More than 40 years after Motown Records left Detroit, the Metro Detroit music business is a $1.1 billion industry, from live performances at bars and concert halls, to local labels and recording studios.
The huge financial impact of music on southeastern Michigan elevates the region to a much greater extent than music in comparable cities, such as Cleveland and Pittsburgh, according to a study by the Anderson Economic Group, an East Lansing-based consulting firm.
From hip-hop to soul to Kid Rock, techno to Eminem, the cultural and entertainment impact of music on the Detroit area has been felt for decades. Today, it employs more than 7,000 people and pumps $170 million in worker earnings into the local economy, the Anderson study said.
“Detroit’s always been a great music town,” said Dave Feeny, owner of Tempermill Studios in Ferndale. “The high of playing and performing and how it makes you feel ... it’s like a drug. It’s a true emotional release for a lot of musicians.”
Tempermill has helped more than 1,000 bands make records since 1985. Its client list includes notables like Kid Rock and Insane Clown Posse, but the studio has worked with countless lesser-known local musicians, too.
The study didn’t compare Detroit to true music meccas such as New York City or Nashville. Instead, it compared Metro Detroit to cities of similar economic size. Though sizable, the music industry employs far fewer than the automotive or food services industries in the Detroit area.
But when it came to the music-business share of total area employment, Detroit ranked behind only the Twin Cities. The other cities — Pittsburgh, Dallas, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Kansas City — followed.
A number of factors set Detroit apart. There has been the steady appearance of chart-topping, genre-creating, industry-changing artists from the Detroit area over the decades, essentially starting with Motown a half-century ago and continuing with gospel pioneers such as the Winans Family and through rock icons such as Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, Kid Rock and the White Stripes.
More recently, Eminem became the face of Detroit music; there’s a reason he also was the face of Chrysler in the brand’s iconic Super Bowl ad three years ago.
“There’s more major-label music talent out of Detroit than any city in the world,” asserted Howard Hertz, an entertainment lawyer and principal of Hertz Strand in Bloomfield Hills. “If you’re talking about New York or Los Angeles or even Nashville, most stars there are from somewhere else, and are drawn to those cities. A lot of times it’s Philadelphia or Atlanta, which also have vibrant music scenes. But more major artists come out of Detroit than anywhere else.”
There are other factors as well, including the diversity of Detroit’s music scene cited by Anderson, and the widely acknowledged fact that Metro Detroit is one of the best live-concert markets in the United States.
“Detroit has always been one of the best markets for supporting music and live concerts; it’s in our DNA,” said Joe Nieporte, head of Funfest Productions, a Detroit-based concert promoter and organizer of Rockin’ on the Riverfront and other events.
Willy Wilson, director of publicity for the Magic Bag, a concert venue in Ferndale, said Detroit’s music history is so rich because of the diversity.
From the melting pot of sounds from out-of-state musicians who came to work in the auto industry in the 1940s and ’50s, to the raw garage barrage of the White Stripes in the ’90s, Wilson said Detroit’s sound has always been unique.
“One of the things that’s brilliant about the Detroit music scene is that everyone went out and did it their own way,” he said. “We’re a hard people, we don’t want to be told we can’t do something. (The various artists) chopped down the trees and made their own route.”
The Magic Bag has been hosting both big-name bands and local musicians for about 20 years, Wilson said.
“We always had it in mind we wanted to be a venue that’s supportive of the developing artists,” he said. “There’s great showcases for what’s going on in the Detroit scene.”
And why is a vibrant music scene in Detroit’s DNA? Like nearly everything else about the Motor City, some of the reasons stem directly or indirectly from the auto industry. “The strength of someone’s economy is always very past-dependent,” said Alex Rosaen, senior consultant for Anderson.
Or as Hertz believes, “So many people came to Detroit from different places to work at the auto factories, and the kids of those people didn’t want to do that. A lot of them found an outlet in music. And they also had the work ethic that they’d learned from their parents. They’d put in their hours daily working and rehearsing and writing and recording, honing their craft. That’s got a lot to do with why Detroit is so prominent in music and vice versa.”
Yet another factor mentioned by music-industry figures is that Detroiters have embraced their music as an effective form of self-identity over a half-century of perpetual decline in the opinion of the city held by outsiders around the world.
“Detroit is still getting laughed at, with [an ex-mayor] in prison, a city in bankruptcy, a high crime rate,” Nieporte said. “But when you mention music and Detroit in the same sentence, you get a completely different reaction. People know about the musical heritage of the city and that it’s one of the best assets we have going for us.”
Dale Buss is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.
Detroit News Staff Writer Michael Martinez contributed.