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How cities can think differently about their 'music ecosystem'

A wooden cutout sign of a musician playing a horn wearing a red suit in Seattle's Columbia City neighborhood
Emil Moffatt
KNKX Public Radio
Author Shain Shapiro argues that small-to-medium-size music venues contribute to the vibrancy of cities and should be thought of as talent incubators.

Author Shain Shapiro wants to change the way communities think about music. During his recent visit to the Pacific Northwest, he spoke with KNKX about a book he wrote on the subject.

"Most cities are set up to think of music that way as a form of entertainment, rather than a form of economic development, social development and community development," Shapiro said.

Shapiro works with cities to improve what he calls their “music ecosystem." He’s also the author of a book called This Must Be The Place, which documents that work.

The book argues that a city’s music ecosystem is about more than just its historical connection to a legendary band, famous concert halls, or sold-out arena shows. It’s about supporting venues of all sizes, funding music education and making sure musicians can earn a living.

Changing how music decisions are made

"The most important thing cities need to do is to collect data to help articulate where things are what the problems are, what the challenges are," he said. "Rather than just make, usually, shoot-from-the-hip style decisions."

Shapiro said he often sees those type of gut decisions made by just one factor, whether it's zoning, a venue's alcohol or liquor license, or fights over education budgets. He said the big picture can often get lost unless there's someone to look out for the overall music ecosystem.

"Having a music strategy, or having a music officer, or having a person responsible for music — it's not to elevate music, it's not to make music special," he explained.

"I'm just trying to make it like anything else. But if you don't have that, it's really, really hard to find pathways to get stuff done."

More than just music venues

The COVID-19 pandemic did quiet a number on small and medium size music venues in the Pacific Northwest and across the country. Asked about the challenges these venues still face and what they have to offer cities, Shapiro said we need to consider them differently.

"I believe that small-to-medium sized venues are not just venues, I think they're community centers. And they're also innovation hubs and incubators," he said.

"Think of a tech accelerator or startup accelerator, we don't really think too much about the return on investment that we would expect from something like that, because you invest in 1,000 apps, one of them becomes successful.

I believe the same thing is a band in a grassroots music venue, or a small venue. Every band is a business and their songs are their intellectual property. So the venue is the accelerator, is the innovation hub. We just don't think of it that way."

People are consuming more music than ever, according to Shapiro, who pointed to record ticket sales in 2023.

He sees this trend as inseparable from the pandemic, part of "addressing our trauma, collective trauma and individual trauma."

"We're gonna yearn for and seek out what's comforting," Shapiro said. "And what's comforting tends to be the bands that we know, the bands that we're familiar with. I believe that it's an additional step to get us to take the time to discover."

Shapiro said if we think of local music venues as incubators, they are taking a leap of faith on behalf of the community, developing music for us to discover.

"Then I truly believe that we'll see how valuable they are to our communities and find ways to protect them."

Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Emil Moffatt joined KNKX in October 2022 as All Things Considered host/reporter. He came to the Puget Sound area from Atlanta where he covered the state legislature, the 2021 World Series and most recently, business and technology as a reporter for WABE. Contact him at