If ever there were any doubts about the crucial role that music plays in our lives, Covid-19 has squashed them flat. 

We’ve been unable to congregate and experience live music as we once did, but the music has kept on playing. From cellists and sopranos entertaining neighbours on Italian balconies, to the proliferation of online choirs, live streaming and TikTok memes, the social and cultural importance of music is as resonant as it's ever been. 

Building on a recent event, the latest U+I Think newsletter explores the way that music is deployed in the built environment. We consider recent success stories. We discover what forward thinkers are planning. And we see how creative sound-making could be added to inventive place-making to Build Back Better in our post-pandemic future. 

When the UK went into lockdown last year, music venues were among the first spaces to close. And they will be among the last to reopen this summer, as the shackles of COVID-19 are gradually lifted. 

Yet these months of hibernation have highlighted the value that music has on our lives. Live music may have temporarily stopped, but the buildings that housed sweaty gigs and club sessions remain, eagerly awaiting a safe reopening. New infrastructure is being planned across the UK: arenas in Bristol, Manchester and Cardiff, as well as smaller venues, such as the redevelopment of The Standard in North London. At the same time, the growth in new technologies that bring fans and artists closer together, is changing the demands for space and how we use it to create impactful, meaningful experiences. 

The future of how music interacts with, and is best deployed, in the built environment is at a crossroads, presenting a unique opportunity in a post-pandemic world. How we design space - outdoors and in - and how we use music will be a powerful tool in changing our cities, towns and places for the better. This can only happen if we act deliberately, and carefully plan for the future of music in real estate.

Changing regulations

One area of the built environment has already been categorically transformed over the past year – public and privately-owned outdoor spaces. With the COVID-19 transmission rate significantly reduced in outdoor settings, cities around the world have scrambled to reform often outdated and cumbersome permitting and regulatory frameworks, to allow for outdoor dining, the widening of public space and car-free, low traffic neighbourhoods. New York City, for example, reformed its public assembly permitting process to allow more pavements to be converted into restaurant patios, an impossible task before the pandemic. 

But this is only the beginning; what if we took the ideas that impact our landscape and applied them as rigorously to our soundscapes as well? I say this because COVID-19 is a case study ion the importance of music and culture to our lives. We have all turned to culture at one point or another, be it streaming Netflix or listening to Spotify. Music consumption increased 8.2% last year in the UK alone.

Room for music

As we emerge from the latest lockdown and while vaccination programmes increase, there will be a growing desire to congregate and host events. Music will feature heavily at most of them. But the regulatory framework needed to incorporate music - especially music and alcohol - remains overburdened and expensive. Licensing frameworks prioritise harm reduction and often overlook music’s role in promoting culture. New public spaces are still not designed to accommodate sound.

What if we implanted noise-limiting speakers into pavements to allow street performers to plug in, or created sunken stages so stairs can be transformed into mini amphitheatres or bandstands? This is an opportunity to reimagine our public spaces so that music, in all its forms and functions, provides the same level of comfort and community as it did when we were locked down. What are we waiting for? 

Shain Shapiro PhD is the Founder and Group CEO of Sound Diplomacy. He is also Executive Director of the not-for-profit Center for Music Ecosystems, which works with the UN and intergovernmental agencies on music policy and research. 

When I was growing up in the 1990s, most people took a pretty siloed view about how various industries functioned and interacted with one another. It was science in one corner, culture in another. Finance downstairs and real estate somewhere else. No-one had mandated it as such: the division was a natural reflection of the tribes and personalities that drove such industries and attracted fresh recruits. 

The Internet was born but its potential had yet to be recognised, and new ideas around community, home-life, work-life, third-space and place-making were struggling to take hold. 

I remember it was only in the 2000s when we saw the introduction of what became one of those dreaded, zeitgeist words, ‘synergy’. 

‘Co-dependent’, ‘integrated’, ‘collaborative’, ‘cross-platform synergistic relationships’ became the new North Star, as the internet enabled this tidal wave of alternative approaches and strategies via rea-time conversation with relative strangers. ‘Synergy’ was toppled at some point in the 2010s with an even more overused word - ‘authentic’. As if this explosion of new thought-exchange and idea-adoption needed an internal calibration or moderator, authenticity ensured the connections were rooted in something and so the story checked out.

Basic instinct

There’s nothing wrong with things being authentically synergistic, it’s the fact that we forget that these concepts are not thought leadership touch points but rather basic human instincts. Exchanging ideas and learning from one another is core to being a human. It’s no more or less profound than that. 

We’ve seen a lot of basic instinct progression over recent years, both in our industry and in society more broadly. When I first started making music professionally, I remember thinking how exciting it was to be emerging post-Napster and at the dawn of social media, when we could not only access music at any time and from anywhere, but also easily share what we were listening to with friends and loved ones. These developments inspired a generation of artists and culture-makers more broadly, who could share whatever they pleased, however they wanted, as the route to the market became as simple as an upload to a software platform. 

There have been similar trends in other parts of society. In 1999, Jamie Oliver’s ‘The Naked Chef’ first aired on television. Just think about the way food and beverage industry has changed since then. That same year, Amazon expanded from an online bookstore into a multi-platform online marketplace, revolutionising the retail sector and consumer habits more broadly in the intervening years. Education has been blown open too, with different curricula and qualifications transferred seamlessly between countries. I completed my higher education, for example, in the International Baccalaureate system, which wasn’t even an option for people that were five years older than me in the UK. 

Time to connect

Then there’s property. As much of the rest of the world has gone through a metamorphosis of sorts, developers have been trailing behind. Now, many are eager to change. Multi-decade assumptions around suburbia, malls and a one-size-fits-all nuclear family roadmap have been almost totally discarded, as cities, towns and villages have begun trying to anticipate the needs of their constituents, rather than imposing outdated notions upon them.

Where does this leave us, when it comes to music and the public realm?

Humans, it seems, are more connected than ever, and simultaneously hungrier than ever for connection. Venues, and not exclusively music venues but also hubs of activity for culture, thought exchange and social interaction, are a critical way of grounding all this cross-platform integration with authenticity. At Venue Group, we believe spaces that can transport a simple melody may be the single greatest ingredient to healing or building any community or development project, as there is little in this world that moves people as much as music does. In a time of so much information and ‘noise’, it is perhaps ironic to think of the comfort that the venues on our doorsteps provide and how they keep us sane.

Ben Lovett is the Founder and CEO of Venue Group, which operates music venues in London, Austin, New York City and Huntsville, Alabama. He is also a musician, songwriter and performer in the multi-platinum band, Mumford and Sons. 

Over the last 25 years, cities from all over the world have shown how live-entertainment arenas catalyse waves of regeneration and growth that extend far beyond the entertainment industry itself. Take Los Angeles. Before the Staples Center opened in 1999, Downtown LA was best known for its deprived underbelly, epitomised by the ‘Skid Row’ moniker. The new arena has brought 200 events and millions of annual visitors to the heart of the city. More than that, the arena has transformed living and working habits in and around the entertainment district, changing perceptions and creating a new sense of place. 

The Center has spurred the development of further projects, including the adjacent $2.5bn entertainment district - L.A. Live - and four major new hotels. Overall, in just two decades, the Staples Center generated an estimated $32bn of additional economic impact in LA. 

New neighbourhoods

London’s O2 and Berlin’s Mercedes-Benz Arena can tell similar stories. Both these venues, outside their respective city’s traditional cultural and economic centres, have created new leisure destinations and catalysed growth in the surrounding areas. 

At the O2, for example, over two million tickets were sold in 2018 for more than 200 shows, highlighting the footfall that a new arena can bring to previously undeveloped places. The Greenwich Peninsula is now a neighbourhood with an arena in it, not an arena in search of a neighbourhood. We believe that this remains unchanged since the pandemic erupted. If anything, the area has become more resilient. 

Arenas may be shuttered for live music, but the communities that have sprung up since they first opened are as robust and alive as ever. The nature and scale of arena developments mean they require major investments, while venues obtain contractually obligated income from sponsors and premium hospitality, which engenders confidence in the local economy. 

Talking about regeneration

That confidence has not waned, despite successive lockdowns. In 2020, we announced a partnership with The Cooperative Group to launch Manchester’s Co-op Live, a new 23,500-capacity arena that will contribute to the long-term masterplan for the eastern edge of the city centre, known locally as ‘Eastlands’. Sir Howard Bernstein, former chief executive of Manchester City Council, and current leader Sir Richard Leese have long envisaged the area’s regeneration through the Commonwealth Games and, when the arena opens in 2023, it will be at the heart of a wider growth and development plan, comparable to that of Greenwich after the O2 opened. 

This is why we continue to build across the world: Seattle, New York, Austin, Palm Springs and Savannah in the US; Manchester and Cardiff in the UK, and Milan in Italy, where the Santa Giulia arena will partly host the 2026 Winter Olympics. As with all our projects, Santa Giulia is about much more than the development of an arena; it is the regeneration of an entire city district. And, over time, the homes and communities that entwine the area, and the stories that emerge from them, will strengthen the value of the arena. It is symbiotic and it works. Perhaps that’s why the pandemic has not slowed these projects. It has accelerated them. 

Francesca Leiweke-Bodie, President Business Development, OVG, & Sam Piccione, President, OVG International, are two of the team responsible for some of the world’s most iconic music and cultural venues. Co-op Live opens in Manchester in 2023. 

To take 24 acres of a city centre, derelict for nearly 30 years, and transform it into a thriving hub for living, working and leisure takes a great deal of investment in cash, ideas, energy and expertise. At Mayfield in Manchester, U+I are building 1.6m sq ft of commercial office space, 1,500 homes and a 7-acre public park – the first in Manchester for more than 100 years. To deliver a scheme like this, however, you also have to create a great deal of belief. Changing a place from one that delivers only blight to a place where children can play safely, people will want to live and businesses will want to locate is as much about perception change as it is about physical development.

Mayfield’s location, just to the south of Piccadilly Station in the heart of Manchester is one of its greatest selling points. But long-term disuse has turned it into something of a no-go area. That created a challenge: how could we turn it around in short order from a place to avoid to the place to be? The answer was simple: music.

Move fast and make things

In 2019, the Mayfield Partnership (Manchester City Council, Transport for Greater Manchester, LCR and U+I) joined forces with the Broadwick Group to build a 10,000-capacity live music venue inside the Edwardian railway depots. As seasoned operators of music festivals and live events, Broadwick were the perfect partner to take a semi-derelict industrial space and transform it into one of the most successful live music venues in the country, in a matter of weeks.

A 17-week build and a £1m investment delivered a venue that, for one season before Covid closed us down, entertained 30,000 people a week at some of the most exciting live music and club nights in Britain.  The entertainment that the venue provided to hundreds of thousands of visitors, the contribution it made to Manchester’s cultural life and the publicity and social media it generated meant that, virtually overnight, our site changed from being a locked-up, derelict, hidden misery to one of the liveliest and most productive parts of Manchester. 

When Covid hit, The Depot Mayfield had to close, like every other venue. But, as we emerged from the first lockdown and into the summer, the Depot team reacted as fast as they had the year before. Recognising there was an opportunity – and a need - to deliver outdoor entertainment, they created Escape to Freight Island, a Covid-secure outdoor food, drink and music venue that quickly sold out every night it opened.

Learning through play

Freight Island will reopen, as lockdown lifts this spring, and we are already making plans to open up the Depot, when large indoor events are sanctioned. The park we are building will be ready next summer and the first buildings on site should be completed at some point the following year. That means another two years of activity on site to continue to build Mayfield’s reputation as a place that’s great to be, before the first permanent commercial residents move in. We are also learning about what the people of Manchester want from our place – if thousands of people want to come three nights a week to listen to live music, that tells us something about what we should include in the scheme in the longer term. 

So, for us at Mayfield, music has been so much more than entertainment. It’s been an important tool in shifting perceptions of place. It’s been a source of pleasure for thousands of local people. And it’s been a learning curve, helping us to understand how we should shape our scheme over its development lifetime. Powerful stuff.

Martyn Evans is Creative Director at U+I.

Sound and music are a natural part of our existence: even pandemic lockdowns couldn’t silence them. As humans, our brains are hardwired to respond to sound, driven by ancient, evolutionary, electrochemical circuits and biochemistry. 

Sound electrically excites our neurons. Simply put, we have survived, thrived and dominated the planet by using sound as a vital input channel within our in-built threat detection system. If a predator were to approach from behind, for example, or while we were resting with our eyes shut, we would need to hear it and react quickly. As such, our neural circuits are constantly monitoring our environment and using sound to determine whether we’re in a safe environment or if there’s cause for concern.

Build it in

 Logically, therefore, sound should be a valuable asset in the design of our urban environments. Yet the design of public spaces and buildings is still dominated by visual processes. Sound is rarely considered in the early design phase, except in terms of ‘noise’ or as ‘entertainment’. 

With music and sound consistently overlooked and undervalued in urban developments, their full potential is rarely realised. Focusing on the impact of ‘noise’ only considers the activation of our stress response (our sympathetic nervous system). Of course, it is important to minimise stress. But a ‘noise’ focused approach overlooks the powerful relaxation effect which sound can also induce (our parasympathetic nervous system). Sound can quickly unlock our biological relaxation response, for example, and this is a vital component of wellness.

With this in mind, I met Argent managing partner Nick Searle early last year and we vowed to embed sound into the early-stage design of Argent development Brent Cross Town. The aim was to ensure that our evolutionary brain responses to sound were optimised to help promote the health and wellness of those who lived, worked and played in this £5bn development. The resultant ‘Music & Sound Strategy for Wellness’ is a detailed example of how urban developments can maximise the health potential that sound has to offer.

Sound works

Planting more trees and vegetation in certain locations, for instance, can produce more birdsong, a sound our brain uses to identify a safe and relaxing environment. This then tells our nervous system to switch off the fight-or-flight response, as well as the damaging, chronic drip of stress chemicals that flood our bloodstream in modern life. Embedding more water features in the public realm can produce similar relaxation effects. 

Music, a human-made manipulation of sounds, can produce a wide-range of positive responses in those who listen and participate, if used effectively. The sound of silence - no music or sound at all - has an important role as well. The simple act of sitting in a park and breathing low and slow, while listening to birdsong, a fountain, a relaxation soundscape, or the live performance of a busker, can have a greater positive health impact than a session in a gym. 

There’s a reason why decades of diet and exercise trends have continually failed to produce healthy nations. I hope the Brent Cross Town model will inspire future developments to follow the same principles, maximising the wellness value that sound can deliver to our urban experience.

Dr Julia Jones is the Founder of music and wellness consultancies Found in Music, Music in the Workplace and JLP Partners. Her new book ‘Neuron: The Smart Wellness Handbook’, was published in March 2021. She is also the author of ‘The Music Die’t and speaks around the world as Dr Rock.