Monday, September 17, 2007

Advantage Memphis?

We’re in good company -- the folks at Smart City Memphis read Ed Glaeser, too. Inspired by his musings in “Urban Colossus” about small advantages that grow through agglomeration economies they posted this question of the week: Knowing that small advantages can become huge economic advantage, what should Memphis be keying on?

I look forward to seeing some comments with your ideas. As for me, I think there’s reason to believe that we must have some small advantage in some subcategory of the broad term “music.” Maybe it’s a combination of musical heritage, music industry infrastructure, musically inspiring urban decay (in a good way?), and general affordability. (That would make a great Chamber of Commerce Slogan.) I’m not sure what the exact advantage is, or how Memphis might capitalize on it, but consider this piece about how Portland has become America’s Indie rock Mecca.

Portlander Taylor Clark shares his thoughts on why a growing number of successful musicians who got their start in other places have chosen to settle in the Rose City. Read it if you have the time, but I’ve tried to distill his theories to four mains reasons here:

  1. Indie rockers come to Portland because they want “to live in a place where they could walk like gods among mortals.”
  2. For Indie rockers, Portland is a comfortable place to live. It has “laid-back weirdness,” which, in part means “you can venture into public dressed like a convicted sex offender or a homeless person, and no one looks at you askew.” Other related reason include “the people are nice,” “the food is good,” and “creativity is the highest law.”
  3. “Housing is affordable, especially compared with Seattle or San Francisco.”
  4. Indie rockers love Portland because “the city produces very enthusiastic rock crowds.”

Nothing earth shattering there. Maybe this kind of success needs to happen “organically,” but if it is possible to create it, why not here? Laid back weirdness? Well, we’ve got laid back, and we’ve got weirdness, so why not “laid back weirdness?” Housing is affordable in Portland? No, it’s not. I spent four years there not too long ago. Housing is affordable in Memphis. And we’ve got plenty of mortals for gods to walk among. Better still, here they can walk among mortals along streets that some of their gods walked back in the day. As for the enthusiastic rock crowds, I haven’t been in a real rock crowd since my daughter was born 4 years ago, but I’d imagine Memphis could muster up a mosh pit with the best of them, right?

Going back to my earlier point about the musical inspiration of life in a gritty city, consider this comment on Taylor piece by Slate reader “Anse”:

“I remember Tom Waits once said the reason he preferred to stay in cheap hotels when he was on tour wasn't just because he could save money; lower-class neighborhoods had more stories. Luxury was an obstacle to getting to the root of things.”

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