well.

Recently, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, announced support for a rescue plan for live music venues after a local campaign gathered evidence that 35 per cent of these have closed since 2007. Many of the venues that have been lost played a vital role in London's music history and artist development. The loss of iconic venues in the city like The 12 Bar, Madame Jojo's, and The Astoria have captured headlines. Singer-songwriter Tim Arnold is leading the Save Soho campaign, formed to preserve the neighbourhood as a home for the performing arts and to draw attention to the role it has played in the lives of artists from every walk of life. Arnold and other artists are reaching out to building owners in a collaborative way to help with future plans for their properties. Save Soho has been running parallel to an initiative by Music Venues Trust to gather evidence of the extreme instability of live music venues in the UK today that focuses on the economics of the business, planning issues and concerns raised about noise in increasingly urbanized environments. Both campaigns have tapped into the history of music in London in order to preserve the current inventory of venues.

Nashville's Music Row provides another example. Music Row is historically where the music business has been concentrated, and has seen the loss of some iconic spaces. The closing of RCA Studio A prompted a public outcry, leading to the designation of RCA Studio B as a national treasure by the National Trust in the U.S.

Does a lack of respect for the past lead to instability in the present and future?

Heritage designations, as in the case of RCA Studio B, are one small piece of the puzzle. In Toronto, City Council officially designated The Silver Dollar as a heritage property in early 2015, sparing it from demolition. Built in 1958, the venue has played host to a range of well-known international and local artists. While it is no panacea, since the heritage designation protects the architectural structure but not the actual use of the building, Mary MacDonald of Toronto's Heritage Preservation Services feels it is possible that it will have a lasting impact on the perceived value of the building as a music venue - a perception that should influence how future owners use the property.

But perhaps that is the point. Could it be that if you do not protect, celebrate or nurture your past music history, you cannot hope to maintain or grow a successful current music scene? Does a lack of respect for the past lead to instability in the present and future?

New Orleans may provide a cautionary tale. When Hurricane Katrina brought massive flooding, some neighbourhoods were disproportionately affected. According to writer Lolis Elie who spoke at the Music Cities Convention in October in Washington, areas that were home to a high percentage of New Orleans' artists were among them. Musicians like Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes found their living rooms filled with nine feet of water. Many artists were evacuated, and although the Tremé area, for instance, has being rebuilt in an effort heralded as a vibrant revitalization, many veteran artists have been left with nowhere to which to return. Additional changes to licensing affecting music venues, higher costs for the city's "second-line" parades, and proposed zoning restrictions have further been identified as threats to sustaining the city's musical traditions. Elie worries that the culture of the city is shifting in unprecedented ways.

Progress, development and urbanization are undeniably part of our landscape. We can no more stop progress than we can leave a community devastated by floods, unimproved. However, there is merit in preserving and protecting heritage, not just for the purpose of explaining where we came from, but also, in order to ensure a vibrant and healthy future. Music brings vitality and diversity to our cities. It bridges cultures and languages. It generates jobs and attracts investment. Music history and the places in which it was written, are worthy of efforts to protect them, as one means by which we maintain an honoured place for music.

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