Huntsville, Ala. boasts terrific talent and music heritage, but is not as well-known as its neighboring cities for the craft. As a mid-level market between Atlanta, Nashville, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala., Huntsville’s music economy has historically been overlooked, and many investors have been skeptical that the midsized city could sustain large-scale investments in music infrastructure, like outdoor amphitheaters or large, mixed-use venues.
In April 2018, the City Council set out to change this misconception by launching a creative placemaking process called a “music audit” to help Huntsville become Alabama’s first “music city.” The city accomplished this feat through a four-year equity and economic development strategy, offering lessons for other markets interested in adopting this creative placemaking pursuit.
‘Music cities’ and the intersection between creative placemaking and economic development
A “music city” is defined as a city that embeds music as a tool into its collective governance ethos across economic development, education, tourism, and overall quality of life. Well-known examples include places like Austin, Texas and Nashville, but large cities and small towns alike can become music cities with the right infrastructure and governance mechanisms in place. The economic benefits of becoming a music city are sometimes overlooked, but research indicates that the boost in tourism stimulated by the entertainment industry can yield local job growth (see Figure 1) and generate positive financial impacts in the billions of dollars.
To help cities stimulate this economic, social, and cultural growth, my organization, Sound Diplomacy, works with officials to conduct “music audits” that comprehensively assess their existing music ecosystem. A music audit involves looking deeply at the role of music across city departments, initiatives, and disciplines—including workforce development, quality of life, and investment priorities— to understand where strengths and weaknesses lie, and what connections can be enhanced to leverage music to produce socioeconomic benefits for residents.
The bumpy road to becoming Alabama’s first music city
Huntsville first became interested in the music audit process as part of its talent attraction strategy; the city wanted to encourage more large-scale, mixed-use developments to enliven its downtown and midtown districts. By the time they approached Sound Diplomacy in 2018, this goal had been in the works for a while—with plans dating back to 2014 to repurpose the demolished Madison Square Mall into a mixed-use development complete with a climbing gym, public park, and open-air amphitheater.
In 2017, the city and private sector approached a multinational venue operator to operate the amphitheater, but Huntsville—as a mid-level market with a little-known music economy—was not seen as a place that could produce the returns necessary to satisfy the investment required to build and operate such a facility. The city needed to know more about what, if anything, would be best for Huntsville’s residents in taking on such an investment. Instead of immediately moving forward with the amphitheater, the City Council, led by Mayor Tommy Battle, decided to embark on what was at the time America’s largest music- and culture-specific listening exercise.
Music as an equitable—and sometimes controversial—pursuit
Huntsville’s music audit process began controversially. The first meeting in June 2018 was overcrowded and, in some moments, hostile. This is because music and access to it—whether as a performer, businessperson, or consumer—can tell a much deeper story about how cohesive communities really are.
A community’s access to music is impacted by education, opportunities, structural racism, redlining, and more. Instruments cost money and many lack access to them. Some schools prioritize music while others eliminated it from their curriculum. Some genres are invested in publicly, while others are seen with suspicion and overregulated and discriminated against. This was the case in Huntsville, as it is in most American cities.
To determine what sort of amphitheater could best addresses such challenges, these inequities would need some serious unpacking. To that end, Sound Diplomacy conducted 14 months of community engagement, in which over 2,000 people responded to a survey and over 100 stakeholders participated in interviews and roundtables. Common issues that respondents raised included the lack of artist representation in civic discussions and the need to invest in venues of different sizes so that artists can use smaller ones as they grow their careers.
In addition to community engagement, we conducted an economic mapping exercise and found that at the time of our analysis, music contributed $139 million to the city’s economy and accounted for 1,471 jobs at over 150 music-related businesses. We then conducted a regulatory review and found that demonstrated licensing, permitting, and other city functions for music businesses were a barrier for lower-income and minority community members due to an opaque process, excess costs, and bureaucratic complexities.
To combat these challenges and grow the economic potential of Huntsville as a music city, we offered 47 recommendations for the city to adopt. These included establishing a Music Office as a city department; providing free assistance to artists and music professionals; rethinking city tax incentives; and launching a host of other workforce development and cultural investments. (The full list of recommendations can be found here.)
The benefits of choosing to prioritize music
In 2019, the City Council unanimously approved a plan to adopt the recommendations across all five city wards over a five-year period. The city has since implemented a groundswell of music-related community development projects: It created a music board, hired a full-time music officer, and expanded its library’s music programs. New venues and studios have opened and the downtown concert hall was renovated as well.
In 2019, plans for the amphitheater in the former Madison Square Mall site were refined, an operator was confirmed, and just this May, the Orion Amphitheater opened as an 8,000-person-capacity outdoor amphitheater in Huntsville’s MidCity district. Its design, operation, and ethos are community-led—not controlled by a multinational corporation. It is run locally and independently, prioritizing local traders, suppliers, and partners. On the same weekend of its opening, Brooks and Dunn sold out a concert at the renovated Mars Music Hall downtown, demonstrating the additive nature of music—if the community strategizes to advance it.
Huntsville is now Alabama’s fastest-growing city, surpassing Birmingham in 2021. This past May, it was named America’s best city to live in. Its downtown core continues to expand and larger firms continue to invest. While its success was not exclusively influenced by music, Huntsville’s effort to reimagine the role it could play in shaping the community’s identity and economy is undoubtedly a key part of its story.
Photo credit: Josh Weichman