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Live Music 101 #6 – What makes for a ‘healthy’ musical city? – Emma Webster and Adam Behr


Simon Frith’s keynote speech on the social value of music (in the context of European regeneration policy) asked ‘What is good music for a country, region or city?  What is a good country, region or city for music?’ In the latest addition to the ‘Live Music 101’ series of theory-based blog posts, Emma Webster and Adam Behr seek to offer some answers to the latter question, and set out various formulations as to what makes for a ‘healthy’ live music ecology, an examination of the interplay between national and local policy and the musical city, followed by a case study of Glasgow as an archetypal ‘healthy’ musical city.

Simon Frith (2008) posits that for a healthy musical city, six factors are required:-

1. Access to music, including music shops and venues;

2. The right sort of spaces for both the production and consumption of music;

3 ‘Musical time’ [the time to develop as a musician, promoter, etc. – the antithesis to the Live Nation model of ‘post song/video online >> sign promoter deal >> sell out arena’ in three months! (Live Nation 2010, p. 94)];

4. Opportunities for freelance work;

5. An influx and outflow of people [such as students];

6. A blurring of the boundaries between professional and amateur musicians.

Brennan and Webster (2011, p. 12), based on work devised within the live music project by Simon Frith, also theorise that there needs to be an ‘ecology of live music’ whereby a range of venues (small, large, ‘professional’, ‘amateur’) must exist in order for new talent to be allowed to develop, as well as an environment in which there can be an overlapping of these ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ spheres. This overlap is important, since it concerns not just the viability of spaces for musical and promotional careers to develop but also for the wider social health of the city and its inhabitants. As Ruth Finnegan’s substantive study of the musical life of Milton Keynes illustrates, a significant number of people use musical activity to negotiate ‘pathways in urban living’ (2007, pp. 297-326) and in forging their sense of identity and purpose within the urban space.

In addition to this, Webster suggests that cities need such networks of musical pathways that are both ‘on the beaten track’ and ‘off the beaten track’, namely those that are relatively easy to find and those that require more effort or are relatively hidden (2011, p. 57). One of the underlying arguments of her PhD thesis is that promoters also play a role in the ‘health’ and diversity of the ecology because they are cultural investors (and exploiters), importers and innovators who both shape and are shaped by the live music ecology within which they operate. Therefore to further add to Frith’s factors for a healthy musical city, a variety of promoters is also required.

Moreover, Behr (2012) notes the interplay of different types of musician, across the amateur to professional spectrum, in open mic nights on different types of night in a variety of venues, which act as a ‘scene’ within the wider music scene, providing a conduit into professional activity as well as work opportunities and a self-identity as musicians for semi-professionals. Easily definable music venues and those at which musical activity is more sporadic interlock to provide a network of entry points for musical activity, for both experienced and nascent musicians.

In research examining the music policies of Sheffield and Manchester in the late 1990s, Brown, O’Connor, and Cohen argue that one of the important factors for a ‘healthy’ musical city is the formal and informal networks that connect active participants, held together with ‘loosely structured, place-based milieu’ which accumulate knowledge and experience and ‘generate and reproduce social and cultural capital’ (2000, pp. 446-7). In other words, the matrix of networks between people and institutions play a vital role in how a city operates, and it is often the case that a few ‘movers and shakers’ – cultural community leaders, if you like – who connect the dots between people in an altruistic/egoistic[1] manner in order to benefit both themselves and the ‘scene’ in general.

Neither is the relationship between public and private, and between live music businesses (promoters, venues, etc.) and other local businesses, always straightforward or non-controversial. Processes of gentrification and regeneration can affect different types of business (and musician) in different ways. Cohen’s study of the development of a ‘music quarter’ as part of a regenerative programme in Liverpool actually put some of the places that musicians gathered out of their financial reach (2007, pp. 204-205). The ‘right sort of places’ for musical activity can depend on what sort of music, and different definitions of what is suitable or desirable:-

Popular music … contributed to the development of these quarters, and to the regeneration process more generally … It had widespread appeal and pulling power and by appropriating urban areas popular musicians, audiences and entrepreneurs helped revitalize them and transform them into distinctive places that generated … a sense of identity, belonging and attachment … Yet at the same time it presented a unique challenge to that process, and musicians were centrally involved not only in the development of these initiatives, but also in opposition to them. Music recordings and live performance events provided a public platform that helped to promote the opposition and mobilize support for it (Cohen 2007, p. 214).

A locality’s cultural strategy is also important, then, although as Frith, Cloonan and Williamson (2009, p. 83) posit, rather than localised ‘cultural policies’, perhaps the most significant state policies for the ‘making and unmaking’ of local music culture instead involve licensing and planning laws, housing and education policies, and employment laws. Indeed, a key aspect of Simon Frith and Martin Cloonan’s Music Manifesto for Scotland, and recent music centred campaigns – not least that which led to the Live Music Act 2012 – is the acknowledgement of the importance of national policy in providing the legislative framework which local and city councils interpret. To this end, Webster also investigated a variety of regulatory, physical and economic infrastructures, all of which impact on the ecology of live music within a locality. Regulations which affect the performance of live music included licensing, health & safety, smoking bans, and noise (external and internal); physical infrastructures related to planning and (public and private) transport (train/bus timetabling and the availability of car parking); while economic infrastructures related to public and private subsidy.  As regards the latter point, Cloonan and Frith (2010) illustrate how even ‘private’ promoters’ profits are reliant on various forms of subsidy – from the state, record companies, commercial sponsors and the sales of non-musical goods, whether food and drink, merchandise or parking spaces.

What Webster found within her three case study cities – Glasgow, Sheffield, and Bristol – was that promoters (and other live music personnel) within a locality therefore have very different experiences as regards the state and regulation. For instance, in Sheffield, many of the promoters interviewed complained about licensing regulations, whereas a more common complaint in Bristol was over noise restrictions, and in Glasgow the complaint was often around the lack of council support for outdoor advertising opportunities. The variability of policy and regulation across the UK was further highlighted by one promoter from the Scottish Highlands and Islands, who, when asked about the impact of noise regulations on her venues, replied, ‘We just ignore them! They never come up and check!’ (anonymised). In this way, local government always works in tandem with national government, the latter providing parameters and a backdrop of what is both possible and encouraged. Within these parameters, local councils can do more, or less, to promote a ‘healthy’ live music ecology. But their interrelation is clear.

There are two good examples of this recently in the UK. The Live Music Act 2012 provided ample scope within the national legislature (for England and Wales) to encourage the provision of live music, by easing restrictions on which type of venue would need provision within their license for live music.[2] Local councils, of course, would still have responsibility for enforcing noise, public health and other legislation pertinent to venues (It is also worth noting that the Local Government Association was amongst the bodies arguing against the relaxing of regulation for live music due to objections about how much impact it argued that live music has on local residents).

In Scotland, conversely, the 2010 Criminal Justice Act removed the exemption from licensing for free events, effectively placing them within the jurisdiction of council licensing but still allowing individual councils to decide how they would regulate free events, i.e. which ones they would bring into the licensing regime. This resulted in widespread concern from grassroots arts practitioners and organisations, and a range of responses from councils:  from full exemptions for free events, exemptions depending on the size of events, and decisions made on a case by case basis, through to kicking the issue into the long grass via a review process. The point is that in both cases, it was broader legislation at the national level that affected how matters played out locally: in the case of the Live Music Act by removing a layer of restrictions that could be applied locally; in the Scottish case by dropping the contentious ball in local councils’ laps.

This type of relationship is not new, but how the dynamic plays out changes over time. As Simon Frith has described, a state policy for popular music during the 1980s, and Thatcherism, was largely a ‘local phenomenon’ (Frith 1993, p.15).

[M]unicipal councils were… concerned to develop alternative policies to Thatcherism but had to operate under increasingly tight political and economic constraints… the pressing economic problem in the cities concerned was how to replace jobs being lost in the manufacturing industry, how to benefit from the growing service sector (ibid.)

By the time of the New Labour government, the export potential of British music and the lobbying power of the BPI had pushed music closer to the political centre, and the New Deal For Musicians saw music as employment for local young people rolled out as national policy.  (However, as Martin Cloonan pointed out, this was not without its contradictions, amongst them ambiguity over the criteria for a ‘musician’ (Cloonan 2003, p.25), and the fact that whilst it sought to develop employment in the, industry based, labour market, it relied heavily on social networks and (sub)cultural capital (Cloonan 2004).) At any rate, it marked a shift towards national intervention in musical career paths.

We are now returning to national policies of cuts and retrenchment, evident once again in cuts to councils’ budgets, resulting in difficult decisions and often swingeing cuts regarding the arts at local levels: a 50% cut in arts funding in Newcastle (Youngs 2012), and 100% arts cuts by Moray council (Briggs 2013), for example. Even potentially beneficial changes, like the aforementioned Live Music Act, mark a retreat from national government involvement in the arts and a move towards ‘localism’. With Culture Minister Maria Miller suggesting that the future security of the arts could be secured by private philanthropy rather than via government subsidy (DCMS 2012), this looks like being the direction of travel for a while yet.

How this plays out in individual cities, then, will have ever more to do with how they deploy their resources in line with the factors outlined above. How they do this will have important and long-lasting consequences for cities and citizens alike.

Case study: Glasgow

Glasgow is often held up as an archetypal ‘healthy’ musical city, albeit often by Glasgow city officials themselves, but also recognised outwith the city. From a round-table session in Glasgow held in January 2013 and hosted by the Live Music Exchange, featuring council officials and live music practitioners, factors for a ‘healthy’ live music city included the following:-

  • Communication between live music practitioners and council officials, from a variety of departments (licensing, fire safety, etc.);
  • Communication between council departments to ensure that while a city council may follow a cultural strategy, the actions of other departments within the local authority do not inadvertently obstruct it;[3]
  • Communication and networks – to an extent – between the various venues, promoters, and other live music practitioners (sound engineers, for example) within the city;
  • A wide range of venues of different sizes to host a variety of artists, operating across the spectrum of activity from a grassroots to an international level;
  • A wide range of promoters of different types (independent, ‘state’, and commercial – see Frith et al (2013) ). In addition, promoters with the contacts and experience to attract major touring acts (in a range of genres) thus placing the city on the international touring circuit and providing the inhabitants of the city with access to acts of international stature;
  • Flexible, multi-use state-run arts venues (including the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and Fruit Market);
  • A late-night entertainment zone (in Glasgow’s case, Sauchiehall Street). Also see the example of ‘live music precincts’ in places like Sydney as a possible model in the UK (Fitzsimons 2013);
  • Sufficient distance between Glasgow and the next large metropolis, significantly with an arena (the closest arenas to Glasgow are in Aberdeen and Newcastle).
  • Also of note in Glasgow is that the City Council itself has a significant stake in the ownership and management of the conference centre/arena – the SECC – and in the development of the land around it with the building of the new Hydro arena.

To conclude, a healthy musical ecology, then, is about more than just music policy, and more than simply investment. A range of factors, both musical and non-musical, are at play.



Behr, A. (2012) The real ‘crossroads’ of live music: the conventions of performance at open mic nights in Edinburgh, Social Semiotics, 22 (5), pp. 559-573

Brennan, M. and Webster, E. (2011) Why concert promoters matter. Scottish Music Review, 2 (1), pp. 1-25. Retrieved from: <> [Accessed 19 July 2013].

Briggs, B. (2013), Moray council approves 100% cut in arts funding, The Guardian website, 13 February. Retrieved from: <> [Accessed 23 July 2013]

Brown, A., O’Connor, J., and Cohen, S. (2000). Local music policies within a global music industry: cultural quarters in Manchester and Sheffield. Geoforum, 31 (4), pp. 437-451.

Cloonan, M. (2003) The New Deal for Musicians: teaching young pups new tricks, Music Education Research, 5 (1), pp. 13-28

Cloonan, M. (2004) A Capital Project?’ The New Deal for Musicians’ in Scotland, Studies in the Education of Adults, 36 (1), pp. 40-56

Cloonan, M. and Frith, S. (2010) Promoting business. 14th annual conference of the European Business History Association, Glasgow, 28 August.

Cohen, S. (2007) Decline, Renewal and the City in Popular Music Culture: Beyond the Beatles, Aldershot: Ashgate

DCMS (2012) Press Release: Philanthropy and legacy giving to the arts will help secure its future, says Culture Secretary Maria Miller, UK Government website, 19 November. Retrieved from: <> [Accessed 23 July 2013]

Finnegan, R. (2007) The Hidden Musicians: Music- Making in an English Town, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press

Fitzsimons, S. (2013) Council Agrees To Sydney Live Music Precinct. website, 27 March. Retrieved from: <> [Accessed 19 July 2013].

Frith, S. (1993) ‘Popular Music and the Local State’, in Bennett, T., Frith, S., Grossberg, L. Shepherd, J. and Turner, G. (eds.) Rock and Popular Music: Politics, Policies, Institutions. London: Routledge

Frith, S. (2008) Plenary. IASPM UK and Ireland Conference, Glasgow, 12-14 September.

Frith, S., Cloonan, M. and Williamson, J. (2009) On music as a creative industry. In: Jeffs, T. and Pratt, A. eds. Creativity and innovation in the culture economy. London, Routledge, pp. 74-89.

Frith, S., Brennan, M., Cloonan, M. and Webster, E. (2013) The History of Live Music in Britain 1950-1967: From the Dance Hall to the 100 Club. Aldershot, Ashgate Books.

Live Nation (2010) Live Nation investor presentation. Live Nation Entertainment 2010 Investor and Analyst Day, New York, 15 July 2010. Cited in Marshall, L. (2013) The 360 deal and the ‘new’ music industry. European Journal of Cultural Studies, Volume 16, Issue 1, p. 94.

Selye, H. (1976) Stress in health and disease. Boston [Mass.]; London, Butterworth.

Webster, E. (2011) Promoting live music in the UK: A behind-the-scenes ethnography. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow. Retrieved from: <> [Accessed 19 July 2013].

Youngs, I. (2013) Newcastle’s 50% Arts Cuts Confirmed. BBC website, 7 March. Retrieved from: <> [Accessed 23 July 2013]


[1] The notion of ‘altruistic egoism’ was posited by Hans Selye (1976, p. 33) to explain how the motivation for doing something may be as a result of the ‘selfish hoarding’ of social capital – hence a person who appears ‘generous’ in connecting two people together does so in the hope that it will benefit them in the future.

[2] The terms of the act mean that there is no longer a special requirement for a license for live music performances taking place between 8am and 11pm in licensed premises or anywhere qualifying under health and safety legislation as a workplace. Performances covered are those with an audience of up to 200 people for amplified music, although there are proposals to extend the deregulation to audiences of up to 500, and there are no limits on audience size for unamplified music.

[3] For example, in their research into Sheffield’s Cultural Industries Quarter (CIQ), Brown, O’Connor and Cohen (2000) found that while the Sheffield City Council supported the concept of the CIQ and would use its successes to their advantage, council departments such as licensing were actively hindering the efforts of the CIQ. They cite the example of the ‘draconian’ licensing department rejecting a development proposal for the disused Leadmill bus garage site within the boundaries of the CIQ due to the inclusion of a nightclub as part of the proposals, following a period of fifteen years (1980-1995) where no nightclub licences were granted (ibid., p. 445). As they state, ‘This is indicative of a failure by the city to realise the connection between cultural quarter, music industry, the wider scene and the cultural context of the city as a whole’ (ibid.).

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