When Mayor Mike Duggan was at the Mackinac Policy Conference two weeks ago, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley asked him during an onstage interview
what I have been trying to ask him for quite some time: whether or not he has any plans to flex some government muscle to elevate the profile of local music in Detroit, especially since Detroit stands as a music capital of the country, if not the world.
In brief, the mayor's answer to that question was, "Not right now."
As Riley pointed out with a humorous reference to a Jay Z song, "I know you've got 99 problems, and the music ain't one, but…"
Many of us like to think we know the size of the job on Mayor Duggan's plate, yet most of us don't have a clue. Nor do we want a clue. Just fix it. But we can reasonably agree that the size of this endeavor is somewhere between gargantuan and ridiculous. Big enough to crush the plate into dust.
having said that, and all well-deserved sympathies aside, we must make the point -- repeatedly and at ever-increasing volume -- that Detroit music is so much more than simply good, foot-tapping entertainment. It is so much more than Motown and Berry Gordy. It's bigger than all of that.
Besides cars, music is what we do better than anyone else. In America, when you do something much better than anyone else, that usually means there is money to be made. A lot of money.
So here's the picture: Detroit is broke. Detroit needs money. To get money, you need sources of revenue. Done right (no simple challenge in Detroit), the promotion, marketing, and performance of Detroit music could generate a significant amount of money for this city over the long haul. And by "long haul" I don't mean 20 to 30 years. I mean more like five to 10. Barring any unforeseen disasters -- and Lord knows we've had more than a few of those -- my guess is Duggan will likely be sitting in the mayor's office for the next five to10 years.
Don't misunderstand me, I'm all about the importance of trumpeting the virtues of the city's musical heritage and how Detroit musicians are long overdue for getting their local props. But for some strange reason, "heritage," "culture," and "props" never seem to earn quite the same amount of urgent attention from politicians and other powerbrokers as does the intoxicating aroma of cash money. I'm not denigrating that tendency, especially given Detroit's current condition; I'm just acknowledging what everybody already knows. I'm saying let's break this conversation down to a level that might get a more serious look from those who can move this thing forward.
Let's go back to Mayor Duggan's recent conversation with Rochelle Riley.
Rochelle Riley: "I know you've got 99 problems and the music ain't one -- and that's a Jay Z reference for anyone who can understand that -- but is there any chance that you're going to look at doing something big like that in the city that brings jobs and some recognition of it being sort of the music and auto capital of the world?"
: "You know, I had a conversation with Kid Rock about that -- you know he's my neighbor down the street -- and, you know, you realize how powerful it is. You know we had the Movement Festival this weekend, and I couldn't have told you what Movement music was a week ago, but the windows at the Coleman Young Center are very thin and I listened to it for three days straight, and I know it attracted a whole lot of people. So I don't wanna tell you I have a specific plan but given the kind of heritage we have in the city it's something we ought to be looking at."
Yes, it most certainly is something we ought to be looking at, Mayor Duggan.
I remember last December when I heard you deliver the keynote address to the well-heeled, cultured crowd at the annual Detroit Symphony Orchestra fundraising dinner.
It was what you said about the importance of local culture that gave me the idea to dig a little deeper into what the city could do to promote local music as a way to spur economic growth:
"There is not a cosmopolitan city in the world that does not have a thriving fine arts community
The DSO is, and will continue to be, a key player in what makes Detroit a great place to live and to visit."
When I interviewed DSO director Leonard Slatkin several months ago, he acknowledged that the DSO pulled itself back from the brink of extinction by focusing on becoming an integral partner with the city of Detroit.
"We are called the Detroit Symphony Orchestra," he said. "The name of the city is in our title. If we can continue to project positive energy, positive image, a sign that we are helping the city to bounce back, then that's all to the good. And we can do that.
"Whatever we perceive in the recent upturn in the fortunes of Detroit, part of it is due to the fact that the orchestra, the leading cultural institution, stuck it out and wanted to become part of the solution in the city."
At the fundraising dinner, DSO's managing director of community programs Kareem George pointed out that Mix @ The Max
concerts have attracted 60 percent new attendees through the presentation of varied offerings. He also said that the DSO has the largest classical audience in the world, that revenues and attendance are up significantly, that the number of donors has doubled, and corporate and foundation support is up.
Over the next four years, $130 million must be raised to continue operations, which I suspect was a large part of the reason for the presentation given by DSO trustee Stephen D'Arcy entitled "The Max: Journey to 365," which presented a profitable strategy focused on how to expand the usage of The Max to 365 days a year with concerts, comedy, retail, educational uses, and restaurants.
"We need to have fun and we need to make money. We need to make a lot
of money," said D'Arcy.
With the able and dedicated leadership of director Leonard Slatkin, the DSO has reversed its fortunes, going from nearly dead to nearly thriving over the course of his six year tenure. Now imagine this same dedication, focus, and strategy applied to elevating the entire Detroit music scene.
Detroit City Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda Lopez represents District 6, which includes Midtown, home to a large section of Detroit's artistic community, and the city's Southwest area, one of the city's most diverse geographies. She says she is enthusiastic about the role local music could play in Detroit's economic growth.
"My dad was a musician. I remember he would take us to the Mexican restaurants on the weekend to hear the mariachi bands play. I remember he would sometimes jump up on stage and sing with them because he knew them all. That was super cool. As a child I grew up in a community where music was a part of the community.
"I think that as we as a city move toward redefining ourselves -- and my hope is that we really become a stronger, diverse, inclusive, global city -- I think that music and our music industry will be a key characteristic of the city so we attract different types of music and musicians. You can go hear jazz, you can go hear Latino music, you can hear African bands. We're reflective of that kind of global community. And I think we as local government can do a better job of supporting that, and partnering with foundations and non-profits that are supporting that."
This is the third feature in a three part series about the role of music in Detroit's development. Read part one and part two.
Keith Owens is a Detroit-based writer and musician. He authored the "Free Your Mind" column in the Metro Times, wrote editorials for the Detroit Free Press, and has published a science fiction novel, "The Mayonaisse Murders," for Detroit Ink Publishing, a company housed in Midtown's Green Garage that he co-founded with his wife Pamela Hillard Owens.
All photos by Marvin Shaouni, http://www.marvinshaouni.com/