Omaha, Indie Rock, and Urban Redevelopment


Music scenes are more than just a collection of bands. I’ve spent the last few years observing that they function much like Silicon Valley-esque economic clusters with the power to transform parts of a city. Recently, The Washington Post decided to follow-up on research I conducted in Omaha wherein I examined how the city’s indie music scene became a catalyst for urban redevelopment. What they found is a scene continuing to grow and a music-based urban redevelopment project, Slowdown, that has met everyone’s expectations. You can read their story here. The newspaper then asked me a few questions about how music scenes – and art in general – can be harnessed for the benefit of participants and the cities in which they live. That interview is here.


When an Indie Record Label Relocates to Your City

Asthmatic Kitty Records
Independent record labels are usually products of thriving local music scenes. Sometimes, if the stars align, they reach a level of success and benefit their surrounding urban landscapes. Factory Records in Manchester, Saddle Creek Records in Omaha, and Righteous Babe Records in Buffalo are some examples of indie record labels that reinvested profits into local redevelopment projects. Asthmatic Kitty Records set-up shop in Indianapolis without having any prior ties to the city and quickly found ways to integrate its efforts within the local arts community. This integration helped foster new connections and drive the city’s creative economy. For the full story, click here to read my latest work for The Atlantic’s CityLab.

What if Hewlett and Packard had Started a Band Instead?…

Phtot: Andi Harman
Photo: Andi Harman

I never tire of reading about the birth and development of both Silicon Valley and successful music scenes like Seattle’s grunge explosion, Austin’s progressive country movement, and the free jazz that filled lofts of New York City decades ago. It wasn’t until I woke up one morning in a van on a side street in Chicago that I realized how similar one is to the other. I had just started a doctoral program in urban planning and public policy while also playing in a band in Denton, Texas. My participation in Denton’s music scene – and the larger national network of scenes it is a part of – allowed me to examine directly how a music scene operates. An earlier result of this participatory experience was my master’s thesis, and later journal article, concerning Saddle Creek Records and “Slowdown,” a $10.2 million dollar urban redevelopment project in Omaha, Nebraska. For my dissertation, I wanted to continue my immersion as a scene participant in order to examine a subject that is largely overlooked – how music scenes catalyze economic and community development for cities.

On that particular July day in Chicago, it was already uncomfortably warm at 9AM and while walking across the street to the Walgreens to take a “shower,” I thought to myself, is this any different than my friend’s sister who used to sleep underneath her desk every night in Silicon Valley while she helped launched a start-up? Are music scenes like Silicon Valley’s economic cluster with bands as firms operating in a milieu of innovation that includes venue owners, audio engineers, graphic designers, filmmakers, promoters, and others cooperating and competing? I asked myself… What if Hewlett and Packard had started a band instead?

I dedicated the next few years to researching and writing my dissertation, What if Hewlett and Packard had Started a Band Instead?… Denton, Texas’ Music Scene as Economic Cluster and its Broader Implications for the City’s Economy. By framing Denton’s music scene in Michael Porter’s economic cluster theory, which is commonly used to explain why Silicon Valley has a regional advantage in productivity, innovation, and new business formation, I was able to better understand the dynamics of music scenes as economic agents. This work allowed me to further demonstrate what I first learned with my research in Omaha – that music scenes have many positive externalities for their host cities, and if fostered correctly with policy, can benefit both participant and city. In the coming months, I’ll post more about my findings. Until then, here’s a link to my research concerning Omaha and information about the garage where Hewlett and Packard launched a company.




Incubating the Scene with DIY All-Ages Venues

Music scenes play an important role in a city’s consumption-driven, artisan economy. Is a successful local band that finds a national audience through touring and selling its recordings much different than a local microbrewery that finds a robust regional, then national consumer base? Both operate in a business climate dominated by corporate entities and utilize Do-It-Yourself (DIY) initiative, inexpensive technological tools, and a close allegiance between artisan and consumer to succeed. Continue reading

Clustering Around a Beer Economy in Asheville

As Charles Heying recently posted, brewing beer for local or regional consumption can lead to spin-off economic activity. This fact is often overlooked.  When most people consider a beer economy, regional craft breweries, microbreweries, and brewpubs dominate the subject. This is understandable as these physical spaces and the products produced therein are dominant focal points for such economic activity. Plus, the numbers and statistics reported to the media tell an impressive story of craft brewing’s ascendancy onto the larger national brewing landscape.

The Brewers Association notes that in 2010, while the overall US beer market was down 1% by volume, the craft brewing industry was up 11% by volume and 12% by retail dollars. Additionally, craft brewing provides an estimated 100,000 jobs in the country.

Impressive, but as the beer economy in Asheville, North Carolina demonstrates, this perspective may be only part of the story.

In his article, Beer is Big Business for Asheville Area, Jason Sandford examines the beer economy in the Asheville region and along with detailing its success in boosting tourism and job creation, highlights the linkages existing between the breweries and surrounding businesses. Local beer as an ingredient in gourmet mustard? Check. Shampoo and body wash made from local beer? Check.

Is Asheville’s beer economy alone in clustering? As Heying’s previous post observers… definitely not. Is Asheville’s beer economy cluster a new twist on the Napa Valley paradigm ready for application in regions where growing grapes may not be an option? Signs point to “yes.”

Bicycling Towards Urban Economic Development

A common complaint amongst retail owners in downtown locations is that making space for bicyclists via bike lanes and parking may discourage auto-oriented customers from frequenting their establishments. In this time when urban policymakers and residents are reexamining the benefits of density and alternative methods of transportation, this complaint is being called into question through a lens that retail owners (and policymakers) quickly understand… economics.

In Angie Schmitt’s recent article, More Evidence That Bike Facilities Are Good for Local Businesses, the author notes many recent studies demonstrate “that increased sales resulting from bike improvements outweigh losses incurred by having fewer car-driving customers.” Schmitt suggests that a parking space used by one car could provide space for multiple bikes, and therefore, multiple customers – a situation already understood and embraced in Portland.

But what if we take a step back and look at the macro level of this scenario? Can a city’s bicycle infrastructure be an attractive amenity luring new residents, and therefore potential new customers in the local economy? Will these new residents be the “highly educated” workers sought after by industry or entrepreneurs in their own right?  The City of Fort Collins and researchers at Colorado State University think the answers may be “yes” and will examine these questions in the proposed research project, “Do Bike Friendly Communities Attract and Retain Creative Workers? Assessing Cycling’s Economic Impact through Household Location Choices of Highly Educated Workers.” You can read more about that here.

As we continue to move forward in a post-recessionary economic malaise necessitating creative action, policymakers will increasingly look to local artisan economic activity to drive urban economic development. In this case, however, the economic activity may be bicycling instead.