Justin Kalifowitz is founder/president of Downtown Music Publishing and a lifelong New Yorker.
For decades, songwriters and artists flourished in New York like nowhere else. The city’s prominence in music goes back to the 1930s and ’40s, when jazz musicians first discovered inviting audiences and composers secured steady work writing the Great American Songbook. In the ’60s, folk artists found kindred spirits in the cafes and nightclubs of Greenwich Village. And in the ’70s, as punk rock exploded from the stages of the Lower East Side, DJs and MCs were cultivating hip-hop in the Bronx. New York’s global melting pot was a magnet for creativity, serving as both the breeding ground and market entry point for the most popular music in the world.
However, in recent years, the city has been knocked off its perch. Songwriters and artists increasingly view New York as simply too expensive, opting for thriving music cities like Nashville or Los Angeles instead. It has lost the Grammy Awards, permanently, and watched its famed recording studios turn condo (Hit Factory) and allowed storied venues to go retail (CBGB). Red tape makes it unnecessarily complicated for entrepreneurs to open new live venues. And for emerging artists, rehearsal space is increasingly difficult to find. The end result is a loss of jobs for the local economy and a loss of creativity in society.
But as outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg proved with New York’s film industry, this trend can be reversed. Under the stewardship of Commissioner Katherine Oliver, the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment has revitalized the film business, creating some 30,000 new jobs since 2004. Marketed under the “Made in New York” banner, Oliver’s program has included tax credits for production companies, a streamlined film-permit process, local vendor discounts, production assistant training programs, free advertising and a $40 million investment to develop Steiner Studios in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard.
A similar Mayor’s Office of Music could initially focus on three key areas: encouragement of music production in New York through an extension of “Made in New York” benefits, simplification of the complex permit process associated with starting music venues and festivals, and expansion of public-private partnerships like Spaceworks that provide low-cost rehearsal studio options to the city’s artist community.
These efforts would help New York claim a larger share of the U.S. music industry, thereby creating new jobs and opportunities for musicians, songwriters, music publishers, concert promoters and a handful of related industries like restaurants, hotels, and legal and financial services. By way of example, Nashville’s fast-growing music economy, which is now worth an estimated $10 billion annually, results in a $4 billion indirect effect on other industries in the region.
As the future of music shifts away from the traditional label model, it’s becoming inextricably linked to advertising and technology—two areas where the city is a dominant force. Re-establishing New York as the world’s music capital, where it could closely collaborate with these strategic partners, could accelerate the development of new business models that will define the industry for years to come.
To emphasize the opportunity, it’s important to recognize that more than 70,000 music professionals and hundreds of music institutions still call New York home. ASCAP and BMI, representing almost 1 million songwriters between them, are headquartered in the city. Newer companies, including Glassnote Records and PledgeMusic, have launched there along with Vevo, Songza and Drip.fm, to name just a few of Gotham’s many digital music startups.
Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio recently named Brooklyn Academy of Music president Karen Brooks Hopkins to his official transition team. Let’s hope this is the first step toward City Hall’s recognition of the social and economic importance of music.