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Why it pays to live near creative people — just not too many

It’s almost required these days for arts boosters to make their pleas in hard-nosed economic terms. So we often hear that art, in fact, equals business. Art is tourism, hotels and restaurant reservations. Art is revenue for concert venues and employment for stagehands, audio engineers and costume designers. Or, defenders claim benefits to the minds of children. Music boosts human capital by increasing language skills. Arts education helps kids pass calculus class.

But a newer, far more interesting argument is the urbanist one. Some say that creative communities — “agglomerations,” in econo-speak — anchor a city and sow the seeds for neighborhood revitalization. This is the situation in Omaha, where the city government used $1.3 million to nourish an indie rock scene, hoping it would make downtown cool, hip and livable.

If this sounds like gentrification, well, that’s often the first part of it. “Artists often are pioneers who lay the groundwork for the next stage of revitalization for distressed neighborhoods,” notes a report from the National Governors Association. This is art not only as a tourism magnet, but as a band-aid over urban blight. Even for established neighborhoods, an argument for sprinkling on some culture is that it makes living there more pleasant — which is to say, property values should go up.

Lessons from 18th-century classical musicians

Clusters of talent have become a hot topic of study as cities attempt to create their own Silicon Valleys or Music Rows. Whether a scene thrives depends on how well it can attract and nurture talent. Karol Jan Borowiecki, an economist at the University of Southern Denmark, makes a point about how creative clusters grow using an unusual data set: the lives and times of classical music composers from hundreds of years ago.

Whatever the spillover benefits to the host city, clusters arise because people in the same industry see an advantage to working and living in proximity. It’s easier to share techniques and become exposed to more diverse ideas. These are the same reasons why classical music composers liked living in the same places, Borowiecki says. Beethoven moved from Bonn to Vienna to study with Haydn; at 21, Chopin packed up for Paris, where he became frenemies with Liszt.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the great music cities were Paris, London and Vienna. People born farther away were more likely to settle somewhere less hot, such as St. Petersburg, Berlin or Budapest. Borowiecki took advantage of that bit of randomness (people can’t choose where they were born) to observe something of a natural experiment that sorted composers into different musical scenes.

Borowiecki found that living in one of the three music capitals led composers to produce one additional great work every three years. (He focused on major composers and major works that had been noted in a music encyclopedia.) That’s a huge increase, because these composers produced only three works every four years on average. While composers lived in one of these superstar cities, “around one third of composers’ output was a result of the positive externalities associated with a cluster,” Borowiecki writes in his paper.

The lure of midsize creative capitals

If this is true, how can a city such as Omaha compete with music heavyweights Nashville, New York or Los Angeles? There actually can be a downside when a creative cluster gets too big, Borowiecki says. Competition for limited resources makes it harder to be productive. In the classical-music world of the 1700s and 1800s, composers jostled for engagements to perform their concerts and ballets. These days, we might imagine similar competition in New York or Los Angeles among bands for gigs, recording studio time and fan attention. There’s a cost to being a small fish in a big pond.

In a separate paper, Borowiecki notes that after about eight major composers were living in the same city, every additional composer made the productivity boost shrink for everybody. This is the cost of crowding. So even though Paris was one of the biggest classical-music clusters, the benefit it offered to a composer’s productivity was about the same as the benefit offered by the much smaller communities in London and Vienna.

That is why it makes pretty good sense for Omaha to invest in its own music scene, and why a scene was growing there organically in the first place. An indie band in Omaha faces less competition than it would in a more cutthroat city such as New York — which balances out the fact that the city has fewer bands and less of a music culture.

Liza Minnelli may have praised the agglomerative benefits of living in New York, but it can be more efficient for people to “make it” somewhere else.