Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

You Need Music Where You Live

Local music scenes aren't nuisances taking up space from property developers — they generate decent jobs in post-industrial areas, and play a key role in sustaining culture in many communities.

A street artist restores a mural of Joy Division's Ian Curtis after it was destroyed by an advert. Manchester, England. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

In 1983, the BBC’s Riverside programme interviewed Tony Wilson to discuss the opening of a new nightclub. ‘Why bother?’ The interviewer asks. Wilson, looking every bit like a film noir detective in a suit and Stetson, responds in typical Wilsonian fashion. ‘Why bother? Well, it’s necessary for any period to build its cathedrals. It’s necessary for any youth culture to have its place.’

Across the decade that followed, the Hacienda would become the ceremonial home of Acid House, facilitating a cultural movement within the walls of a former yacht warehouse located in Manchester’s Castlefield district — the terminus of the world’s first industrial canal. By 1997, however, ongoing financial troubles and a series of gangland shootings would force the Hacienda’s closure — an event that would allow the city’s traditionally iconoclastic music scene to move on, to evolve organically and create new movements.

In time, the Hacienda’s closure would be used as a symbolic endpoint for a halcyon period of Manchester’s music past — its legacy continuing to inform cultural identity by way of Ian Curtis murals, themed bars and Factory Records walking tours. While the bands and countercultural movements associated with this era continue to play an authentic role in working-class identity formation both across Manchester and the north of England as a whole, questions should be asked as to how this nostalgia is commodified and resold.   

During a period when increased financial investment into Manchester’s luxury property sector threatens to gentrify working-class areas and uproot contemporary grassroots music venues, should we be sceptical of how our music and cultural heritages are used by the very institutions who once rallied against them?

A new book published by Repeater Books asks these very questions. Shain Shapiro’s This Must Be The Place: How Music Can Make Your City Better explores how a policy-driven approach to music infrastructure can be used to improve and nourish where we live. 

A music ecosystem is more than just a particular band — it’s venues, producers, promoters, sound engineers, the facilities that provide music education and so on — each of which requires fair compensation for their work.

‘Music is a tool we can use to measure how we communicate, how we govern, who we protect, who we discriminate against and how we co-exist together in our towns, cities and places.’ Shapiro says. 

‘Music can promote or reduce fairness, from managing the impact of gentrification to measuring the impact of sustainable development around the world. Music is cultural, social and psychological currency, and the ecosystem that revolves around it mirrors and impacts the collective ecosystem that we share. Music can improve where we live, how we live and how we interact. We need to better understand how.’

In a report commissioned by Manchester City Council alongside Shapiro’s Sound Diplomacy agency in 2022, it was found that Greater Manchester’s music sector contributed £469 million to the regional economy and provided over 11,000 full-time jobs. This Must Be The Place questions why our music infrastructures aren’t viewed as integral to town planning and standard of living in the way other services are, despite the quantifiable income they generate. The report also highlighted Manchester’s need for a more diverse music ecosystem, with figures showing a disproportional representation of White-British males within the sector. 

As DIY music venues continue to be impacted by rising rents, energy costs and draconian punishment for noise complaints, Shapiro argues how our music ecosystems are seen both politically and publicly as collateral damage for austerity measures inflicted along class, gender and race lines. 

By analysing ‘music cities’ like Manchester, Memphis, New Orleans and Nashville, Shapiro looks to understand if a historical music heritage is one way of convincing policymakers to invest. Shapiro also looks towards Huntsville, Alabama and Bernie Sanders’ mayorship of Burlington as success stories of a targeted music policy. In the case of Nashville, the city’s music heritage is, in part, down to an insurance company. 

In 1925, the National Life Accident and Insurance Company took to the airwaves to promote their services, broadcasting every Saturday from the Grand Ole Opry concert hall with the emerging sound of the city: country music. The radio exposure helped attract a national fanbase and cemented the Opry as a tourist attraction — perhaps the first instance of technological virality. This, coupled with Nashville’s low urban density, created a hospitable infrastructure for burgeoning musicians to practice and perform without fear of noise complaints.  

Almost a century on, as Nashville’s associations with country music continue to provide vital economic benefits, questions are being asked as to how this heritage is supporting the next generation. While Nashville may have the infrastructure to support its fledgling country musicians, what about the working-class Nashvillian who wants to hone their craft as a DJ? 

Shapiro argues that a healthy music ecosystem must be adaptable and inclusive to our changing sociological infrastructures. Where you live and what you look like will affect the type of music you’re drawn to, produce, and, in turn, your ability to market yourself. This trickles down into education, too. While music curriculum in state schooling is often limited to a few blasts of Three Blind Mice on the recorder, the superior funding of private education allows for a wider variety of instrumentation, teaching and freedom of expression. These race, class and gender prejudices are reinforced when we consider how classical music has come to be associated with white civility and music produced by inner-city working-class minorities with crime. 

Contrastingly, in cities where government neglect has inflicted the most damage, music ecosystems continue to be forged independently as a necessary reaction to adversity and happenstance. Historically, Northern Soul emerged through the availability of cheap, disregarded Motown records arriving in northwest ports via Detroit — the industrial beats and fast tempos adopted by style-conscious mods fed up of the hippy movement. In the Bronx, the availability of undervalued Japanese drum machines created during an era of US protectionist policy was lapped up by young musicians to invent hip-hop. In 1960s Birmingham, Black Sabbath’s chord-heavy metal was a direct outcome of a factory accident that resulted in the loss of Tony Iommi’s fingers. These examples highlight the importance of acknowledging how and why culture develops, often as a political reaction to government policy and legacy culture. 

When we consider the sociological catalysts behind music cities like Manchester and Liverpool, it’s hard not to wonder why other post-industrial northern cities didn’t follow suit. Could it be down to the northwest’s focus on US importation, compared to Glasgow and Newcastle’s focus on shipbuilding? Could rail infrastructure between the northwest, Sheffield, and Leeds have supplemented the growth of intercity youth cultures? 

Historically, the northeast has always been isolated — topographically, at least. Guarded by the Cheviots, North Pennines and North Yorkshire Moors, the past millennium has seen the northeast used spitefully as a battleground for Anglo-Scottish border wars and punitive Conservative austerity measures. As a result, northeast counties continue to find themselves at the wrong end of unemployment, child poverty and mental health tables. There’s no question that the targeted neglect of community infrastructure in post-industrial cities like Sunderland, Newcastle and Middlesbrough has fractured the frameworks of identity formation, hope, and what people believe is possible.

Despite this, several DIY cultural venues have emerged from Tyne and Wear in recent years — each with an intentioned emphasis on inclusivity, social impact and community building. Across the region, venues like Pop Recs in Sunderland, Newcastle’s World Headquarters, Zerox, The Grove, Ernest, Cobalt Studios, The Lubberfiend and Slacks Radio continue to be driven by a social responsibility to create affordable, diverse and accessible cultural platforms. 

Since its foundation in 2021, Slacks has emerged as one of the region’s most important cultural entities, broadcasting 24/7, with residents playing everything from Brazilian disco to Geordie Makina, as well as podcasts covering cultural theory, literature, comedy, the esoteric and everything in between. While Slacks and The Lubberfiend are integral to the evolution of Newcastle’s cultural ecosystem, they are reliant on community donations, and will struggle to survive without arts funding.

While music has always been integral to northeast culture, with a history of producing innovative artists like Prefab Sprout, Brian Ferry, Neil Tennent, Lindisfarne and more, the region is not viewed as a music city. Despite an increasingly diverse music scene, the region continues to be represented through its stereotypes and generalisations — industrial decline, archetypal Auf-Wedersehen Pet regional friendliness and football.  

In Sunderland, ongoing regeneration work around the former Vaux Breweries site, including planned footbridges across the River Wear to provide direct accessibility to the Stadium of Light, has demonstrated the economic importance placed on the city’s footballing infrastructure — one of the region’s last remaining outlets for community-building and hope.

The recent rise of Sam Fender to the position of northeast folk hero has shown how music and football can be galvanised for mutual gain. On top of his talent, Fender’s authenticity, as well as his championing of local political causes and grassroots movements, are all down to his success. His support for Newcastle United, albeit to the distaste of some Sunderland fans, is an integral component to his performances, with local gigs transformed into a celebration of regional identity. Some critics may view this as a label PR stunt or criticise his silence surrounding Newcastle’s Saudi Arabian ownership, but in many ways, Fender is stuck between a rock and a hard place. 

As Conservative austerity measures continue to punish those they always have, the venues of the northeast continue to fight on, showing an integrous understanding of how affordable and inclusive cultural platforms can enrich communities where economic hardship is prevalent. If a government-funded music ecosystem is to flourish in places like the northeast, it must be allowed to operate free from the constraints of profit. It must be allowed to regenerate and evolve independently, while remaining inclusive and accessible for all.