June 24, 2016

What do you think of when someone talks about a city’s cultural attractions?

Museums? The public library? Sports stadiums?

Jonathan Wynn, an assistant professor of Urban and Cultural Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, prefers putting a different kind of attraction in the spotlight: music festivals.

“Cities benefit from festivals,” Wynn says. “Cities are getting a signature event, they are getting something where they get to hang their hat on, and display their city as being a bright, shiny, fun and exciting place.

Music festivals deliver in a way that buildings don’t, Wynn argues, noting that festivals bring their host city tourists, attention and media buy-in, without a steep price tag.

Festivals are most effective when they are invested in their cities, he says. South by Southwest, for example, partners with the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, which provides healthcare for musicians, and therefore helps loop festival profits into the community. The CMA festival also donates to its host city, Nashville, by giving money earmarked for music education.

And people may now be valuing festivals more than ever, because of a trend toward experiential consumption rather than material consumption.

“People are buying experiences, and so you don’t necessarily have people spending money on actual objects,” Wynn says. “Psychologists are saying that it’s actually a more healthy thing to invest in experiences rather than just cultural goods, like a CD.”

Museums and stadiums, by contrast, not only present a high initial cost for taxpayers, but they sometimes only serve the interest of a select few. Still, despite being pro-festivals, Wynn is not anti-building.

“I’m not saying we should tear down museums,” he says. “What I do think is that we can put a healthy pause on them.”

innovation hub, Jonathan Wynn, pri, Kara Miller, WGBH

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