It's ONLY rock & roll?

Daytime skyline We've said it before and we'll say it again: when it comes to innovation, we should all be singing the praises of cities.

Although it’s obvious enough upon reflection, we sometimes forget that the concentration of humanity in urban (and suburban) environments is what drives productivity, progress, and prosperity. As Harvard economist Edward Glaeser likes to point out, “Cities are our greatest invention.” Why? Because “the strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization’s success.”

It’s no coincidence that great art comes from cities, where artists of every variety have congregated to work off of each other’s talents. In the world of pop music, for example, nearly all the great talent developed in a few major metropolitan areas, such as NY, LA, London, Detroit, Nashville, etc.—where dense concentrations of performers, recording studios, night clubs, and fans were located. Many of the great musical artists weren’t born in or near major cities, but that’s where they headed to perform, record, and hang out with other artists.

In the business world, the lion’s share of hi-tech innovation has grown out of a few metropolitan areas like Silicon Valley (extending into San Francisco), Silicon Alley (NY), Seattle, Boston/Cambridge, Austin, Tel Aviv, Munich, Stockholm, Seoul, etc.—where blockbuster firms and future blockbuster firms have taken root. The best & brightest techie minds seem to find their way to these communities where top talent has accumulated.

So how did a handful of cities come up with so much creative talent to begin with, whether in the arts or hi-tech?

One answer: that’s where the employment opportunities were. NY, LA, London, etc. could put musicians to work. Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley, etc. could put engineers to work.

But wasn’t there creative talent in those places to begin with? Which came first: the employers or the talent pool?

Hard to prove, but many make the case that it starts with the talent, the people, the brains. Says Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, “Economic development is really the result of creating a city where people want to live. It’s the attraction of human capital…People no longer chase jobs. Jobs chase people.”

Once it gets going, of course, a positive feedback loop ensues. Edward Glaeser says, “These cities create a virtuous cycle in which employers are attracted by the large pool of potential employees and workers are drawn by the abundance of potential employers.”

Urban theorist Richard Florida, in a series of books from The Rise of the Creative Class to The Great Reset, argues that a community of creative talent is where it all begins and that cultural creativity precedes technological creativity.

If so, that makes a great case for making sure your community has a creative, rollicking rock scene,

Florida found from focus groups with students about to graduate from college that “lifestyle frequently trumps employment” in their choosing where to locate. They sought “interesting music venues, neighborhood art galleries, performance spaces and theaters.” Cornett adds, “If your city’s being populated by highly educated twenty-somethings with choices, you’re probably going to succeed.”

For this reason—as mentioned in an earlier post—Florida has counseled city leaders that “finding ways to help support a local music scene can be just as important as investing in hi-tech business and far more effective than building a downtown mall.”

If rock & roll were on NASDAQ, you'd want to buy and hold.

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  1. It's one of the few things I miss about living in Sacramento. Live music every night, most afternoons, and some mornings.

    These are interesting observations. I wonder which cities are getting the message and acting on it?

    1. Easier to see which cities HAVE gotten the message and HAVE acted on it, e.g. Austin, Seattle.

  2. Hi John!

    Nice informative post! I have found quite a niche in Cambridge where we are at the EMF building on Brookline Street. It sure has been a benefit having a rehearsal studio there now, with the recording and mastering studios right there, it has made life easier to do music. Many artists and videographers, etc., there also. And now with the internet only radio station in full operation 24/7, we have a full service arts community under one roof. Many here are from urban areas and do the music and arts in Cambridge.
    Have a great day!!

  3. Not everyone considers urban concentration to be civilization's crowning achievement. Crime, pollution and obscene levels of income inequality aren't everyone's cup of tea,

    1. Crime is going to be a problem with any concentration of people. But cities are greener than the alternative. Says Richard Florida, “Ecologists have found that by concentrating their populations in smaller areas, cities and metros decrease human encroachment on natural habitats. Denser settlement patterns yield energy savings; apartment buildings, for example, are more efficient to heat and cool than detached suburban houses. Urban households emit less carbon dioxide than their suburban and rural counterparts.”

      Regarding inequality, I mention in a previous post: "As long as cities remain as popular as they are, they will attract the rural poor and foreign immigrants seeking a path of advancement—which predictably creates extreme income inequality in close quarters and, with it, considerable human suffering. Life can be unspeakably cruel for the urban poor, but as Edward Glaeser points out in The Triumph of the City, “Urban poverty should not be judged relative to urban wealth but relative to rural poverty." (Ask the Chinese about that.) For most people, rich as well as poor, the benefits of living so close to other people outweigh the costs. "

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