How a “Music Audit” Led to Equitable Economic Development in Huntsville, Ala.

Op-ed: The bumpy road to becoming Alabama’s premier music town began with a music audit.

This post was originally published by Shain Shapiro for the Placemaking Postcard series from the Brookings Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking.

Huntsville, Ala. has tremendous musical talent and heritage, but is not as well known as its neighboring towns for craftsmanship. As a mid-tier market between Atlanta, Nashville, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala., Huntsville’s music economy has historically been overlooked, and many investors have been skeptical of the midsize city’s ability to support large-scale investments in music infrastructure, such as outdoor lecture halls or large multi-purpose halls.

In April 2018, the City Council decided to change this misconception by initiating a creative place-making process called a “Music Audit” to help Huntsville become Alabama’s first “Music City.” The city accomplished this feat through a four-year equity and economic development strategy, offering lessons for other markets interested in embracing this creative place-making quest.


A “city of music” is defined as a city that incorporates music as a tool in its philosophy of collective governance through economic development, education, tourism and overall quality of life. Well-known examples include places like Austin, Texas and Nashville, but major cities and such small towns can become musical cities with the right infrastructure and governance mechanisms in place. The economic benefits of becoming a music city are sometimes overlooked, but research indicates that the boom in tourism boosted by the entertainment industry can pay off local job growth and generate positive financial impacts in billions of dollars.

To help cities stimulate this economic, social and cultural growth, my organization, Strong diplomacy, works with managers to conduct “music audits” that comprehensively assess their existing music ecosystem. A music audit involves an in-depth look at the role of music in city services, initiatives and disciplines, including workforce development, quality of life and investment priorities, to understand where strengths and weaknesses lie, and what connections can be improved to leverage music to produce socio-economic benefits for residents.


Huntsville first became interested in the music audit process as part of its talent attraction strategy; the city wanted to encourage larger-scale, mixed-use developments to liven up its downtown and downtown neighborhoods. By the time they approached Sound Diplomacy in 2018, that goal had been in the works for some time – with plans dating back to 2014 reuse the demolished Madison Square Mall in a mixed-use development with a climbing gym, public park and outdoor amphitheater.

In 2017, the city and the private sector approached a multinational venue operator to operate the amphitheater, but Huntsville — as a mid-tier market with a little-known music economy — was not seen as a place that could produce the returns needed to meet the investment required to build and operate such a facility. The city needed to know more about what, if anything, would be best for the residents of Huntsville by accepting such an investment. Instead of moving forward immediately with the amphitheater, the City Council, led by Mayor Tommy Battle, decided to embark on what was at the time the largest listening exercise specific to music. and American culture.


Huntsville’s music audit process began controversially. The first meeting in June 2018 was overcrowded and at times unfriendly. Indeed, music and access to it – whether as an artist, businessperson or consumer – can tell a much deeper story about how communities actually hold together.

A community’s access to music is impacted by education, opportunity, structural racism, redlining, etc. Instruments cost money and many do not have access to them. Some schools prioritize music while others have eliminated it from their curriculum. Some genres receive public investment, while others are viewed with suspicion, overregulated and discriminated against. This was the case in Huntsville, as in most American cities.

To determine what type of amphitheater could best meet such challenges, these inequalities would require some serious unpacking. To this end, Sound Diplomacy conducted 14 months of community engagement, during which more than 2,000 people responded to a survey and more than 100 stakeholders participated in interviews and roundtables. Common issues raised by respondents included the lack of representation of artists in civic discussions and the need to invest in venues of varying sizes so that artists can utilize smaller venues as their careers progress.

In addition to community engagement, we conducted an economic mapping exercise and found that at the time of our analysis, music contributed $139 million to the city’s economy and accounted for 1,471 jobs in more than 150 music-related businesses. We then conducted a regulatory review and found that licensing, authorizations and other municipal functions demonstrated for music businesses were a barrier for members of low-income and minority communities due to an opaque process, excessive costs and bureaucratic complexities.

To address these challenges and develop Huntsville’s economic potential as a music city, we have proposed 47 recommendations for the city to adopt. These included the establishment of a music office as a municipal department; provide free assistance to artists and music professionals; rethink municipal tax incentives; and launch a host of other investments in workforce development and culture. (The full list of recommendations can be found here.)


In 2019, City Council unanimously approved a plan to adopt the recommendations in all five city wards over a five-year period. Since then, the city has implemented a wave of music-related community development projects: it has created a music boardhired a full time music agentand expanded its library musical programs. New locations and studios opened and the downtown concert hall was also renovated.

In 2019, plans for the amphitheater at the former Madison Square Mall site were refined, an operator was confirmed, and just in May, Orion’s amphitheater opened as an 8,000 capacity outdoor amphitheater in Huntsville MidCity district. Its design, operation, and philosophy are community-led, not corporate-controlled. It is managed locally and independently, giving priority to local traders, suppliers and partners. The same weekend it opened, Brooks and Dunn sold out a gig at the renovated restaurant Mars Music Hall downtown, demonstrating the additive nature of music – if the community strategizes to move it forward.

Huntsville is now Alabama’s Fastest Growing Cityovertaking Birmingham in 2021. Last May, he was named The best city in America to live. Its downtown continues to expand and large companies continue to invest. Although its success has not been exclusively influenced by music, Huntsville’s effort to reimagine the role it could play in shaping the community’s identity and economy is undoubtedly an element key to its history.

Shain Shapiro is president of Sound Diplomacy and executive director of the Center for Music Ecosystems.

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