With a full report on the Des Moines music economy complete, the next step is addressing the issues

What do famous American music cities — cities like Nashville, Austin and New Orleans — have in common? Beyond a critical mass of aspiring career musicians, each of these cities also have systems in place to support the interconnected web that makes up a music ecosystem. That’s according to the Des Moines Music Coalition (DMMC) website.

In other words, per the DMMC, this means that music venues can find quality audio engineers who may have access to local colleges or adult education courses in live sound, [that] local musicians who want to release an album can shop around to local record labels, and [that] music entrepreneurs can access affordable workspace and resources to grow their companies.

The Music Economy Assessment & Strategy report, which was commissioned by the DMMC to study the music economy in Central Iowa, was released this past December. The report dives deeply into the mechanics of Des Moines as a “music city,” and details the current state of the area’s music industry. As part of its conclusions, it offers areas of focus as “the most effective, impactful interventions to support a music economy still recovering from the outsize impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Des Moines has a dynamic and established music scene,” Kuuku Saah, board chair of DMMC and member of the Des Moines Music Cities Task Force, said. “This report allows us to see where our gaps are. It helps us to figure out ways to get closer to being a region where you can find music everywhere, everyday. A place you can find music that reflects the diversity and coolness of the city.”

Key findings

This report allows us to see where our gaps are. It helps us to figure out ways to get closer to being a region where you can find music everywhere, everyday.

Kuuku Saah, DMMC board president

Among its positive findings, the report found that the total annual economic output of the Des Moines music economy is $178 million, which is a small, but not insignificant, portion of the greater Des Moines area’s annual GDP ($63 billion as of 2020, according to the Greater Des Moines Partnership). Other key findings from the study included: 1,555 jobs supported by the music ecosystem, over 50 music-related businesses in Des Moines and 1.38% of the city’s total employment in the music industry, which is 0.08% above the national average.

Key weaknesses the report found were disparities in gender and race within the local music community, both in representation and in pay. There were also issues with legislation regarding live music, public transit, and a lack of available space. Sound Diplomacy, the agency that developed the report, provided recommendations to remedy the issues they found in their research, which are considered necessary for Des Moines to grow a music ecosystem similar to the famous American music cities noted above.

“I think of the report as two pieces, and both of them I think are equally important,” DMMC executive president Mickey Davis said. “So number one, kind of more conventionally, there are the recommendations. There’s everything from appointing a music officer in the city of Des Moines to raising awareness of the funding for musicians and music-based businesses that might already be here.

“But, I think the other piece that is equally, if not more important, is the data that came out of that report. Pulling out some of that data, for example, [would be] looking at the fact that even pre-pandemic, our income levels for musicians were hovering around $30,000 a year, and the average income loss due to the pandemic is 50%. And then, the kind of economic disparities based on race and gender that exist within the music ecosystem. Those things I think are so important, for whether it’s event organizers, or the music community or the kind of larger philanthropic community, to really understand and kind of see the position that our nascent kind of music ecosystem is in right now,” Davis said.

Detailed strengths & weaknesses

According to the Music Economy Assessment & Strategy report, strengths of the Des Moines music economy include:

  • The number and inclusivity of artists in the music scene
  • A high availability in venues
  • A large ecosystem of music education
  • A multitude of grants and funding mechanisms
  • The ease of access to special event permits and to politicians
  • Des Moines music assets’ proximity to public transit

It’s also worth noting that 58% of music industry professionals have at least one university diploma, and “the music output per capita equals $832, which is considerably above the national average of $444,” the report said. Polk County also has 21.4% of the total music ecosystem establishments in the state.

Page 13 of DMMC Music Economy Assessment & Strategy report

Des Moines Music Coalition

The “Music Economy Assessment & Strategy” report identified gaps in diversity and income within the Des Moines music scene, as seen on page 13 of the executive summary.

The kind of economic disparities based on race and gender that exist within the music ecosystem […] are so important for […] the music community, or the kind of larger philanthropic community, to really understand and kind of see the position that our nascent kind of music ecosystem is in right now.

Mickey Davis, DMMC executive president

Conversely, the reported weaknesses of the Des Moines music economy include:

  • Inconsistent business practices
  • A lack of educational opportunities for non-performing music professionals
  • A lack of a busking policy (legislation on the legality of unauthorized street performances)
  • Limited noise regulations, with noise exceedance permits usually only being available for special, or single, events
  • The general lack of media coverage of the local music scene
  • Limited public night transport services
  • Struggle to attract suburban audiences
  • A lack of large-capacity venues
  • Not enough practice or rehearsal spaces in the city

Perhaps the biggest challenge in the reported weaknesses is the economic inequities in Des Moines’ music economy. Per the report, “Diversity and income gaps are issues that impact the Des Moines music scene significantly.” Among the findings in this area, 83% of managerial roles in the music industry are comprised of white men. “Disparities are not only evident through an economic analysis, but are also perceived by stakeholders who think that the racial demographics of Des Moines are not represented in the music scene, and who believe that the city does not have enough women-led music groups,” the report said.
The report additionally states that the city is missing an online resource with up-to-date and centralized information on the local music scene. It’s worth noting here that Iowa Public Radio maintains its Iowa Live Music Calendar on its website.

“With this report, we have both the data and recommendations to advocate for a stronger, more diverse music scene while being able to point to the direct economic and cultural impact music has on our community,” Davis said. “We look forward to developing new programs and continuing to produce events like 80/35 to help draw attention to the importance of music in Des Moines.”

Creating the report

The Des Moines Music Cities Task Force is a coalition of representatives from Bravo Greater Des Moines, Hoyt Sherman Place, Iowa Public Radio, Capital Crossroads, the Greater Des Moines Partnership and DMMC. They oversaw the creation and review of the study along with Sound Diplomacy, “a global research and strategy consultancy with expertise in music, the night-time economy, and wider creative industries,” the report said. The project was made possible by a Strategic Collaboration Grant Program from the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, with additional support from the Greater Des Moines Partnership.

The executive summary of the report includes the full list of opportunities and threats to the Des Moines music economy, as well as recommendations and an action plan. The executive summary, full report, and appendices are available on the DMMC website. The Des Moines Music Strategy webpage also features a Des Moines Music Map, mapping over 100 music-related businesses in the Des Moines area.

“Des Moines has a vibrant music scene that requires support to ensure the flow of the products of creatives,” the report said. “The City of Des Moines is leagues ahead of its peers when it comes to maintaining a supportive infrastructure for its music ecosystem. The presence of the Greater Des Moines Music Coalition is a testament to the local music community’s commitment to growing and supporting the industry as a whole.”

As a result of this study, the DMMC has announced plans to implement pilot programs based on the recommendations made by Sound Diplomacy. Details of these programs will be released in 2023.

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