The Music District

by Cynthia Peterson

Leaders in cities large and small are coming to realize that music can be an economic generator and drive tourism, while improving the lives of its citizens. Though part of Lincoln’s master plan—which looks holistically at how the city can improve—a downtown music district was officially blessed by Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird in her ‘State of Lincoln’ speech on October 4, 2022. Citing the desire for Lincoln to be in the vanguard of the “Music Cities” movement in the U.S., Gaylor Baird announced the Music District Advisory Committee to “support and drive development of a flourishing local music ecosystem that fuels job creation, talent retention and attraction, entrepreneurialism, tourism, and some really good times!”

Since 1869, Lincoln has been a center for higher education in Nebraska, and Lincoln would like to keep recent graduates living and contributing to society right here rather than relocating to proverbial greener pastures elsewhere. An energetic music district is one more tool in the toolbox to entice young adults to thrive here in the Capital City, while giving local musicians more opportunities to perform, make a living, and tempt others to join the community. 

The hub of the long-considered downtown music district will be along 14th Street from N to P streets and possibly radiate from there to include art and cultural venues. The music district is possible in no small part to Lincoln’s already flourishing music scene. In fact, the hub is already home to The Zoo Bar, Bourbon Theatre, 1867 Bar, Bodega’s Alley, Duffy’s Tavern and Rococo Theater, all notable venues. 

The Music District will involve a comprehensive branding and promotion strategy, additional outdoor performance spaces and related infrastructure, and public-private partnerships, while bringing along businesses such as recording studios, and things yet unthought of. Equally important and much less fun will be review and hopefully streamlining of regulations, permits, licensing and public health requirements, plus ways to provide for safety/security—while not stifling the area’s lively, creative and innovative pulse. Not easy tasks.

Foundational work is underway. In summer 2022, the Lincoln City Council authorized the use of $764,000 in tax-increment financing from an old project to start infrastructure improvements within the district, particularly upgrading sidewalks and curbs on the west side of 14th Street.

Realistic or not, the thriving local music scene in Austin, Texas and its annual SXSW festival are often the benchmarks, though that’s been 50 years in the making and due in no small part to Willie Nelson. But music has had a huge impact in smaller locales such as Asheville, North Carolina and the surrounding county, and closer to home, Fort Collins, Colorado. 

Prior to the pandemic in April 2017, Asheville’s The Citizen-Times reported the city’s music industry grew 52 percent between 2010-2016 compared to the Nashville, Tennessee area at 26 percent; and 1400 Asheville area jobs contributed to music’s direct economic impact or $225 million. While the pandemic has had an impact, firsthand reports from knowledgeable friends in the Asheville area indicate the music scene is doing well. 

Today you can catch live shows at dozens of places around Fort Collins. Those familiar with the Fort Collins music scene claim that with its numerous venues, multiple festivals throughout the year, and thousands of talented local musicians, it’s possible to see a different band every night of the year. Music contributes to the local economy, too. It seems when music, small businesses and other creatives work together, they all thrive. 

The 2018 Downtown Lincoln Master Plan describes the Music District as a celebration of the live music scene. In a 2019 interview with The Daily Nebraskan, Lincoln Music District Advisory Committee co-chair and president of the Downtown Lincoln Association Todd Ogden said he hopes the district will receive a lot of involvement from the Lincoln community. He went on to say, “There are a lot of wonderful acts that I still feel like a large part of the city haven’t had the opportunity to hear and experience. I think the more promotion this area gets and the more development that comes along with it will increase awareness and allow people to know what’s going on to be able to attend some of the music district-type functions.”

A lot of what’s happening elsewhere in cities like Asheville, Austin and Fort Collins is already happening in Lincoln. The Music District will give Lincoln another big boost.

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