Live Music Exchange Blog

Investigating ‘Impact’ — Stephen Henderson


Today’s guest post is by Dr. Stephen Henderson, an authority on event marketing and management and Senior Lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University. Here he discusses the matter of ‘impact’ and points towards the need for a clear-sighted approach to defining it.

As Simon Frith suitably reminded us at the Live Music Exchange conference in Leeds, ‘impact’ is a word at the forefront of many discussions between academics and business. In the world of live music, particularly the larger events, it is becoming an increasingly popular topic as the impact of these events is questioned by a variety of people for a variety of reasons. Of importance in live music events, a measure of impact is often used to encourage or justify financial support in the form of grants or sponsorship offered. So, pretty clearly, defining impacts and knowing how to measure them is something that we need to understand.

So, what is an impact? We might look at this in two ways. The most common way to look at impact focuses on investments that might benefit a community in a social, cultural and/or economic manner. For example, efforts to bring disparate communities together, introduce new music or, simply, encourage tourists to visit a specific destination. Conflicts can arise between these impacts where, say, a festival brings in tourists who spend money but create a potential social nuisance at the same time. So, managing how these tradeoffs work is central to those who decide to financially support a music event. Similarly, the ‘investor’ needs to have clarity of purpose in terms of what they want to achieve in terms of impact.

Secondly, in contrast, we might take the view that we seek sustainable development within all markets including live music. Using the World Commission on Environment and Development (now The Brundtland Commission) definition of sustainable development, this means we should be having a positive (or, at least, neutral) impact on each of the people, planet and profit aspects. We should be gaining any profit without taking advantage of people or unsustainably consuming the planet’s resources. Largely, this requires us to change our behaviour to improve sustainability at music events and, therefore, exercises the minds of those interested in social marketing. This, of course, assumes the (music) industry will respond to the sustainable development aims by offering sustainable events – as my article in Worldwide Hospitality and Tourism Themes illustrates. In the UK, the BS8901 standard offers a framework for shaping policy in this direction whilst practical ideas are offered by the likes of Meegan Jones in her book, Sustainable Event Management: A Practical Guide. Other parts of the world can be seen to be at different stages of response to the clamour for sustainable development.

Whether looking at the matter from one or both of these viewpoints, the most awkward issue is how to measure these various impacts. As all the elements discussed above revolve around finance as a common currency, you might ask how we put a value on, for example, improved social cohesion or music from another culture. Who sets the exchange rates between these different currencies of, say, culture or social impacts? I have no answer to that in this blog except to flag the problem to you. However, it is clear that you must remain objective. I see reports that crudely attempt to maximise the impact value in order to encourage the financial support of others. For example, including ticket sales as a beneficial financial impact is ridiculous when a large share of that ticket revenue disappears out of the area with the artists who appear there. On the other hand, some of that income may stay local with staging, sound and lighting companies. Hence, there is an implication that we need to have defined the community that we are intending to benefit with our impacts. So, in summary, we see here that defining impact measurement requires care and clarity via robust frameworks that can take over from some of the more ad-hoc impact measurements that can be found.

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.


5 thoughts on “Investigating ‘Impact’ — Stephen Henderson

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  1. “I see reports that crudely attempt to maximise the impact value in order to encourage the financial support of others”. Yes, I see a lot of those those too. One of the REAL problems with lots of “research” around the value of events or industries is that it is actually not objective or even handed, but a form of advocacy. Importantly the methodology is often opaque or not even given, sometimes for reasons of “commercial confidence”. Until we know how impact has been assessed, how can we judge whether the alleged impact is true. The role of academics here should be to point out that the king is indeed naked and to try to call to account those whose methodologies are hidden. After all, if we don’t who will?

    • Well said Martin. Having done a number of ‘commissions’ (ranging from industrial reports to ‘expert witness’ work) for industry over the years, I have occasionally experienced these problems. As you pointed out in one of your articles with Simon a couple of years ago, there is often a number of’ conflicts’ between the agendas of academia and industry – one of which is the ensuring the pressures of commissioned research remains truly impartial. When a commissioning industrial organisation has an agenda (which they inevitably have) it is difficult to avoid highlighting these agendas to the ‘researcher’ – either directly or indirectly. The academic then can be faced with a choice – of potentially compromising there objectivity (with the added temptation of getting an ‘impact’) – or standing their ground – and potentially getting no more commissions. Industry/Academic partnerships such as these are important – but it is essential that first time researchers involved in this type of activity go in with their eyes open.

  2. Dave O’Brien produced an interesting report – ‘Measuring the value of culture: a report to the Department for Culture Media and Sport’ – suggesting a number of methodologies with which to come up with various valuations of ‘culture’ (economic, public health, etc.). Whether the DCMS have taken any notice of this is another matter, however.

    The report is here –

  3. Yes, Dave O’Brien and I used to share an office. You can imagine this was a regular topic of discussion across the room. As Dave’s work amply points out, it’s a big issue across all the arts (not just live music) and one that assumes even greater importance in these austere times.

  4. Thanks for your post, Steve, it’s great. This is a topic that’s not going to go away. Many big events are financed in large part by their brand value.

    A special situation is when public institutions are involved. That’s where politics and questions about “tax payer money” come in.

    My own experience recently is that scholars of cultural events have more to learn from the history and research on sports events than some might expect. Skepticism towards impact studies is not merely articulated by humanists or sociologists, but also within business studies in which scholars such as Laurence Chalip and Danny O’Brien have developed new and different objectives/methods. The critiques are not merely methodical, but embedded in larger processes of social change.

    I recently fell over two pieces:
    in the New York Times:

    and this brief survey:

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