In terms of being celebrated for something, there are cities that have robust film cultures, there are those who have experimental visual art, others have cheese and most have serious pollution problems. However, there are a select few cities which can consider themselves ‘music cities’- a term that is multidimensional in its consideration of policy, culture and artistic facets. The aim of the ‘Music Cities Convention’, a yearly international affair, is to highlight and discuss cities which can and may fall under this bracket. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before the event came to Melbourne, a city which is celebrated for it’s vast amount of live music and contemporary output. Despite being the ‘busiest and most content heavy event held yet’ for this program, it was professionally delivered by the casual and quietly excited Shain Shapiro. From the convention three themes emerged; the importance of learning from a city’s history, how to work in and around policy and the need to understand the spatial implications of city life. The ideas presented here warrant further attention in contemporary discourse on Melbourne music.

From the outset it was clear that the focus on history wasn’t merely an everyday cliche used to create the illusion of retrospection, it was a model to initiate progress. The initial welcome to country wasn’t an empty platitude, with a clear understanding set out about the importance of growing up with a community and supporting the platforming of underrepresented voices. It was a beautiful start which sought to present these new ideas in a fresh and spiritual light.

From there we learnt the story of SLAM (Save Live Australian Music) presented by Helen Marcon, a tale of how the much celebrated venue The Tote came under threat due to the ‘high-risk conditions’ tag being labelled on most live venues which served alcohol and had music. This was presented with a nostalgic yet heartfelt glimmer as Helen ran us through the process of protest and how these issues were debated in a public and government forum. Throughout, we learnt how Helen used these experiences of political influence to gain a ‘seat at the table’ and launch a program which shined a light on sexual assaults at live venues. Helen’s message is one of composure, patience and being open to avenues for help. The history of SLAM also carries with it a reassuring idealism about how government will and can listen to the people if they are well organised, an encouraging message for current protesters against Sydney’s lockout laws.

The importance of activism in cities was a commonly referenced ideal throughout many of the discussions of the day, including the various panels and roundtables. If not to influence change, it appears that many of the speakers agreed that protests can influence the cultural discourse on issues. When a city’s cultural identity incorporates music as Melbourne does, activism becomes linked with how we engage with it, and it’s important to consider the implications of this and how we can learn these historical messages.

Another important historical lesson was brought to the forefront by Melbourne’s celebrated Archie Roach, who talked about his start in the music industry, the meeting of music legends and how he progressed things with various bands. What was emphasised in these stories was a focus on how people can work together from a community and expand their own voice to include the diversity of the city. From here we began to be enlightened about how Archie’s example can be learnt from and how we can continue to champion voices which shed some light on why exactly we should care about this whole art thing.

A big part of the conference was the interaction with and discussion of music policy. The problem that seemed to be presented was that there is a recognisable tension between a) music policy being a governing force that provides musicians with a platform to not only be heard and gather an audience but also provide a means to live and b) music policies being an inhibiting barrier which makes musicians buy into systems which would strip them of their creativity and enforce strict regulations on them without much opportunity to progress as artists. So it becomes fitting to negotiate this tension by providing an avenue where artists, agencies and policy makers can come together to take on these issues in collaboration.

Here is where the convention introduced a new segment. The “My Music Cities” sessions where experts all over the world told the story of how their city is one which cares about the production and propagation of a music culture.

From Harare, Zimbabwe we had Faral Monro gave us the example of how his company Magamba Network’worked to produce the Zoko Music and Arts Festival in his city. The aim of the festival was to provide a mode for free expression, celebration of truth and individual power. In his presentation he emphasised the importance of not only working with government, but understanding the laws in place, to the point where the Magamba Network could exploit loopholes that help cut down the red tape which creates barriers that would prevent a festival like Zoko existing. Whilst Faral’s story is one of success in the face of the government, he recognises the necessity of working with policy makers to push for and create a music policy for the city of Harare as the next step in sustaining Zoko.

Representing the city of Chengdu, China we had Gary Zheng, managing director of the Chengdu Musical Fun District Business Management. This presentation allowed us an informative glimpse into the workings of a city which has devoted a significant amount of resources to creating a music city in an almost utopian capacity. Here Chengdu boasts a strong economic growth plan for music creation and support as it’s a city which literally built modes of transport and routes around their concert hall. Here, what Gary proposes is a tiered plan to organise music on all levels, from government, venues, educators, labels and musicians themselves. One clear point from Gary’s presentation is that Chengdu is the vision of a city which actively cares about music on many levels.

Coming from Fort Collins, USA we had Jesse Elliott director of The Music District who represents an example of policy in practice. Here Jesse stresses the point of recognising ones past and understanding the context of Fort Collins. This context, gathering from Jesse’s presentation, is that experimental programs and community initiatives are the roots of this city, whilst the government provides the access and connections to keep these things going. He emphasises the slow nature of this communicative process, yet also highlights how it’s best conceived as such by people with genuine care for the music industry and the place. A really wholesome and invigorating presentation of how all aspects of a community can be considered in the creation of a music policy.

The understanding of the music city space emerges as a priority for much of the day and in the case of Melbourne it seems we have quite the mixed bag of opinions on what Melbourne as a music city might actually mean. Here, more negotiation is needed in areas of diversity in terms of representation, both on the stage and in technical positions. Additionally, it seems that definitions of what ‘live music’ can be expanded upon in this context, with Melbourne boasting many underground scenes right now that do not fit into the mould traditionally associated with Australian music scene. A brilliant point was also brought up by the second panel which involved discussions of the Australian tourist economy about how Melbourne’s capacity as a 24/7 city needs to be realised. Following this, another way we could challenge ideas of live music is to stop preventing people under the age of 18 access to venues, a problem which needs to be compared against the liquor licensing and venue laws. Through such conversations, we came to see how Melbourne is considered a music city purely based on its flourishing scene, yet more can be done to encourage and support musicians.

All in all this convention mediated a cultural understanding of how Melbourne can define itself as a space where music ideas are celebrated and shared. Whilst Melbourne as a city lacks systemic organisation and acknowledgments of the outer suburbs, there is a lot that our city is doing to make itself the next big thing to watch out for. The fact that people are getting together and having conversations in a really healthy and formal way is nothing short of a good sign and bodes well for the future of Melbourne’s music scene.