The Rise of the Creative Class
(The "creative class," as Richard Florida defines it, is a new social grouping, made up of people from various occupations -- including scientists, engineers, architects, educators, writers, artists, and entertainers -- whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and new art. These people, Florida thinks, are the cutting edge of modern life, the people setting current standards, and even the people most responsible for economic growth. They most definitely are not the classical music audience! But could they be the classical music audience of the future? How would classical music have to change if we want to attract them? For more about what Richard Florida thinks the creative class is, go here.)
The Hegemony of the Street
For more than a century, the mark of a cultured city in the United States has been to have a major art museum plus an "SOB"—the high-art triumvirate of a symphony orchestra, an opera company and a ballet company. In many cities recently, museums and the SOB have fallen on hard times. Attendance figures have declined and audiences are aging: too many gray heads, not enough purple ones. Consultants have descended to identify the problems and offer solutions. One problem is static repertoire. In a museum, for instance, the permanent collection is, well, permanent: It just hangs there. A typical solution is more packaged traveling exhibits, preferably interactive multimedia exhibits, with lots of bells and whistles. In the SOB, not a lot of new symphonies and operas are being written and fewer are performed, because staging them is expensive. One solution is to augment the experience. It’s not just a night at the symphony; now it’s Singles Night at the Symphony. At other times, orchestras bring in offbeat guest performers—a jazz or pop soloist, or a comedian for the kids. Or musicians are sent out to play in exotic locales—the symphony in the park, a chamber group at an art gallery, the symphony playing the 1812 Overture at the Fourth of July fireworks. All this is reminiscent of the efforts of oldline churches to fill seats by augmenting the experience—how about a guitar and drumset with the organ?—or the efforts of many professional sports teams, with their mascots and exploding scoreboards.
Meanwhile, the Creative Class is drawn to more organic and indigenous street-level culture. This form is typically found not in large venues like New York’s Lincoln Center or in designated "cultural districts" like the Washington, D.C., museum district, but in multiuse urban neighborhoods. The neighborhood can be upscale like D.C.’s Georgetown or Boston’s Back Bay, or reviving—downscale like DC’s Adams-Morgan, New York’s East Village, or Pittsburgh’s South Side. Either way, it grows organically from its surroundings, and a sizable number of the creators and patrons of the culture live close by. This is what makes it "indigenous "
Much of it is native and of-the-moment, rather than art imported from another century for audiences imported from the suburbs. Certainly people may come from outside the neighborhood to partake of the culture, and certainly they will find things that are foreign in origin or influence, such as German films or Senegalese music. But they come with a sense that they are entering a cultural community, not just attending an event. I think this is a key part of the form’s creative appeal. You may not paint, write or play music, yet if you are at an art-show opening or in a nightspot where you can mingle and talk with artists and aficionados, you might be more creatively stimulated than if you merely walked into a museum or concert hall, were handed a program, and proceeded to spectate. The people in my focus groups and interviews say they like street-level culture partly because it gives them a chance to experience the creators along with their creations.
The culture is "street-level" because it tends to cluster along certain streets lined with a multitude of small venues. These may include coffee shops, restaurants and bars, some of which offer performance or exhibits along with the food and drink; art galleries; bookstores and other stores; small to mid-sized theaters for film or live performance or both; and various hybrid spices—like a bookstore/tearoom/little theater or gallery/studio/live music space—often in storefronts or old buildings converted from other purposes. The scene may spill out onto the sidewalks, with dining tables, musicians, vendors, panhandlers, performers and plenty of passersby at all hours of the day and night. Ben Malbon provides a vivid description of the late-night street scene in London’s Soho drawn directly from his research diary:
We stumble out of the club at around 3-ish—Soho is packed with people, crowding pavements and roads, looking and laughing—everyone appears happy. Some are in groups, bustling their way along noisily—others are alone, silent and walking purposefully on their way.... Cars crawl down narrow streets which are already impossibly full of cars, Vespas, people, thronging crowds. This wasn’t "late night" for Soho—the night had hardly started.
It is not just a scene but many: a music scene, an art scene, a film scene, outdoor recreation scene, nightlife scene, and so on—all reinforcing one another. I have visited such places in cities across the United States, and they are invariably full of Creative Class people. My interview subjects tell me that this kind of "scene of scenes" provides another set of visual and aural cues they look for in a place to live and work. Many of them also visit the big-ticket, high-art cultural venues, at least occasionally, as well as consuming mass-market culture like Hollywood movies and rock or pop concerts. But for them, street-level culture is a must.
Consider just the practical reasons for this. Big-ticket, high-art events are strictly scheduled, often only on certain nights of the week, whereas the street-level scene is fluid and ongoing. As a large number of my interview subjects have told me, this is a big benefit for creative types who may work late and not be free until 9 or 10 P.M., or work through the weekend and want to go out Monday night. Moreover, creative workers with busy schedules want to use their cultural time "efficiently." Attending a large-venue event, be it a symphony concert or a professional basketball game, is a single, one-dimensional experience that consumes a lot of recreational resources: It is expensive and takes a big chunk of time. Visiting a streetlevel scene puts you in the middle of a smorgasbord; you can easily do several things in one excursion. The street scene also allows you to modulate the level and intensity of your experience. You can do active, high-energy things—immerse yourself in the bustle of the sidewalks or head into an energized club and dance until dawn—or find a quiet cozy spot to listen to jazz while sipping a brandy, or a coffee shop for some espresso, or retreat into a bookstore where it is quiet.
Everything Interesting Happens at the Margins
Consider, too, the nature of the offerings in the street-level smorgasbord. In culture as in business, the most radical and interesting stuff starts in garages and small rooms. And lots of this creativity stays in small rooms. Aside from Garrison Keillor and Spalding Gray, for instance, not many serious monologue artists have hit it big in the United States; you’ve got to go to the street-level venues to find them. These venues in Austin, Seattle and other cities offer a dense spectrum of musical genres from blues, R&B, country, rockabilly, world music and their various hybrids to newer forms of electronic music, from techno and deep house to trance and drum and bass. Nor is everything new. The street-level scene is often the best place to find seldom-performed or little-known works of the past. Recent offerings in Pittsburgh alone have included a small theater company staging Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s eighteenth-century play The Rivals; a gallery specializing in historic photography; a local jazz-rock group performing old American political songs such as "For Jefferson and Liberty" and "The Farmer Is the Man Who Feeds Us All"; and a street musician who plays violin pieces you won’t hear on the classical radio programs that endlessly recycle the equivalent of the symphonic "Top Forty."
The street scene is eclectic. This is another part of its appeal. Consider that eclecticism is also a strong theme within many of today’s art forms. Think of DJs in Harlem nightclubs of the 1970s who started the technique known as "sampling"—frenetically mixing snatches of music from different records, on different turntables, for the crowd to dance to. Think of the proliferation of hyphenated music genres like Afro-Celt. Think of Warhol, Rauschenberg and a host of visual artists after them appropriating images from news photos, comic strips, food packages, wherever. Eclectic scavenging for creativity is not new. Picasso borrowed from African art as well as Greco-Roman classical forms; rock and roll pioneers melded blues and R&B; and one could argue that the literary DJ who really pioneered sampling was T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land, a poem built largely by stringing together, and playing upon, quotations and allusions from all corners of the world’s literature. Today, however, eclecticism is rampant and spreading to a degree that seems unprecedented. It is a key element of street-level culture—and eclectic taste is a social marker that can usually be counted on to distinguish a Creative Class person. Eclecticism in the form of cultural intermixing, when done right, can be a powerful creative stimulus.
Furthermore, street-level culture involves more than taking in staged performances and looking at art. It is social and interactive. One can meet people, hang out and talk, or just sit back to watch tonight’s episodes of the human comedy. To many the social milieu is indeed the street’s main attraction. If that sounds a bit vapid and superficial, sometimes it is. This is not high art; it admits amateurs. Hanging in a sidewalk cafe does not deliver the exquisite and carefully crafted artistic intensity of Beethoven’s Ninth. It is also true that for some people, hitting the street-level cultural scene devolves into little more than cruising the singles scene. And even when experiencing culture is truly the goal, if hanging out in nightspots frequented by artists and aficionados is how you choose to pick up your creative stimulation, you are going to pick up a lot of chaff along with it. You run the risk of becoming chaff yourself: a dilettante, a poseur, a gallery gadfly, a coffee-shop talker.
At the same time, let’s not be too quick to belittle the social aspect of the street. Conversation, to begin with, is a valid art form. Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde are quoted more from their repartee than from their writing. Few people today read what Samuel Johnson wrote, but many have read Boswell’s Life for its accounts of Dr. Johnson shooting the breeze with Oliver Goldsmith and Joshua Reynolds. All Socrates did was talk. I am not suggesting that you can routinely hear Socratic wisdom in a bar in Adams-Morgan at two o’clock in the morning. But though it may not produce deathless epigrams reliably, good conversation has creative possibilities. In my own work I often learn a great deal from talking with people in coffee shops and other such venues. I pick up observations and anecdotes from people who feel free to ramble. I listen to their ideas about work, leisure and community and this stimulates my own thinking. The creative faculties are fed by meeting and talking informally, by chance, with a diverse range of creative-minded others.
Just people-watching is arguably a valid form of cultural exchange. It is certainly one of my favorites, and as Andy Warhol noted, he didn’t go to restaurants only to eat. Take the experience of strolling through a good street scene in, say, New York, or the city of your choice. The first thing that strikes you is the sheer visual variety of the people. Many ethnic groups are present, of course, in various ages, conditions and sizes, and this alone is thought-provoking. You may find yourself drawn to meditate on the history of our species—the many so-called races of humans, and how they came to grow apart as they spread across the globe, and how they endlessly intermix. You may find yourself meditating on your own history—how you were once as young as that one, and may someday be as old as that one, and are liable to look like that one if you don’t mend your wicked ways. And then, if it is a proper street scene, there will be many people of exotic appearance: foreigners in long skirts and bright robes; young Americans with hair in colors and configurations that bend the laws of physics, at least Newtonian physics; people dressed as cowboys, Goths, Victorians, hippies—you get the picture. And for many people, the experience of this picture is exhilarating, liberating. It is similar to the thrill of a costume party, when people literally put on new identities—including masks that obliterate or alter the social "masks" they normally wear—and there is a delicious sense of adventure in the air. One has an awareness of the possibilities of life.
I would further argue, following Rogers and others, that this kind of experience is essential to the creative process. We humans are not godlike; we cannot create out of nothing. Creativity for us is an act of synthesis, and in order to create and synthesize, we need stimuli—bits and pieces to put together in new and unfamiliar ways, existing frameworks to deconstruct and transcend. I also feel it is inherent to the creative mindset to want to maximize choices and options, to always be looking for new ones, because in the game that Einstein called combinatory play, this increases your chances of coming up with novel combinations. And as more people earn their keep by creating, the more these aspects of experience are likely to be highly valued and just plain necessary.
Pitfalls of the Experiential World
There is much that seems good about living a quest for experience. It seems an energetic and productive way to live. It can even be a more humane and benevolent way to live. The emphasis on active, participatory recreation seems healthy physically and psychologically, as well as more satisfying than the thin diet of the TV junkie. Done properly it should lead to good experiences all around. So where exactly does the insidiousness come in?
First with the fact that the packaging and selling of experience is often perceived to be—and often is—inauthentic. As Tom Frank and others have noted, the commercialization of experience can empty it of its original creative content. Retailers from Banana Republic to Prada do this with clothes. They try to create brand recognition around experience, and in doing so sell you experience as brand: just wearing the clothes supposedly makes you cool and with-it. Or, to paraphrase what numerous Creative Class people have told me in my interviews: "You can’t just enjoy a ballgame; you have to go to a ‘state-of-the-art’ $500 million stadium for a multimedia circus that distracts you from the very game you paid to see." Many Creative Class people are acutely aware of this pitfall. They thus tend to shun the heavily packaged commercial venues that they call "generica"—the chain restaurants and nightclubs, the stadiums with bells and whistles, and the like—or they patronize them with a conscious note of irony, as in the obligatory trip to a business conference in Las Vegas. They prefer more authentic, indigenous or organic venues that offer a wide range of options and where they can have a hand in creating the options.
Finding such venues can be an ongoing struggle, because generica has a way of creeping in everywhere. One of the last areas of social life where a modicum of authenticity can be found is the music scene. But today music clubs that used to be dynamic, street-level places to enjoy "real" music are being replaced by late-night versions of those multimedia circuses. Not only do you immerse yourself in booming music, but you get digital lighting, smoke machines, water sprinklers activated in concert with peaks in the music—everything you need to be hot and cool. Some such clubs have even become chains. What began as an organic development from the street has become a Disneyland facsimile of itself—safe, secure and predictable—trafficking not in a series of unique experiences of different styles of music and performance, but in the same generic experience night after night. There are deeper concerns as well. In his book Clubbing, Malbon focuses on the elaborate society that clubbers have woven for themselves. The book is a highly detailed study of the young people who frequent the club scene in Britain. (Malbon admits that he spent "150 nights out" researching the book, and as he puts it, "many of these were the best nights out I have had.") He notes that:
Clubbers distinguish themselves from others through their tastes in clothing, music, dancing techniques, clubbing genre and so on.... These tastes are trained and refined and constantly monitored not only in order to distinguish oneself from another, but also in identifying with those that share one’s distinctive styles and preferences."
In all of these ways they are, he says, constructing identities. Not to be too judgmental here: I did some of these things myself once upon a time and I still occasionally visit music venues and clubs. But one could well say that Malbon’s clubbers sound like little more than trendy sheep. If the goal is to construct an identity or discover an identity, there are other, better ways to do it.
Marketplace attempts to satisfy the craving for experience can turn weirdly self-contradictory in many ways. The "fantasy kitchen" is a useful example. The showpiece of my eclectically decorated home is a kitchen full of everything a professional chef needs to make a meal—seldom used, of course. I sometimes refer to the stainless-steel All-Clad cookware hanging from a rack in my kitchen as my "giant charm bracelet." Kara Swisher, the Wall Street journal columnist, wrote a column chronicling the renovation of her San Francisco home. Tallying the thousands of dollars she spent outfitting her fantasy kitchen, she concluded that she spent the equivalent of "about 1,000 takeout meals or at least 600 outings at pretty good restaurants." The point is these are no longer appliances and cookware in the traditional utilitarian sense. They are part of the food experience. They are there to provide experiences—the visual experience of looking at them, the status experience of owning them, and the experience of cooking "like a professional" on those infrequent occasions when we actually do use them to whip up a dinner that mixes Pan-Asian, Italian and home-grown influences. A new experiential service, "Impromptu Gourmet," has taken the food experience to a new extreme. It allows you to purchase the ingredients for a meal from a roster of America’s leading chefs. When the ingredients arrive in the mail, you can then have the experience of "cooking" this designer meal in your very own kitchen.
In short, if we crave experiences we will be sold experiences, and in the process we may find ourselves buying a bill of goods. The final pitfall is that even in the attempt to avoid packaged-and-sold experiences, we may pack our lives so full that we overdo it. While we scorn the couch potatoes hooked on TV, the desire for constant stimulation and experiences can it self come close to looking like addiction. But no way of life is perfect, and the trend is inexorable. The experiential life is more than a pastiche of recreational fads and marketing gimmicks. As I’ve shown, it is a product of the rising creative ethos—which, as the next chapter will argue, is born from a deep new cultural fusion.
Places are also valued for authenticity and uniqueness, as I have heard many times in my studies. Authenticity comes from several aspects of a community—historic buildings, established neighborhoods, a unique music scene or specific cultural attributes. It comes from the mix—from urban grit alongside renovated buildings, from the commingling of young and old, long-time neighborhood characters and yuppies, fashion models and "bag ladies."
People in my interviews and focus groups often define "authenticity" as the opposite of generic. They equate authentic with being "real," as in a place that has real buildings, real people, real history. An authentic place also offers unique and original experiences. Thus a place full of chain stores, chain restaurants and nightclubs is not authentic: Not only do these venues look pretty much the same everywhere, they offer the same experience you could have anywhere. One of my Creative Class subjects, emphasizing the way people are attracted to the authenticity and uniqueness of a city, used the two terms together as a combined phrase.
I’m thinking in particular of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. Here was a free concert that drew a million people the first year…and featured a stellar lineup of Detroit and some national performers and DJs, a great boon to the city and its image. This year, they…start to drop Detroit artists in favor of more well-known national acts. So more people come, but the event is losing much of the uniqueness/authenticity that makes people want to come to this event from around the world.
Music is a key part of what makes a place authentic, in effect providing a sound or "audio identity." Audio identity refers to the identifiable musical genre or sound associated with local bands, clubs and so on that make up a city’s music scene: blues in Chicago, Motown in Detroit, grunge in Seattle, Austin’s Sixth Street. This is what many people know about these cities and the terms in which they think of them; it is also the way these cities promote themselves.
Music in fact plays a central role in the creation of identity and the formation of real communities. Sounds, songs and musical memories are some of the strongest and most easily evoked. You can often remember events in your life by what songs were playing at the time. Simon Frith writes that music "provides us with an intensely subjective sense of being sociable. It both articulates and offers the immediate experience of collective identity. Music regularly soundtracks our search for ourselves and for spaces in which we can feel at home."
In fact, it is hard to think of a major high-tech region that doesn’t have a distinct audio identity. In addition to Seattle and Austin, consider the San Francisco Bay Area. It was home to perhaps the most creative music scene of the 1960s with the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Mamas and the Papas, Haight-Ashbury and the seminal Monterey Pop Festival. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, at the heart of the Research Triangle, was recently named as having one of the best local music scenes in the country. Technology and the music scene go together because together they reflect a place that is open to new ideas, new people and creativity. And it is for this reason that frequently I like to tell city leaders that finding ways to help support a local music scene can be just as important as investing in hightech business and far more effective than building a downtown mall.
Other kinds of "soundtracks" are important besides music. As Creative Class people like to say, an authentic place has a distinct "buzz." The sociologists Lloyd and Clark write of a sculptor who told them, "I came to Chicago because that was where the conversation was." This kind of soundtrack cannot be dubbed into a place. It is played and sustained by the creative people who live there—who choose to live there.