Is Culture just a cost?
When I started writing this post, my objective was to highlight how the established way public administrators look at culture not only does a disservice to the cultural sector itself, but it also represent a gigantic missed opportunity when it comes to promoting tourism.
By the time I was done writing, though, it had become painfully clear how the spread of the COVID-19 virus and the fight to control it is having the unintended consequence of creating an existential threat to the entire live music and cultural ecosystem as we know it ( Bas Grasmeyer has done a pretty good job at collecting articles on the subject).
In this new situation we face, my original argument is not only still relevant. It has become even more urgent.
When the economy fails, we bail out banks because — whether we like it or not — they play a fundamental role in our society and economies. It is time we realize that the same is true for Culture. Supporting the live music and cultural sectors in these hard times is not the “noble” thing to do. It is, above all, a financially sound investment.
To get the full return on this investment, though, we also need to completely change our perception of Culture, its role in society and of the full extent of its impact on our economy.
It’s the city I live in…
I have lived in Malmö for almost 20 years. When I moved here, one of the things that impressed me the most was how a town of such a relatively small size could have such a rich and varied cultural life.
From an impressive Opera house to many great independent venues like Inkonst, Kulturbolaget and Plan B. With events like Backyard Sessions and the yearly week of great music & wonderful food bonanza that is the Malmö Festival. And without forgetting a world-class symphony orchestra and a lively grassroot music scene. When it comes to music and culture, Malmö is definitely a city that punches well above its own weight.
This is why, in spite of its relatively modest size, I have been trying really hard to find a way for GigsGuide to work with the local authorities to promote Malmö as a music destination.
Best bang for the buck!
A few days ago, the Swedish newspaper Arbetet reported how Malmö Tourism in 2019 has spent almost 65000 Euros on influencer marketing, a considerably higher amount than any other city in Sweden.
While the article itself has quite a critical tone, the comments in it from Malmö Tourism clearly indicate how from their perspective this has been a successful project, providing a great return on the investment in terms of international visibility for the city.
At the same time, the interest in doing something around music tourism (with or without our help) has been very low. Promoting live events and supporting the local music scene is seen as the responsibility of the Culture office.
After the initial frustration, this setback got me thinking and eventually led me to an important realization. The problem is not Malmö Tourism. The fundamental problem is the way most administrations look at Culture.
Tourist Boards operate on the base of the priorities and the mandate set by the city’s politicians and senior decision-makers. And when you follow the money, it is very clear that decision-makers (in Malmö just like in most other cities in the world) do not see culture as an asset with the potential of attracting more visitors to the city.
The established narrative is that Culture is simply a cost, and it’s not one on the Tourist Board’s budget. From this perspective, it is then perfectly reasonable for Malmö Tourism to allocate its funds to the promotional activities it believes offer the highest potential return on the investment.
Culture as a cost
All over the world, the job of supporting the local cultural scene belongs to the Cultural promotion office. This support materializes mainly in subsidies that the local authorities pay to various local organizations to enable them to run their activities.
Public funding for culture is vital and extremely important: it is meant to ensure a variety of cultural activities that would not be possible purely on commercial terms. It gives the opportunity to artists and event organizers to take a risk, to explore uncharted territories and experiment. It contributes to making culture accessible to the broader public, not only by ensuring that the events can take place, but also occasionally by subsidizing the entry fees to make the events free for all to attend (something that Malmö has actually been very good at).
At the same time, the current system presents many severe limitations:
- It creates an unhealthy reliance on public “handouts”. The moment budgets get cut, it is very hard for many to quickly find other sources to make up for the losses, pay their staff and even stay in business.
- It naturally favours those more established organizations that know how to navigate the system and how to write an application, leaving out many of the newer, more dynamic and creative ones.
- A corollary of the previous point is that, for some recipients, “getting the money” becomes an end in itself, not a means to an end.
- It can create unfair competition for the local venues and promoters that operate on commercial terms. This doesn’t mean cities should not offer free events. They should, however, be aware of what impact they might have particularly on small, independent venues and work together to mitigate those negative effects.
- It makes the whole system potentially vulnerable to being kidnapped by special interests (if it sounds far-fetched, consider that in another not-so-distant part of Sweden right-wing politicians are actively using their power to dictate what kind of art the municipality should be allowed to buy).
Another negative aspect of this approach is that Cultural promotion offices often end up having a very narrow view on their mandate to serve the local population.
An example of this “locals only” mindset is the fact that while many cities have some kind of “events calendar” on their site, the large majority of them are usually only available in the local language.
So, for instance, the event promotion and online ticketing service that the Culture office in Malmö runs to support the smaller local event organizers ( Kulturcentralen) is only available in Swedish. And so is the one for the Opera and for the cool new concert hall, Malmö Live. This severely limits the ability for many world-class events to reach not only out-of-town visitors, but also a significant portion of the city’s very international local population.
Culture as an asset
People are hungry for unique experiences and cultural events are one of the top reasons people travel.
Traditionally, the promotion of “cultural tourism” has either focused on a handful of major events (like festivals) or very vague messaging that basically said “come visit, we have great culture”.
In a time when the “experience economy” is seeing exponential growth — not only in travel — and customers are expecting advanced personalisation, this old-fashioned, “one-size-fits-all” approach is simply not good enough anymore.
There is, however, still very little awareness of the true extent of culture’s financial contribution to our local economies and a strong need to make that more visible and tangible to the local decision makers.
Even without major reports like the one the Berlin Club Commission released last year (highlighting how just “clubbing tourism” helps put over 1.5 billion Euros in the city’s economy), the busloads of Danish pensioners that can often be seen outside the Malmö Opera on show nights should provide a visible indication of the power of culture to promote tourism.
We built GigsGuide because we see an incredible, unexploited potential in musical and cultural tourism: if influencer marketing can inspire followers to visit a location through well-crafted Instagram posts, then helping people find the music they care about can be an even more powerful promotional tool, with an even higher return on investment.
This is particularly true for so many cities that like Malmö have a cultural life punching above their own weight, with so much to offer but also with a local audience of limited size.
Any self-respecting artist, promoter, venue will tell you they would much rather get help to fill more seats than to make up for the empty ones. And while a Euro spent in direct subsidies is always just worth a Euro, a Euro invested in promoting the local cultural events to a broader audience beyond the city’s limits returns multiple times and helps generate more wealth and benefiting the entire local community.
Music in the time of Corona.
In spite of our local setbacks, we are still very bullish about the power of attraction of Malmö’s cultural life. To make up for our own limited resources, we even “joined the system” and applied to a local foundation for funding to showcase the music scene of Malmö (and of the entire region) to the world (fingers crossed until June ;)).
Most importantly, we are bullish about unleashing the same unexploited potential we see in so many cities and regions all over the world.
Bu it’s particularly now more than ever that we need a radically different narrative about the true value of live music and culture. Not only for our souls, but also for our local economy.
While it is vital that we all do our very best to support our local artists, venues and promoters in these difficult times, we also need a more ambitious plan so that we can still realize their true potential tomorrow. The answer can’t simply be more handouts.
Regardless of whether a city decides to partner with GigsGuide to do it or not, it is time for politicians and decision makers to re-evaluate how they look at live music and culture and start seeing them as the incredible asset they are. It is time for new strategies where Tourist Boards and Culture offices finally join forces for real, creating the perfect storm that makes a city more attractive to tourists and a better place to live in for the locals.
“No matter how cold the winter, there’s a springtime ahead”
Originally published at https://gigs.guide on March 9, 2020.