Live Music Exchange Blog

Mapping the Maps – Adam Behr


Maps are increasingly integrated into our everyday media consumption and there’s a growth in mapping musical activity – by academics, communities and businesses. In today’s post, Adam Behr tries to unpick some of the different motivations, methods and implications of mapping the music.

The last few years have seen a proliferation of ‘music maps’. I’m not referring here to ‘mapping’ reports, the kind of research that seeks to provide an overview or detailed picture of activities in a particular location although there is a notable history of these as well – one example being the Mapping Report of the music industry in Scotland from 2003 – and there are similar motivations in some cases.

What seems to have taken off more recently is the tendency towards framing a variety of musical pursuits pictorially, either on what would traditionally be recognised as a ‘map’ or in another schematic form illustrating relationships between different nodes, which may be people, centres of activity or moments in time. Often the result is a combination of them. I don’t propose to set out a comprehensive list of these maps here but rather to try to tease out some of the different iterations and possible motivations for them with examples of each, although in many cases there are overlaps.


To a certain extent, looking at this first is to put the cart before the horse. Academic curiosity is often aroused by emerging trends that are seen to be worthy of investigation, as either potentially valuable to citizens and culture or possibly threatening and therefore in need of exposure. In many cases the answer will be a mixture of the two. Cartography itself is of course an ancient discipline, dating back thousands of years BC, with both practical and ideological aims and effects. Maps help us to make sense of things, and to impose a particular order on them – like the old maps of the world that I can remember from my early school days, which featured a Great Britain wildly out of kilter with its real size relative to the rest of the world, or even older maps of Empire, with British territories proudly marked in pink. This is a point echoed by Les Roberts in his introduction to last year’s Mapping Culture, a look at the growth of mapping more than just space, and explaining some of the recent academic interest in it.

“As a product of a multiplicity of social and spatial practices, it is less what the map is that is the burning question… than considerations as to what it does in any given context or milieu, and, by extension, how different cultures of mapping negotiate, produce, consume, perform and make sense of what we might tentatively refer to as ‘cartographic knowledge’. Approached from the other direction, it is of course no less a consideration as to the different ways culture and cultures are themselves mapped…” (2012: 4)

Academics are interested in maps, then, as both a practice and a tool. They are an object of investigation, a method of investigating, and also a way of presenting research results. Music, of course, and particularly live music has to be consumed somewhere and it is these somewheres and their contexts that have been revealed by academic research.

Scholars at the University of Liverpool, for example, have used maps as a way of both examining and presenting the relationship between live music and the urban environment, historically and in the present. They reveal previously ‘hidden’ patterns of musical (and cultural) activity, illustrate musical memories, and show the effect of urban development and re-development,  planning and transport policies.

“[L]ive music was embedded in the material environment, as well as in space, time and experience… The pilot maps of music in Liverpool were not intended to represent the musical life of the city as a whole, but rather to prompt reflection on the relationship between music and the city… The process of mapping live music across space and time thus enabled new perspectives and insights, showing how it contributes to the commemoration and characterisation of cities in distinctive and dynamic ways.” (Cohen 2012: 600-601)

These maps were also a means of presenting complex research findings to the wider public, whilst engaging in cross-disciplinary work, through co-operation with National Museums Liverpool. Pictorial representations, and digitally interactive versions of them perhaps especially, have the advantage of accessibility. In such cases, the map becomes a way of conducting, and also explaining, research.

The ‘Beat Goes On’ project described above also reveals some of the overlaps between different categories of music mapping ­– the collaborative work with a museum pointing towards different, and growing, ways in which the information on maps can be presented.

Artists and communities

Not all maps present their information in a strictly geographical format, although the common-sense assumption is perhaps that they refer back to geography in some way.

The Seattle Band Map has a geographical locus, but began as an exercise in illustrating the connections between different musicians and groups of musicians in local bands. Radio presenter and musician Rachel Ratner started sketching out these relationships. The project quickly spread in scope and artist Keith Whiteman was enlisted to help create a large version of it, which was exhibited at local galleries. This physical realisation of the map, despite being over 8 feet tall, quickly became too small to encompass the multiplicity of musical collaborations that were taking place, and funding from the Mayor’s office allowed them to create a more robust and mobile version for presentation elsewhere including the Experience Music Project Museum.

(Section of Rachel Ratner’s and Keith Whiteman’s exhibited version of the Seattle Band Map)

The project has continued in a digital form, allowing for almost infinitely more permutations and connections as well as a greater degree of interactivity.

There are elements here of what the Liverpool project undertook, but perhaps the emphasis is more on description than explanation or investigation. There’s also a sense that this, particularly in its digital guise, is about providing an ongoing and evolving picture. It’s also about participation – the website explicitly states a community orientation and invites submissions even as the original map tours museums and exhibitions.

But insofar as the digital version is to some degree an ongoing end in itself, it’s also the means to a wider promotional end, which in this case is increasing awareness of Seattle’s musical culture and the connections therein. Promoting, in other words, a community through presenting its geographical and social relationships. The emphasis here is on the musical community itself – the map project relies on external support (its website, for instance, takes donations).

There are, of course, similar means of using music maps to promote localities – both from a community perspective but also by local government. The Seattle Music Map, for instance, uses the city’s musical heritage as part of a similar promotional agenda. But it’s very much more geographically than socially focused, and ties that musical activity much more tightly into the promotional agenda of the city itself rather than the people in and around it – a piece of top down rather than roots upwards promotional material. The two needn’t be mutually exclusive but there is a notably different aesthetic (the common town planning ‘grid’) to the map that’s on the .gov website. It’s very much more a ‘fixed’ piece of work more openly concerned with promotion than participation. The local government map is downloadable as a pdf but there are no invitations for submissions from any interested party.

As Cohen’s work on Liverpool has illustrated, the music of a city is revealing of its distinctive characteristics so it is perhaps unsurprising that this music becomes one way in which a locale’s perceived value is expressed and promoted. A good example of this is the ‘Brum Music Map’, using musical activity to make a point on the community oriented, and originated, website Birmingham: It’s Not Shit. Perhaps more closely aligned to the Seattle band map than the local government version in terms of its inception, it differs from the American project in that the map is part of a broader community promotional agenda rather than one that seeks to heighten awareness of the music per se.

This is evident in the tools that it uses. Whilst the Seattle Band Map started life as an artwork and evolved into an online interactive piece that required the involvement of a computer science graduate to develop, the Birmingham map deployed pre-existing web tools and imported them into its geographically, as opposed to thematically, based site which has a wider ranging purpose. Although promoting art, or at least Birmingham through its art, the Birmingham site is not a piece of art in itself and is therefore reliant on the mapping functions provided by a third party which in this case, as in so many, is Google.

And this takes me to another category of map creator, possibly the most common:


Not all promotional mapping activities are ‘locally’ based, either from a grassroots or municipal origin. UK Music’s Map of ‘Great British Festivals’, for instance, is the result of an organisation promoting its members in the marketplace – promoting tourism, both internal and external, and hoping to illustrate its value to the economy. The map, part of the ‘Music Is Great’ campaign, was co-produced with Visit Britain and features commercial festivals with links to their own websites for the purposes of booking tickets.

The primary raison d’etre of UK Music, and Visit Britain, is to a large extent driving commerce, or at the very least a sense of how beneficial their members’ commerce is to the nation. The map, in this case, is fairly clear in its purpose – showcasing an industry sector, and allowing for a greater awareness of the participants within it. Unlike the founders of the Seattle Band Map, then, UK Music wants to keep a tight control of what its map features. And unlike the founders of  ‘Birmingham: It’s Not Shit’, it has the resources to employ web designers to create an expensive custom interactive image rather than use what’s available, and free, on the web.

But where UK Music’s commercial and cultural promotional agenda is relatively explicit (their map is smothered in the red, white and blue of the Union Jack), it isn’t always quite so clear where the lines are between cultural promotion, interactivity, sales and other commercial activities. Which is where the interest, and in some cases unease, of academics comes in again.

Les Roberts opens Mapping Cultures with a description of a dystopian YouTube clip based on the surveillance possibilities of Google maps (although Google owns YouTube). This isn’t to suggest that music mapping is part of an Orwellian exercise in monitoring. It is, however, worth pointing out that mapping is increasingly prevalent in our interactions with technology and our cultural lives. All of the above examples use digital mapping techniques in one form or another and this is understandable enough. It makes sense to use available technology that allows one to describe, explain or promote a phenomenon or product as best one can. But the developments that have allowed us to make use of instantaneous mapping (on our phones, for instance) are allied to those that have been consistently disrupting established media business models for the last twenty years or so – and the convenience of maps in our pockets, on devices that we use to communicate information about ourselves, is one way of trying to forge new business models to replace them.

Mapping is now an integral part of our media consumption and embedded into our everyday use of the web and its associated devices. The fiasco that Apple endured when it replaced Google maps on its new devices with its own mapping application wasn’t just down to its own obsession with tightly integrating every aspect of its digital ecosystem (although it was that too). Clearly aware of the growing importance of mapping in communication and commerce, Apple didn’t want that aspect of its future business (and data collection) to be in the hands of a rival.

Music and media business are also alive to this, especially as revenues from copyright are increasingly difficult to retain and control. We noted after the Live UK Summit the amount of technology pitches based on the size of a database that a company could access, and innovations in both the live and recorded sector are increasingly reliant on location. Sometimes this relates to mobilizing fans in a particular place, as with Songkick’s Detour which allows fans to bid for an act, and promoters to pre-gather an audience and minimize risk. More generally, it concerns the acknowledgement that the mobile phone is the key piece of equipment that gig goers will have on them at all times, and with which they will communicate with other music fans.

Just as academics, museums, artists and communities are utilizing mapping applications, the companies that create them can use them to gather information. This can be more or less obvious, as with Foursquare and, increasingly, Facebook. Or it can serve the dual purpose of helping fans and acts promote themselves and form a ‘community’ of sorts. (I’m a bit sceptical as to how many online interactions genuinely constitute a community in the sense of shared obligations and mutual support but this is a different, if connected, matter). They’re a way, as Joanna Berry has pointed out in relation to the Seattle Band Map, of making use of the ‘strength of weak ties’ and this applies to commerce as well as communities.

The Guardian’s live music map shows how mapping, and placing consumers into a system of maps that make reference to a community, are ways of trying to mitigate the disruptive effects of new forms of information distribution. This isn’t, at least at first glance, outright profiteering and could certainly allow practitioners to promote themselves or at least provide, like the Seattle map, a picture of musical activity that’s widely useful or interesting.

The Guardian’s live music map can be embedded on other sites too, just like a YouTube video. Local blogs, news sites, community hubs and venue sites can all benefit from what people are posting in their area and help spread the word about what’s going on in the community… Our hope is that The Guardian‘s live music map will help people discover local venues and artists and go out and see them more. And those who know about great local music will have a better platform for sharing their passion.”

So it’s a relatively open platform and seems benign enough. What underlies it, I think, is the problem that The Guardian and all newspapers, along with other content businesses, are facing through the effect that digital distribution has had on long established models. Revenues are falling. Content is hard to ‘ringfence’ and demands, say the new Digital Captains of Industry, to be free and open. In making use of the language and techniques of social media, and there’s deliberate encouragement to align use of the map with Instagram and Twitter, The Guardian here seems to be trying to position its website somewhere between a news outlet and a social media platform. With the print based model on the way out, and the jury very much out on Rupert Murdoch’s ‘paywall’ model for The Times, one way of attempting to maintain advertising revenues is to add new ways for the site to become a destination, and at the same time provide advertisers with ever more detailed information about who’s on it.

This can certainly be handy for consumers and musicians as well as community organisers and researchers. But as the techniques used by these different constituents come to more closely intersect, and resemble one another, it may also sometimes be prudent to bear in mind that academic, community and commercial motivations differ as well overlap. So what has long applied to media consumption can also apply to how we find the things we consume – if it’s free, you’re the product.

Adam Behr


Berry, Joanna (2011), “Seattle Band Map: mapping the connections between and evolution of Seattle’s cultural and artistic relationships”, Connected Communities Conference, University of Newcastle 2011

Cohen, Sara (2012), “Live music and urban landscape: mapping the beat in Liverpool”, Social Semiotics 22:5, 587-603

Granovetter, Mark. S (1973), “The Strength of Weak Ties”, American Journal of Sociology, 78:6, 1360-1380

Roberts, Les (ed.) (2012), Mapping Cultures: Place, Practice, Performance, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan

Williamson, John, Cloonan, Martin and Frith, Simon (2003), Mapping the Music Industry in Scotland, report commissioned by Scottish Enterprise


Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


One thought on “Mapping the Maps – Adam Behr

This site is a space for comment and discussion. Please refrain from promotional activities such as advertising gigs or releases, offers of free downloads or similar. Any spam activity will be removed from the site.

  1. Pingback: Live Music Exchange Digest – w/c 4th March 2013 |

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *