Wed, 03/30/2016

On March 28, sociology professor Jonathan Wynn led a discussion around the industry of live performance. Wynn's latest book, Music/City: Festivals and Culture in Great American Cities, analyzes three music festivals: the Country Music Festival in Nashville, TN, the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, RI, and South by Southwest in Austin, TX. 

Wynn stumbled upon the study of indie music festivals after being a performer himself, he was the bass player for his girlfriend's band. At a performance in Borlänge, Sweden, at the annual Peace and Love Festival, Wynn started thinking about how pervasive music culture was in a city. “I was really interested into why a city would’ve given up its center for a festival like this. We often think of music festivals like Bonnaroo or Coachella, but those festivals take place in rural, outdoor areas. I wanted to see how music adheres to certain places, and how Metropolitan Statistical Areas foster cultural and commercial industries.” Starting in 2006, Wynn attended all three festivals through ethnographic participant observation (volunteering and performing), attendee surveys, and interviews. He then cross-referenced his research with historical accounts, festival programs, and traditional media sources.  

Wynn’s work falls in the study of cultural policy – the implicit or explicit fostering or exclusion of arts and culture by public institutions. Festivals are an example of cultural policy in action, and are particularly interesting because of their influence on the branding of activity for participants and organizers.

Wynn identified four kinds of resources for urban culture, borrowing from Henri Lefebvre’s theory of the production of space:

  • Economic: how much did people spend on the festival in addition to fees – parking, food, hotels, tourism, etc.?
  • Spatial: Are there physical places, venues, and areas in which the festival can take place? How can local government and commercial business ensure these sorts of buildings continue to exist?
  • Human/Social: How is programming for the festival supporting the local cultural community – musicians, artists, and kids? Wynn gave the example of the Newport Folk Festival, which requires performers as part of a contract to work with local boys and girls clubs.
  • Symbolic/Mental: How can the city use events like festivals for branding as a “signature event”? Nashville calls itself “Music City,” Austin the “Live Music Captial of the World,” and Newport has taken on the moniker “Festival Destination.” Some cities have sports competitions to bring in revenue - these cities use music as part of their brand. 

Wynn argued that cities overproduce “concrete urban culture” - performance art locations like museums. Instead, he suggested that urban areas should start encouraging “liquid urban culture” – these “fleeting moments” like festivals or conventions. “Festivals are small, democratic, and responsive to local places and communities,” said Wynn, “and cities can take advantage of to brand themselves with a signature event.”