Shain Shapiro - Sound Diplomacy
Shain Shapiro is the founder and CEO of Sound Diplomacy, the leading global advisor on growing music and night time economies in cities and places. He has defined a new way to think about the value of music in cities and places and through it, influenced over 100 cities to invest in music and culture.
Sound Diplomacy’s mission is to develop music policy that aligns with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, organise events linking music to the SDGs and engage across the UN’s ecosystem to promote the value of music in sustainable development and urbanisation.
- Shain Shapiro – Sound Diplomacy
Dubber Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber, but you can just call me Dubber. Everyone else does. I’m the director of Music Tech Fest, and this is the MTF Podcast. Now, you know when you look on someone’s Twitter profile sometimes, and in the part where it says the town, city, or country they’re in, and instead of saying London or Belgrade or Saskatchewan or whatever, it just says ‘The World’? That’s how I think of Shain Shapiro.
He’s someone I met through Un-Convention, which is a global knowledge event for the independent music sector. It’s a fantastic organisation that really supports and nurtures the grassroots industry and local scenes. There’s been over 100 of their events so far, and I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to Un-Conventions in all sorts of places all around the world over the past decade. India, Brazil, Columbia, Argentina, Venezuela, all over Europe, and in all sorts of places all over the UK. And there are a few recurring themes for the independent music sector. One of them is ‘do it together’. DIY is not enough. We need to help each other out, probably more so now than ever before. And another is that place matters, and that’s something that Shain Shapiro’s organisation Sound Diplomacy is very much about.
I say that Shain’s at home in ‘The World’, but he’s very much about the microcosm of the town, the city, the region. Sound Diplomacy’s about local economies, it’s about local communities, it’s about vibrant regional ecosystems, and about how those are supported. I mean economically supported and grown through music policy. To explain, from the place he calls home, here’s Shain Shapiro. Enjoy.
Dubber Shain Shapiro, thanks so much for joining us for the MTF Podcast today.
Shain Thanks, Dubber. It’s good to be here. I appreciate being asked.
Dubber We actually met in Uganda, of all places.
Shain I think so, yeah.
Dubber What was your connection with Un-Convention?
Shain I’ve known them for years. I’ve known Ruth… Well, when Ruth was involved, and Jeff. I think in my old job… I was the music export rep for the Canadian Independent Music Association many moons ago. I think I met them through that. I met a lot of festivals through that, pitching Canadian acts and stuff. And I don’t remember why I was invited out to Uganda, but I’ll take it. I’ve been there since, once before, once after, and I would go every year if I could.
Dubber Fantastic. Is this something that happens to you a lot? You get invited to speak at places all over the world?
Shain Yeah. Well, pre-COVID I was on the road 5/6 months of the year. Not just speaking, but we have clients all over the world, so a lot of sitting on planes. And now I’ve realised that I probably didn’t need to do that, which is really good. It’s helping me resolve my carbon footprint. But, yes, tonnes of travelling. I’ve been… I don’t know how many countries. I don’t know how many I’ve been to. Maybe 60 or 70 around the world.
Dubber Wow. And ‘we’ is Sound Diplomacy. What’s that?
Shain We are a global consultancy. We work with cities and governments and large organisations all over the world on music strategy and policy. So, really, we’re… We call ourselves “Music people for non-music people.”. So our job is to try to translate the value of music, in all its forms and functions, to change something locally, whether it’s through economic development or tourism or equity, inclusion, community development. So, really, our job is to try to explain how music makes something better, whether that something is a tax policy or the building of a school over there instead of over here or the size of a festival. All sorts of things.
Dubber Right. And which end are you coming at this from? Are you attempting to make things better for musicians? Are you attempting to use music to make things better for society? Are you trying to help the politicians in a particular way?
Shain I would say that we’re doing all of that. I believe that we’re very good at identifying the self-interest that we need to satisfy in the situation that we’re in. But everything always comes back to musicians. So, yes, everything that we do is based around trying to help artists and help musicians, we just do it in a different way. So instead of going one at a time, we’re trying to create policy change that could help 10,000 artists at once, even though, often, most people don’t see what we do or realise that we’re doing it. But that’s okay with me. I’m not in it to be recognised, I’m in it to create change.
Dubber So you’re locked down right now. Where are you locked down?
Shain In East London, in Forest Gate.
Dubber And that’s where Sound Diplomacy is based? Or you now have completely dispersed all over the world?
Shain We have four offices, actual offices, in London Bridge, in London, as well as in Berlin, Barcelona, and in the U.S. in New Orleans. We have people dotted around. So we have people, now, in… All over the U.S. in random places. Just happens to be where they live. But we also have someone in Amsterdam, we have someone… Two people in Italy, we have someone in Columbia. So we are very… We’ve always been somewhat remote working, to a certain extent. More so now.
Dubber Right. This seems like maybe the obvious question, but what’s so great about music?
Shain I think that’s a good question. To me, what’s great about music is how it impacts everything around it. Music is a way to have a conversation about all sorts of things. About getting to know each other better, about conflict, trying to reduce conflict, even, about equality across gender, race, ethnic, discipline, so on and so forth. I think that music is a tool that we have. I think music and food are the only tools that we have where we can cross any boundary and still find something to unify us.
So, for me, I believe that we underestimate the power that music has, but yet we’re using its power every day without recognising it. And it doesn’t matter what political affiliation. Even Trump going on stage to songs he’s not allowed to play, he’s uniting people via music, and I think that’s an incredibly powerful thing. Whatever you believe in, there is something positive that music can bring you. And if we recognise that better, if we create policies around that, then I think it can improve everyone’s day-to-day.
Dubber So is this a hard sell when you take this idea to politicians?
Dubber Do they get it quickly?
Shain No. Well, some do, to be frank. A politician, speaking bluntly, it’s “How do I initiate something so that people will vote for me?”. And because music is such a complicated ecosystem from an industrial perspective, as you know, how people make money out of it and how the general public thinks people make money out of it are very different.
And then when you go further down into countries that may lack intellectual property mechanisms and infrastructure, or even basic forms of infrastructure, where music becomes more a cultural, tribal thing than an economic thing, convincing people that music is, A, economic, B, an industry, C, people make money out of it, and D, you can make a lot of money out of it is hard because it’s not a point of sale. You’re not selling a widget, or you’re not selling a car tyre to fit on a car. You’re selling something where the complexities of how money flows is hard to comprehend, especially when you have to explain something in five seconds to someone and they have to get it.
And the music industry… We thrive on complexity. We built a system around managing complexity that benefits some and doesn’t benefit others, and that does not translate very well into how to create simple mechanisms to enable governments to support artists in one way or another.
Dubber Right. Do you ever find yourself arguing the other way? Like “Okay, yes, it’s a commercial proposition, but also it does all of these other things about social cohesion and bringing people together that’s valuable and interesting.”. Or do you always have to take the economic argument with a politician?
Shain 90 percent of the time it’s the economic argument. Most people get the social argument. They don’t get investing in the social argument, but I don’t tend to have to convince people that music is good. I think most people do get that. But it’s the “So, what?” that we fight for all the time. And most of the time, I would say 90 percent of the time, there’s an economic argument that has to be brought in, in one way or another. In some cases…
A lot of governments, at all levels, invest in music, but they’re just doing it in the wrong way, or they’re investing in particular genres or disciplines and ignoring others, or they’re not recognising the breadth of revenue models that exist. A lot of cities invest in music through land. Cities own venues but have no understanding of IP. So it’s a lifelong thing. I don’t think I’m ever going to win the argument. I don’t think there is an endgame here. I just think it’s a process that… We’re just trying to enlarge the choir, so to speak, never end the concert.
Dubber Is there a right answer? Or is it on a place by place basis?
Shain The right answer is to do something, and do something in an equitable way. So we have this model, we call it genre agnosticism, where… Convincing people to invest in music is great, and then they invest in their music, and that’s a problem. And we see this… We have, I believe, a real challenge in democratising music education provision, let alone fighting for it. But then once it exists, it tends to be Western classical, which is one fantastic form of music among others.
So I feel that it’s constantly difficult in different ways, and I… Even though, I didn’t intend to do this, but I’ve had to become a cultural ethnographer in some respects. You can put your foot in your mouth pretty quickly in what I do by not understanding local traditions or local initiatives.
Dubber Sure. So where do you come at this from? What’s your inroad to music? What was the point at which you went “This music thing’s pretty cool. I should be spending my time and energy there.”?
Shain Well, first off, I’m not good at anything, so that’s… I don’t have any discernible skill.
Dubber So we have that in common.
Shain Well, there’s the… When you’re a skilled trade… My partner is a graphic designer, that’s a skilled trade. Taught how to do it, like a carpenter or whatever. I don’t have any of those skills. That’s one. Two is I started working in music when I was in high school, so I never had an opportunity to do anything else. The only other thing I ever did was work in kitchens because I was allowed to, because kitchens, you could do shift work when you’re doing music based things. So I don’t think about it that way.
So I started working in a record store when I was 15. That led to working in a music venue, and then I started writing for music magazines. I then badly ran festivals and worked… I had my own booking agency and management company.
We just have the kettle on in the background, so…
Dubber I hope you get a cup of coffee out of it.
Shain I do get a cup of coffee out of it, yeah. I’m very lucky.
So I don’t think about it that way. So music’s always been a part of my life. And I discovered that I’m the type of person that I’m really bad at things I don’t like to do. I just don’t put any effort into it. So I had to do something that I loved. Some people, they’ll have a job and then they’ll pursue other things on the side. That’s not me.
So music became everything, and then over the years I just started being more and more involved in different aspects of the industry. And then I moved to the UK and I ended up working in a record label, and then that led to working for the export office, and then that led to setting up my own firm.
Dubber But not everybody who really likes music, or even everybody who really likes music and gets into music professionally, then does a PhD in music policy.
Shain Well, I’ve always been a nerd in that regard. I’ve always enjoyed academia, but I didn’t want to be an academic. To be frank, and I know you’re similar, I didn’t want to write stuff that no one’s going to read, and I didn’t want to write a book that cost £100 for no reason. And I don’t say that negatively, because I read, and I have incredible respect for tonnes of academics, I just… There’s two great books about what we do written by academics. What we do in a general sense, not what we do, around music and public policy.
But so the reason I did a PhD, to be frank, was it was a reason to stay in the country. I had some immigration issues at the time in the UK, and I wanted to stay in the country. It’s a very long story, but it was never an issue. It was all going to be fine, but the PhD became the simplest path to the solution. And when I was given the opportunity to do it I was given a scholarship as well, so I thought “What the hell?”. I didn’t think about pursuing academia. I didn’t think about it in that way. I just thought about “This is another thing that I can do.”, and I’m glad I did it. And I come at it from a different approach. I think that, again, it’s that holistic, societal approach around music that we underestimate.
Dubber Right. So why was it important to you to be based in the UK?
Shain Well, it was a personal decision to move to the UK.
Dubber Is it a music scene thing?
Dubber Or it’s for the…?
Shain I did a year abroad at Leeds, so that’s how I moved to the UK. I did the standard North American…
Dubber From Canada, let’s be clear, right?
Shain Yes, I’m Canadian. I’m from near Toronto. And I came over in 2004 to do a year abroad, then, actually, I went home for four months to finish school, and then I moved back. But I moved to The Netherlands to do my master’s, and I lived in The Netherlands for two and a half years, or two years, something like that. So I moved to the UK in 2007 for personal reasons. My partner was here. But to be honest, I didn’t see economic opportunities for me in The Netherlands compared to in the UK. And I was a music journalist, so I was writing for a few music magazines here, and I had some opportunities. So that’s why. I didn’t think I wanted to move here because of the music scene or anything like that, but I’m glad I did.
I think London is a city that presents opportunities to people who seek them. And the people that I’ve met and the relationships that I’ve developed over the years would never have happened if I stayed in Amsterdam, and I say that with utmost love and admiration of Amsterdam. I could spend the rest of my life there if the circumstances changed. I love it. But London has been the place to beta test, and the place to be challenged, and the place that developed my company.
Dubber So the company strategy, is it just you turn up and you have meetings with politicians and you say to them “Music’s really cool.”? Or is there some other…?
Shain That’s pretty much it.
Dubber Because I know that you organise events, for instance.
Shain Well, yeah. Our company strategy… That’s a good question. We’ve sat down and tried to write it down a few times but never been very successful. I think it’s based on convening people, yes.
So we have a company called Music Cities Events that runs conferences. And we have our online platform called the Music Cities Community, which is a subscription platform. So that is my entry into tech. And the whole objective there is thought leadership and best practice. And the conferences became the biggest in the world. So our Music Cities Convention gets probably 500/600 people come. We’ve done eight or nine of them now, and we’ve spawned some new events off of that. So we’ve got one around music in tourism, one around music in real estate.
I think the strategy of the company is based, to be honest, on sharing. A lot of people think we’re a non-profit. No, we’re not. We’re for-profit. But we do a lot of thought leadership, we put a lot of reports out for free, because I believe that if people don’t understand what we’re doing then we can’t sell it. Who’s going to buy a music strategy if they don’t know what a music strategy is? And because we… I inadvertently, to be honest…
Oh, I got my coffee now.
I inadvertently created this company that no one was doing what we were doing. That’s why a lot of people don’t know what we do. And still, there is… We don’t have a huge amount of competition. There are some people doing it now, which is good. I want that. So I’m lucky. We’re in a blue-sky company, in a way. We can create whatever we want. But at the same time, the issue was no one had any idea what we were doing, and there’s no line on the spreadsheet in a government budget for music strategy.
Dubber And when you say government, you mean city government, specifically, don’t you?
Shain No, no. We work pan… From intergovernmental. We work for the United Nations down to local municipalities. We have clients across that entire thing. We’ve done national music policy, which is mainly focussed on education, tourism, and copyright. In local music policy it’s mainly about land use, licensing, education. The whole nightlife versus wanting to stay in thing. All of that. So in order to get our clients to create a line on a spreadsheet, so to speak, so that we can charge for our services, we had to proselytize and we had to disseminate for free. So I think our strategy is that.
Sound Diplomacy has to stand for something, and it has to continue to stand for something, and it’s really important to me that everything that we do is good. I know you’ve known me for a while. I try to be very ethical in everything that we do.
But we chose strategically to be a for-profit company to prove that you can do this as a for-profit company. If it was a charity then we would further this increased victimisation, I believe, of the music industry, which is happening now. “We need help. We’re the victims. Music is charity.”. I think that’s… I really struggle with that. I think music is not. Music is something that we all need to recognise and pay for and value. So we strategically decided to be a for-profit company, but we do it with morals and with ethics.
Dubber Is Britain a particularly hard place to have that conversation right now?
Shain Yes and no. I’m not going to be political, because the word diplomacy’s in our name.
Dubber Isn’t that your job?
Shain It’s my job to be diplomatic. I don’t believe that the… The priorities of this government, whether one believes them or agrees with them or not, and the priorities of the music industry right now, in this exact moment, are different. That’s the long and short of it, as I see it.
From my vantage point, our government is very ideological, first off, and they are focussed on ensuring that those who voted for them that didn’t vote for them in the previous election and may not vote for them next time, the so-called red wall, that services are delivered to them, and investments delivered to them. That’s one thing I’ve noticed. Two is our government is pursuing a hard Brexit, which is really, really scary to me, but it is what it is. And if that’s the way it’s going to be, then that’s the way it’s going to be, and we have to make lemons out of whatever it is. And there are a couple other… And infrastructure priority, so housing is a big priority.
I don’t think that the creative industries as a whole, not just the music industry, have done a great job trying to align our growth strategy with their priorities, because we’re in a stage of triage because… And it is incredibly frightening right now, and I don’t think that the government has… So I don’t think the two have aligned of that.
To have a successful future post-Brexit, we need thriving cultural and creative institutions, and this is one of the things that we are genuinely world-leading at. We are. So you would think that investing in it would be a good pro-Brexit model, but because most of us who are responsible for that content are not supporters of this government’s policies and voted for the other guy, or didn’t vote at all, there… That’s how I see it. I see that there’s a disconnect, and we haven’t been able to align it. And if we’re not able to align it then we’re going to see institutions… Well, we’re already seeing institutions close. And I don’t quite understand why the recognition of these institutions closing being of significant long term impact to the future economic growth of our country, Brexit or no Brexit, hasn’t been well thought of. I think that’s one thing.
Two is a lot of the ways that the government spends money now, which could include the creative industries through the regeneration of high streets, investment in small towns, things like that, a lot of the provisions in those policies do not have adequate translation to the creative industries. Even though, if you’re putting money into your town centre, obviously music, culture, creativity, all that stuff, especially now when the value of land has been depressed, again, there’s a win-win there. But I don’t think it’s been well communicated. I probably need to do a better job. I’ve just been focussed on other markets right now.
Dubber You’re absolutely right, that is…
Shain I hope that explained it. We have to take the emotion out of it, and that’s really scary when your back is against the wall, you can’t pay your staff, and your venue’s going to close. And I fear for a lot of my friends and colleagues and people that I love and admire. Sound Diplomacy is not… We, as well, are, like any company, a few months away from frightening times, but so is Ernst & Young and BP.
And then there’s this weird dichotomy that is created between for-profit and non-for-profit which is promulgated by this Americanisation of how we view the arts and culture. And that, in and of itself, is a problem, because it’s ridiculous. We don’t look at BP as for-profit, non-for-profit, yet they… I’m just using them as an example. They are recipients of a huge amount of taxpayer money, let alone any farm in this country.
So we’re not… We’re losing the translation battle, despite, if you add the creative industries up, they’re number three behind… I think it is financial services and oil and gas are one and two. I think creative industries are number three in terms of the value to the economy, if you add them all up together. So I think that if the government steps in and helps stabilise, which I’m still not 100 percent sure they will… But I do believe that when a few very, very large cultural institutions that ministers like to go to close, I think that that may prompt some action. And then maybe there can be a conversation about this new deal for culture in the UK that, like it or not, is aligned with whatever our future is post-Brexit. The long answer, but this is the nerdiness in me.
Dubber And you’re absolutely right. That is the diplomatic way of framing the problem, which is quite nice. Is there anywhere that you can think of that is more aligned? I’m not expecting a utopia anywhere, but where the policy ambitions and the interests of the music sector or creative industries are really well aligned?
Shain Well, Canada is one of the best examples, but Canada… This is what I wrote my PhD on. So there are reasons why Canada is the way Canada is, and those reasons are uniquely Canadian. And they come back to this need to create a construct of Canada. ‘Canada’, what does that even mean? You have to create the meaning, because to some people we’re just little America. To others, we’re little America with some French people over there. But Canadian, from a cultural perspective, given we’re a new country, the creation and support and facilitation of that meaning requires intentional capital investment in creating and sustaining the meaning. So there’s a lot of reasons why Canada invests in culture, and it’s the right thing to do. And because when I say I’m Canadian it means something, that’s because of the culture that we’ve created. So there’s been a lot of stimulus put in there. Not for everyone. Some sectors have been left out.
I think that New Zealand has done a very good job. Oddly, a lot of the countries run by women have done pretty good jobs. Germany, Denmark. It’s such a complex issue, and it comes back to everything that we’re seeing now is based on mistakes we made in the past. COVID didn’t create these issues. COVID didn’t create a widescale depreciation of the value of the freelance or gig worker, or this commodification of music that disassociates the creator from the created, where all we care about is the song, and who cares how it got to us? All of these issues are… And they’re not entirely governmental issues, they’re based on a neoliberal capitalism. And I’m not saying anything is better or worse, but if we value something, if we think something’s important, then we should really dig into how to support it and maximise its importance.
Dubber Sure. But there’s no shortage of bad guys in this story, are there? You’ve got streaming services, you’ve got major record labels, you’ve got landlords, you’ve got politicians. There are lots of people you can blame for things, but is there…? Is it important to bring all those things together? Is the politician the place to make all the changes that can trickle down? How do we fix all this?
Shain How do I know? Yeah, there are a lot of bad guys and girls and people. I don’t think calling them bad guys and girls and people is helping. There are far more… There are some great people in this debate who are far more vocal than me, as I’m sure… I don’t really show up anywhere. I’m not on the news. I don’t get interviewed very much. And that’s deliberate. I’m strategic about that. I believe that there are better voices that are advocating for music venues or advocating for Fair Play or whatever, and I’m supportive of all of them. I think that…
My solution is to have a different conversation about music. That’s my solution, is that we need to change the conversation from prioritising the internal value of music to prioritising the external value of music. If we have this… If we can prove that without music the world would be worse. How would it be worse? In many ways. People would be poorer, there’d be less tourists, health and wellbeing would go down, blah blah blah. If we get it to that base level of “Without music, what are we?” and “With music, what could we be?”, and get away from the… I think the industry has to have the conversation that it’s having about equity, whether it’s through streaming or gender or whatever, and I’m hoping that, and I do believe, change is coming. And I’m supportive of anything that puts artists first, because our industry does not, and I’m open to say that. We don’t.
But I think that a lot of governments do not have the framework to understand this external value in music. We haven’t written it down on a piece of paper and said “This is why you should give a shit.”. Well, we have tried. And we haven’t advocated as one, we advocate in sectors. I think that that could create change, but it requires a mindset shift, and minds are the hardest thing to change.
Also another thing is this recognition that no matter how bad things are, things aren’t that bad. So if you’re an aspiring musician and you live in parts of the DRC right now, that’s bad, but the fact that the way you look or who you choose to be attracted to could impact your ability to pursue a career in music is bad. I think that we do need a whole-scale rethinking of how music can be a solution to problems that have nothing to do with music, and that if we solve those problems or we contribute to the solutions, then, obviously, with our self-interest at heart, who’s going to benefit? And if we don’t do it now then we’re not going to do it. I truly believe that if we can’t elevate the value of music now then we’re never going to. What’s it going to take?
And this is another thing. There’s a lot of opportunities that people are looking at problematically, like this whole idea that local music is now the only live music. And, probably, if we’re looking at the climate emergency, local music’s going to become increasingly important. I see that as a taxable opportunity. If we can increase the value of local music then more people pay tax, and so on and so forth. I don’t see that as a bad thing. I just see that as “Okay, then we have to rethink how we get artists into people’s lives internationally.”, which is being done. And I’m the eternal optimist.
Dubber That’s good to know, because there are reasons not to be. Like, for instance, I saw in a British newspaper recently, there was a poll on “Given that we have all these essential services, which are the least essential jobs?”, and artists…
Shain Oh, yeah. Seven percent music… Because that’s proof in the pudding that we aren’t doing… That we’re really bad at making the argument on this stuff. If people see artists… People do not see artists as inessential. They don’t. Because we’re ubiquitously a part of everyone’s life. And I use the analogy of clean water. Clean water is only important when you don’t have it. I’ve turned on the tap today and not thought anything of it because I’m lucky. I don’t believe that people view it as inessential, I believe that people… I think it’s a cognitive dissonance that is reinforced by the ubiquity of our sector. I think that if it went away then I think that that would change.
But also people see it as something that is… Again, it’s the whole “You should be lucky to be an artist.”, or “You accept a life of poverty if you choose to be an artist.”, and all this bullshit. And it’s up to us, as artists, musicians, and the representatives, to change that. Why should we ask other people to solve our problems?
Dubber From a local perspective, there’s a lot of things that you do. Like you say, you fly around a lot, you turn up at places, you have conversations with people. You can’t be everywhere though. If there is no Shain Shapiro in your neighbourhood, what should you do?
Shain Most important thing is vote. Sorry to say. Most of the people… So there are some other issues that we face. A lot of people see that our issues are focussed on young people, and, yes, that’s a priority, but music is for everybody. But young people are adversely affected, often, by a lack of music and cultural policy. And they tend to be the ones who don’t vote, so government doesn’t care. Especially in local elections, which no one votes for. And especially in the U.S., where they have elections for the stupidest things, like sheriffs and comptrollers and all sorts of things that shouldn’t be elected. But I always think that that’s important.
And this whole dichotomy of us vs. them. Placing the blame on someone else. I think that’s not helpful. Property developers are not the enemy, they’re just trying to solve a problem specific to them, and we’re not providing ourselves out as a solution to their problem. We all benefit from development. We’re all in homes that needed planning permission at one point, that had to be built by somebody, and so on and so forth. So I think that it… Being locally engaged is so important.
So we’re starting a campaign in the next month. We put out this recovery plan last month. It was called the Music Cities Resilience Handbook. And, to be frank, it was just me, scared, just writing about all these things that I wish would happen in places, that I think could happen in places. And the response to the report was overwhelming, more than I thought it ever would be. It was actually a bit of a beta test for me, to be honest. It was “Is Sound Diplomacy relevant or not?”, and “If no one cares about this report then maybe I should go into teaching.”, but thankfully people cared.
And now we’re working on what we’re calling an economic and ecosystem recovery plan. We’ll come up with a fancy acronym for it. And the first thing that we would advocate, regardless of size of city, is to assemble. So every town, city, place should have a music steering group in one way or another, and ideally half of the people on it shouldn’t be music people because the only way to get stuff done locally is to present solutions that are fixable in ways that can be fixed. And music tends not to have a voice because it’s multiple voices. To create local change, you need a local voice. So we’re trialling it in five or six cities right now, creating local music ecosystem recovery plans. Because a lot of things, as well, is…
A lot of it right now is focussed on venues. Which is right, because venues are the most threatened. And I’m hugely supportive of the work that the Music Venue Trust does, and the National Independent Venue Association in the U.S., and others, and Live DMA. But a venue is part of an ecosystem, and the entire ecosystem is threatened.
Here in the UK, they’re now talking about completely eliminating music from the curriculum, because there’s no time, and only focussing on English and math. And you’re just like “Great, so we’re just going to have a whole bunch of analytically brilliant, socially absent people.”. It’s that fundamental lack of understanding. And I do believe that this ecosystem argument has to be the bow that wraps around. Without venues there is not ecosystem, but also without music education there is no ecosystem, or without robust IP protections there is no ecosystem.
Dubber Does the concept of soft power play into this in any particular way? I know you mentioned the identity of being Canadian as being important, but from a political posturing perspective, what sort of card does that play?
Shain Oh, totally. All the time. Most of the time people want to engage because music’s cool. All the boring stuff I talk about about policy, that’s harder. But, yeah, we get countries all the time… Pre-COVID, we probably had five or six cities a month come to us asking us how to be a music city, which is mine and other people’s fault. And it’s great, but just slapping a brand on it does nothing, and a lot of cities have just slapped a brand on it. So we try to encourage the soft power, but say the soft power has to come with hard policy.
Dubber Because I know the UN’s music cities project, there are a lot of cities… I’m from Auckland, which is one of them, and…
Dubber UNESCO, sorry. Of course. So the UNESCO music cities project. But there are cities, like you say, who’ve just slapped the badge on it and don’t seem to be doing anything…
Shain Yeah. Any network is good. I’m a big fan of the UNESCO music cities network. If a city says “I care about music.”, that’s great. And it’s quite a vast network. Some cities have done more than others with it, but you would expect that. But I do fear sometimes that focussing on the brand is cover to not do anything. “We’re a city of music.”, great. And I fear, unintentionally, that because other priorities have taken precedent, be it housing or development or education or crime or whatever, the branding itself is a means to an end.
Dubber Sure. And also, name one that isn’t.
Shain That’s true. A lot of cities say “I want to be Austin.” and “I want to be Nashville.”, and those are unique examples. They both have their own independent stories of how they are the way they are. They’re both wildly successful, but they’re also victims of their own success because they have inequities like any American city. Filled with great, incredible, intelligent people, but also challenges.
A city should not be Austin. A city should be whatever the city should be. Austin is Austin. I admire Austin’s commitment to music. I think every city should be committed to music in their own way. We always say “There’s no competition here. Music is not this thing that if there’s a famous artist over there, it doesn’t mean you can’t create a famous artist over here.”. There is none of that in music. There’s enough to go around. I think I heard that… I had a chat with my friend Will Page, who I guess you know.
Dubber Yeah, Spotify economist.
Shain Economist for Spotify, yeah. One of the people who freaks me out because of how intelligent he is, for me. And I think he said that 130,000 or 140,000 tracks get uploaded every day to Spotify. That’s one DSP.
Shain Jesus. Think about the competition. I see that as… Obviously that’s a challenge, but it doesn’t mean that, if one’s successful, it doesn’t mean that five can’t be, or ten.
Dubber Yeah, I do have difficulty with the concept of there being too much music in the world. That doesn’t make any sense to me at all.
Shain There’s no such thing as too much music. The market will sort that out. The objective is for us to enlarge the market. It’s not to stop anything. I’d be happy if half a million songs were uploaded a day, even if half of them suck. It doesn’t matter. If they mean something to someone then they’re creating self-worth in that person, and that, in and of itself, is a win for me. That’s the thing.
We have to go back to that carnal value that we all miss. It’s that feeling when you’re… When I do my public talks and stuff I use the water analogy a lot, which I’ve already said, the whole clean water thing, but I also say “When you’re at a gig and you’re immersed in a song and you have that moment, you could be standing next to someone who you vehemently disagree with on everything…”. Like I said, my family’s Jewish. I could be standing next to a Nazi, but if we’re both loving that song, it doesn’t matter that that person’s a Nazi and I’m Jewish. I know that’s an extreme example, but that’s…
Dubber It matters a little bit.
Shain But I won’t know in that moment.
Dubber Sure, yeah. Got you.
Shain I’ll just be standing next to someone and we’ll be united by music. That’s what I mean. Of course it matters.
Dubber Yeah, I do understand the point you’re making, of course.
Shain That moment… Yeah. It’s that moment that we dissipate because it happens all the time. And that moment is so important because it’s the product of an ecosystem and a supply chain and a creative process that led to that moment happening. And, yeah, I’ll use a different analogy next time, but it’s, for me…
One of the big successes, so I’ll give you an example, is in Georgia there’s a number of music tax credits for recording and production. They’re not perfect, and I’m not going to get into why a lot of them do not work. But in order to get the first one passed, the music lobby in Georgia took a bunch of policymakers into the studio and recorded a song with them, because the policymakers did not understand what an engineer does or what a producer does, how a soundboard works, all these things that you don’t need to know if you hear the song. They were so amazed by the process that it ignited this additional love of music in them and the tax credit programme was passed. There’s work to be done on it, but it’s that. And all of these policymakers and senators and House of Representatives members love music.
Most people love or at least like music, but when they have the radio on in the car they’re not thinking about how it was recorded. And it’s the same thing at a festival. When you’re immersed in a song you’re not thinking about everything around you. Essentially, you have to build a city to create a festival. A festival is a mini settlement.
So it’s that thing. And if we don’t unpack that, which we’re not doing very well, maybe I need to work harder, we lose the argument to say that if you don’t… You lose that moment if you don’t have everything else attached to that moment. And in some countries like the UK, we may lose that moment in many venues around the country because we haven’t been able to explain everything that goes into that moment to the people that need to listen.
Dubber Is it the case that this is an ebb and flow thing where sometimes it gets worse for music, sometimes it gets better for music? Or is it the case that everything’s suddenly on fire and we’re at the risk of losing everything?
Shain I don’t know. This is an unprecedented challenge, but it’s an unprecedented challenge made worse by the situations that we put ourselves in as an industry. I think that… Especially in live music. Especially in the countries in which you can’t open. And I’m not discounting that. I fear for and have huge respect for my friends going through hell right now trying to save their businesses. We have been through this before in other ways, but I think if we don’t take advantage of this as an opportunity to build back better, or whatever we call it, then we may not have that opportunity again because we’re going to be faced with a climate emergency that… Well, we are already. That is going to categorically change how our business operates anyway.
If we can’t tour or can’t tour very much because it’s just not right to do so, then we have to think about how we connect with people differently. And making music is not that green. Production of vinyl is not that green. I know there’s solutions to that. All this stuff that we need to be thinking of, that lots of people are thinking of, that is going to change our business anyway. So if we can position ourselves now as arbiters of change, and leaders across all industries, then we will benefit greatly because… And the beauty of this, in my head, is that our product’s not going away. There’s no time… People are always going to need what we’re selling.
Dubber And I don’t think you’re ever going to run out of musicians, even if the economic incentive to do that falls out the bottom.
Shain No, I don’t… Well, I think that we’re… There’s a fear that we’re going to lose a generation of professional musicians because of this, but these people will still perform informally. Can’t take that out of someone. But it’s a critical time right now. The next six months are going to be very critical for our business, I feel, collectively.
Dubber Best case scenario, five years from now you’re sitting down there and congratulating yourself on a job well done, how does the world look?
Shain I think every city and town having some engagement with music in one way or another. Local music initiatives having seats at the table when they need to have seats at the table. A healthier, more equitable music industry that’s making more money for more people who don’t look like you and me. Robust IP in every country in the world rather than some countries in the world. Those are the things that I’m hopeful for.
Dubber Those all sound like really sensible things. It’s surprising that it should be such a hard task to convince people of those things.
Shain It is, unfortunately. Sense and action are different. But I am hopeful, or I wouldn’t be doing this. I’d do something else.
Dubber And the music fan kid who was working in record shops and then getting into the industry, pleased with where he’s ended up?
Shain I don’t know. To be honest, a lot of my time in Sound Diplomacy I’m trying to find ways not to work in the music industry because I’ve been doing it for so long, and I share frustrations like everyone who spends 15 years in our business. I think I’m proud that I found something… I have a purpose, and it’s all about purpose for me. I believe what I’m doing is right. I think I’m right. And I believe that I’m honouring my love of music. So, yeah. I guess. And I have a job and I get paid to do it, and I employ people, and they, I think, like their jobs. Who knows? You should ask them. But I’m proud of all that.
And I’m proud that I came to the UK, not knowing anybody, and I’ve created something out of nothing. And I’m most proud of the people I work with. I’m surrounded by the most amazing people who make me look good. I can’t do it without them. And I am, and they get better and better. I find and get to work with even better people as we grow. So that I’m proud of. You’re only as good as who you surround yourself with.
Dubber Fantastic. Shain, thanks so much for your time.
Shain Thanks, Dubber, I appreciate it.
Dubber That’s the very sound and very diplomatic Shain Shapiro, and that’s the MTF Podcast. You can find out more about all the activities of Sound Diplomacy, including an upcoming Sustainable Development Goals & Music Conference with Reeperbahn Festival in just a couple of weeks, at www.sounddiplomacy.com or @SoundDiplomacy on Twitter. The MTF Podcast is out every Friday, or thereabouts, so don’t forget to subscribe if you haven’t already, and you can share, like, rate, and review, of course.
I’m Dubber, you’ll find me @dubber on Twitter. That’s very straightforward. And you’ll now find MTF and everything we’re doing from Music Tech Fest to the International Innovation Labs, policy work, conferences, and much more, that’s all now together @mtflabs on Twitter and www.mtflabs.net online. This episode of the MTF Podcast was edited by Sergio Castillo. The music I so rudely talked all over at the beginning of the show was by Roie Shpigler, and what you can hear in the background now, that’s music by airtone. The MTF audio logo was created by Run Dreamer. You’re going to hear that again in just a second. You stay safe, wherever you are in the world, have a great week, and we’ll talk soon. Cheers.