City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

I come from Brisbane, I’m quite plain*

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The Go-Betweens, 1983, Photo: Laura Levine

Cities have music scenes, and that’s why tech doesn’t enable decentralisation

Ed. This piece was originally published at on 10 June 2008. Note, I do not come from Brisbane; see footnote.

A while ago, I heard two great ABC Radio National documentaries on two Australian cities with two distinct and rich musical histories: Melbourne and Brisbane.

Performer Michelle Tozer at Pokeys at the Prince, 1989

In terms of the genuine ‘musical scene’, Brisbane emerges with one of the richest scenes in the history of Australian cities — a fierce counterpoint to the “boot stamping on a human face forever” school of governance then in play in 1970s Queensland. The Melbourne scene, as recorded in the documentary, is more focused on a particular time and place. Very particular.

A ‘scene’ is distinct from a city’s musical history, which has a longer term arc of course. Nor is it the idea of conjuring a city through music, Metropolis Shanghai and Chavez Ravine for example.

Instead, ‘the scene’ is usually a relatively short-lived concentration of artistic activity, which nonetheless kick-starts or exemplifies some wider creative, and usually economic, activity. Over the years it becomes subject to furious debate and wild claims but there’s something there and something powerful, no matter how intangible.

Richard Florida, and others many others before him, noted the importance of music scenes in cities, despite his focus being too limited by genre and US-focused at that. Florida calls it the ‘audio identity’ of the city, which doesn’t feel quite right given the transient nature of most scenes. Audio identities, perhaps, as cities can lead multiple lives here. (‘Madchester’ is long gone, for instance, though it was a sort of identity at the time, or just after the time. It can co-exist with the city getting a new centre for classical music around the same time, all arguably stemming from cultural patterns discernible from the mid-19thC onwards.)

But Florida gets the gist nonetheless. In an article back in January 2008 (in the Globe and Mail, and on the back of him observing the healthy music scenes in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver) Florida discerns the overwhelmingly metropolitan nature of music, seeing them as classic examples of what Michael Porter would call ‘local clusters in a global economy’.

“Music scenes provide a useful lens through which to better understand why innovation and economic activity continue to cluster in today’s global economy. Their clustering is puzzling because music-making requires little, if anything, in the way of physical input (such as iron ore or coal) to succeed, and they don’t generate economies of scale. Because musical and artistic endeavours require little more than small groups to make their final products, you would think that musicians should be able to live anywhere they want. Music scenes have every reason to “fly apart” and spread our geographically, especially in this age of the Internet and social media. But they don’t. Instead, they concentrate and cluster in specific cities and regions.”

To me, having grown up in scene-rich Sheffield and Manchester, this is a little obvious. But as well as growing up in those cities, I also did my MA in Manchester, studying creative industries and the city, where my colleagues Adam Brown and Justin O’Connor were more actively researching the music industry and the city specifically, from the early 1990s onwards.

View at

In those ABC Radio National documentaries Brisbane and Melbourne have distinct ‘audio identities’ on display — identities which appear to have little in common with the large, successful cities we see today, but in fact were important formative influences on both. There are numerous other examples of transformative scenes from the last few hundred years.

Charlie Gillett once listed these, for example:

  • San Francisco, 1966–68 (Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Steve Miller, Bill Graham’s Fillmore, Tom Donahue’s ‘free form radio,’ Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone magazine)
  • New Orleans, 1900–1910 (Jazz)
  • Paris, 1987–2004 (Les Negresses Vertes, Mano Negra.)
  • Liverpool, 1961–63 (Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen, Big Three, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, The Silver Beetles)
  • Memphis, 1951–56 (Johnny Ace, Bobby Bland, Rosco Gordon, Sam Phillips)
  • Barcelona, 2000–2004 (Ojos de Brujos, Dusminguet, Macaco)
  • Detroit, 1959–68 (Berry Gordy & Motown, Bob Seger, the MC5, Iggy and the Stooges)
  • Dakar, 2004 (hip hop, Daara J)
  • New Orleans, 1955–1956 (Fats Domino, Little Richard)
  • St Petersburg, 2000–2004 (Leningrad, Markscheider Kunst)

To which I’d add these:

  • Chicago from the mid-50s to the mid-60s (large scale African American migration north creates electric blues);
  • Chicago, again (80s house music scene)
  • Vienna (early-20th century contemporary composition of Schoenberg, Webern, Berg etc.);
  • Canterbury (early 1970s folk-rock scene);
  • Seattle (early to mid-90s grunge);
  • Detroit, again (techno scene of mid-80s to mid-90s);
  • Manchester (mid-80s to mid-90s, from Joy Division through to the ‘Madchester’ of Happy Mondays, via Smiths, New Order, Stone Roses etc.);
  • Sheffield (early-80s: Heaven 17, Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, ABC, Pulp, and somehow also Def Leppard.).

And you could add in Kothen 1717–1728, London 1962–66, Düsseldorf in the early 1970s, Brisbane in the late-1970s as above, Liverpool again, in the late-1970s, and probably hundreds more. Canterbury is perhaps the odd-man-out there; the rest are all splendidly urban.

But not only do music scenes, and their study, form vital examples of how creative industries make the city and vice versa, the finding that music scenes are distinctly urban also tells us a wider truth about creativity, technology and cities.

All this ‘soft infrastructure’ — such as cultural industry — is overwhelmingly metropolitan in nature: 70% of the UK’s creative employment is metropolitan. This is only reinforced by information and communications technologies (ICT). Contemporary cities are characterised by networks; creative industries are predicated on the most hyper-networked of organisational forms; ICT is enabled by, and in turn enables, networks above all else. So ICT and cities tend to be a good match.

(In fact you could argue, even though I’d certainly class ICT as soft infrastructure, that the very real capital costs and physical outlay of facilitating ICT are even more of a reason for focusing it ever more in cities. Far more so than music.)

Yet there’s still this decentralisation myth about ICT and cities. And it’s alive and well, believe me. There exists a surprisingly robust school of thought that ‘telecommuting’ — and how quaint and Toffler-esque that sounds — will enable human activity to relocate and work in ex-urban or rural locations in usefully significant numbers. Odd, I know, but it’s a constant theme still echoing round the intersection of urban planning, regional policy, and the various ICT industries. It’s around in Australia, with its complex, too-successful cities and superficially limitless spaces in-between, but it’s also abroad in the USA and Britain. It’s perhaps associated with so-called digital immigrants, but it might also exemplify an inability to deal with cities intellectually and emotionally (a desire to look for an answer elsewhere, as intrinsically unsustainable as that may be).

It’s also a misunderstanding about some contemporary working practices — and innovation and creativity — which is better characterised instead by ideas such as ‘nomadism’, as The Economist has it, or other ways of working increasingly influenced by the structures and approaches of the creative industries. (I’m not suggesting everyone enjoys the ability to be nomads in The Economist mould. Many don’t have that luxury, of course. But the knowledge workers envisaged to be telecommuters would certainly fall into this category.)

Those expecting ICT to enable a decentralisation of urban activities fail to recognise this apparently essential truth about cities and technology — that they only reinforce each other, and that both are enablers for something else. Even though I’d be the first to suggest we need to see ‘information as a material’ and that it can be be useful to consider it a medium in its own right, for most of the time it is simply a quiet platform for other things. This analogy with music might be useful to make the point even clearer.

As Florida points out, there’s essentially no physical logistical reason that music scenes are centred on cities. Yet they overwhelmingly are, for the reasons he describes in his article. People go to the city to test their ideas, perform, learn, sell, discuss, share. And they do this physically and digitally, in and around the city. Suggesting that ICT might enable decentralisation instead is focusing on technology at the expense of understanding what people do with it.

It’s somewhat like suggesting that the Fender Stratocaster’s potential availability in a village would mean that music scenes will relocate there. The evidence suggests the opposite, of course. ICT enables distinctly urban activities, and does little, save for a relatively small handful of edge cases, for anything else. It is a means to an end, and that end is generally urban in context. I’d guess the increasingly pervasive nature of ICT — this physical computing — is only likely to reinforce this urbanity.

In his Flight of the Creative Class, Florida also rejects Thomas ‘The World Is Flat’ Friedman’s assertion that technology has levelled the playing field. Whereas Friedman states that “you can innovate without having to emigrate”, Florida instead finds that the world is not flat but “spiky”, consolidating in cities.

“The tallest peaks — the cities and regions that drive the world’s economy — are growing even higher, while the valleys mostly languish.”

‘The World is Spiky’, Richard Florida, 2005

(Of course, Florida’s work has been critiqued elsewhere, but the critique does nothing to level this spiky world, instead offering up other cities to disprove Florida’s other theories.)

A little fluidity within the urban growth boundaries — the nomad model — does not equal decentralisation, but a richer, more evenly dispersed city in which the CBD is usefully dissipated over the built fabric. Thus ICT reinforces the city rather than displacing or dispersing it, as it’s an enabler for something else, something deeper — a human instinct and desire for physical connection, expression and exchange, which cities then consolidate in social capital, intellectual capital and cultural capital.

Brisbane and Melbourne in the late-’70s/early-’80s were not cultural backwaters but fertile environments for change, creativity and cultural exploration, as those two documentaries so vividly depict. Both cities still have strong aspects of innovation, perhaps characterised now by other creative industries rather more than distinct music scenes.

But just as music scenes locate there, ICT as an enabler for creativity and innovation is only more likely to reinforce these, and other, urban centres. Music scenes, and their history, provide a clue as to why technology-enabled decentralisation will essentially remain an un-helpful myth.

*Lyric taken from the fabulous Go-Betweens track, ‘Lee Remick’.

Ed. This piece was originally published at on 10 June 2008.


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