Features November 8, 2018

Put your hands up for Detroit: What Sydney’s music nightlife can learn from The Motor City

Put your hands up for Detroit: What Sydney’s music nightlife can learn from The Motor City

Once known strictly for their automotive industry, Detroit, Michigan is currently enjoying the rewards of a thriving, inclusive and community-minded music scene, one that’s on the verge of being a 24-hour economy.

This is in no small part in thanks to Adrian Tonon, Detroit’s night time economy ambassador, who has been bolstering the scene through his work for the last four years.

Aside from his commitment to his city, Tonon is also the founder of the Detroit Music Foundation and Sick Em Records as well as being a self-confessed music fanatic. Tonon mission is to bridge the divide between government and the arts to forge a thriving and sustainable creative scene.

In the country in a couple weeks to talk at Sydney’s Global Cities After Dark conference to speak about how the city turned its narrative around, TMN caught up with Tonon to find out what Sydney can learn from Detroit’s transformation.


First off, can you give me a little bit of the history of Detroit’s nightlife and how you’ve seen it change over the last couple of years?

We have a lot of great artists and musicians and music that comes out of Detroit but we don’t have an ecosystem. We don’t have a music industry in Detroit. You know, most of it’s gone to L.A. Some in New York but most is in L.A. So, in terms of nightlife, it revolves a lot around music.

When new development comes in, traditionally what happens is a music venue, a cultural asset will be displaced because this new development, someone will move in and say, “Oh, what a great neighbourhood but that music’s too loud.” So, really the last year and a half I’ve been going around making sure that we’re retaining the venues that are already there because to us that’s 100 jobs. That’s 100 jobs for Detroiters. It’s not just the jobs of the bartenders, the waiters, the artists, the performers, but it’s the ecosystem behind all that. The insurance, the lawyers, the social media, the print, the video. All those different things.

How have you seen this kind of blossoming music scene have an impact on Detroit becoming a healthier and more diverse city?

You know, the mayor says to me, “Adrian, you know, we’re known as a music city all over the world. Some of the best artists, musicians, producers come out of Detroit but you have to show me there is jobs in this industry.” I think that’s what we’re doing now. We’re working with a lot of local venues.

We’re working with some hotels that have come into town that are national artists and hotel chains that they say, “Hey, we want to infuse it with Detroit music so let’s do certain nights where we do authentic Detroit music of artists that live, work and play in the city.” We’ll take their music, we’ll pay them to perform and we’ll also take their music, well, their original music and we’ll stream it across 11 hotels across the country and pay them to stream their music.

We’re very intentional about making sure that Detroiters that stayed and Detroiters are put first.

How do you mediate that divide between the people and government?

It’s about the responsibility and being responsible. We work very closely with our community. Everything that we do, we go to the community first and we say, “What do you want in this neighbourhood? How can we work together?”

We have other issues that we’re dealing with but I think that you try to have as many town halls as possible. You try to have as many folks from the community at the table. And young folks, Millennials sometimes don’t tend to have a seat at the table but it’s so important that their voice is heard.

In terms of a city’s story, what kind of responsibility do you think journalists and the media have?

We know what sells. We know that negativity sells. We’ve had a lot of situations where sometimes our news medium will not do their proper due diligence and they’ll make a lot of accusations and then they’ll retract it but you still can’t get that back in the moment.

I think the media’s responsibility is to bring people together but to tell the facts and to hold people accountable that sometimes they don’t always have the same intentions as what they’re telling you.

What are the most important things to remember when creating a thriving musical and nightlife scene in a city?

The most important thing is treating your artists and people well. Being humble. When you walk into a very popular space make sure everyone feels very comfortable.

Creating moments of quality in people’s lives, whether it’s the musician or artist coming in the back door and having a wonderful green room or it’s the person coming in the front door.

Things start to evolve and they grow into other things and they grow, but it’s to be intentional about doing something good and making sure that music and the creative arts is something that everyone can enjoy.


Adrian Tonon will present his keynote Unlocking the potential of Detroit’s 24-hour economy at Sydney’s Global Cities After Dark conference on Tuesday, November 13. For more information, head to the official website.

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