What makes a city “musical”?

What makes a city “musical”?

These days it’s so easy to leave your hometown, even your home country, for greener pastures, especially within the European Union. Flights are cheap, moving services are not that expensive and the Internet makes finding a flat and new flatmates a lot easier through the use of apps and Skype. Also, young people tend to collect less material “stuff” these days because a lot of our collections are digital (namely photos, videos, films and music), meaning we are less tied down and more free to roam the Earth. A person who is musically inclined or simply passionate about music might think “The music scene here sucks! I’m moving to a musical city!” or “I’m going to move to the most musical city in the world!”. But what is a musical city? Which factors make one city more musical than another? What does “musical” even mean when referring to a city? All great questions, we’v got a few ideas for you in this short article…

Observe & Listen

We could say that any city is “musical” just by stopping for a moment and opening our ears. The landscape of a city, the cityscape rather, always comes with a soundtrack: The constant hum of traffic like a bass synth pad, honking cars like trumpets, the footsteps of pedestrians like percussion, the chugging sound of trains or trams like a drum beat, pigeons and seagulls chirping melodies… There is an intricate symphony of urban noises in every city but, even though this is a nice idea, we are not here to discuss this in particular, we’re here to discuss opportunities for people to hear, perform and engage in music culture. The following paragraphs explain further…


Opportunities to See & Hear

We’ve all heard about cities where you can attend fantastic concerts every night of the week, cities that are just swarming with talented musicians who either live there or pass through often. Some that come to mind are metropolises like New York City, London and Berlin while other smaller cities shine even brighter in our minds like New Orleans, Havana or Austin, TX. The number of venues plays a role in how much live music can be seen but the quality and reputation of the venues is what keeps audiences and artists coming back. Sometimes the best venues are the ones that start out as small DIY creative spaces organised by young musicians and then grow through experience and reputation. Also the ticket price of shows can greatly influence show attendance. In cities where bands and promoters have to compete for audiences (where there are multiple shows per night) the lowest price often wins. This price drop acts as a positive feedback loop and builds a music community with high attendance rates. Win-win situation.

A Sense of Community

A very important aspect of a musical city is how well musicians feel there, socially speaking. If the general sentiment toward musicians is a negative or condescending one then musician might find it hard to thrive there. On the other hand, if the city has a tight-knit community of musicians who support and encourage each other the opportunities and inspiration could be boundless. A bit of friendly competition can also be a good thing, as long as it is free of hostility and jealousy. Competition can be fuel for creativity and a motivating factor when fostered in the right kind of community. When you are close to other, supportive, musicians you often feel inclined to share what you are working on or what you have accomplished. Sharing is caring!


Opportunities to Perform

Which cities offer the most opportunities for you and/or your band to perform live? Are these opportunities where you can potentially make money, or will you inevitably lose money with each gig you play? There are different standards from venue to venue but also from city to city. For example if you want to play at any medium-sized venue in City A you almost always have to “pay to play” whereas in City B you never have to pay a fee to play and you will almost always get a percentage of ticket sales or of drink sales at the bar. Which city would you call more musical? One that supports musicians and allows them, financially, to continue making making music or one that makes it difficult for them to pay rent? Of course this all depends on the music scene, the community’s efforts to set the standards. When musicians unite anything is possible, so don’t give up, make changes instead! Open your own DIY venue if need be. Leaving the city is not always the best solution, remember: The “grass is always greener on the other side” unless you water what you have 😉


Music: an investment for “Nighttime Economy”

Some cities have a thriving music scene because the city’s government has made wise decisions on where to invest money. Culture and nightlife have always been indispensable aspects of cities with good international reputations. Funding for nightlife culture have never been a priority until very recently, and only in certain cities. In London, mayor Sadiq Khan made the wise decision to hire a “night tsar”, Amy Lamé, to turn London into a 24-hour city. People don’t often think of a city’s “nighttime economy” but there is lots of income and business to be made in the late hours and music plays a major role in it. The fact that London has a public servant who is in charge of developing nightlife puts the city pretty high on the list of “musical cities”. Hopefully other cities will realise that prioritising their “nighttime economy” will benefit all parties involved (musicians and audiences included).


How often is a city sung about?

Some cities are mentioned more than others in the lyrics of songs. This may be an indicator of a musical city because if a singer is inclined to mention a city in a song then there’s a chance that they have lived there or have found inspiration there. Celebrity Cruises has compiled and analysed over 2000 top-charting songs from the last 6 decades in search of the most-sung-about cities. They then mapped this data onto an interactive online map! Have a look HERE. The top 5 sung-about cities in the last 6 decades are, not surprisingly, NYC, London, Los Angeles, California (in general) and Hollywood. All of these cities (and state) are hubs for music and leaders in the international music industry. Is your city sung about often? Check out the website to find out.


A city’s Musical History

A city’s musical history can either define a city’s musical presence today or not at all. Whether a famous composer or rockstar was born in a certain city doesn’t necessarily give the city credit for being “musical”. What could, on the other hand, is whether a great number of musicians have resided and grown there musically, have been cradled in a musically community which gave them the opportunities and support to take their music to an international level. For example, just knowing that David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed shared a flat in the Schöneberg district of Berlin makes you want to live there even though they are long gone. The ghost of their presence remains there and surely inspires young budding musicians who live in the area and are aware of who once roamed those streets. ⭐

Which city is the most musical in your opinion? Why would you say so? Do you have any suggestions for ambitious musicians who want a better music city in their city or town? We’d love to hear your ideas.


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Joe has been singing since he can remember and started playing guitar when he was 10. He's been using it as a songwriting tool ever since. He is passionate about melody and harmony and admires musicians who create these in unique ways. Check out his alternative / indie projects Best of Feelings and Zef Raček.

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