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Thurston Moore Talks New Album 'By The Fire,' IDLES, Greta Thunberg & Reagan-Era Privilege

Thurston Moore

Photo by Vera Marmelo

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Thurston Moore Talks New Album 'By The Fire,' IDLES, Greta Thunberg & Reagan-Era Privilege

The Sonic Youth founding guitarist also digs into how living abroad has affected his view of the States and how young people today—especially his own daughter—give him hope

GRAMMYs/Sep 28, 2020 - 07:45 pm

"There is a real social division, and I don't live amongst that anger so much," Thurston Moore remarks over the phone from his London home, referring to the piercing political discord that fuels the upcoming presidential election—not to mention much of 2020 itself. "I don't really believe that that is the majority of the country, let alone the world," he continues. "I think it's just the noisiest. And I say that as a noise musician."

The founding Sonic Youth guitarist, who released his seventh solo album By The Fire last week via The Daydream Library Series, is indeed not just a noise musician, but a leading pioneer of the art form, having gotten his start in the 1980s New York City no wave and experimental scenes alongside bandmates Kim Gordon, Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo. At that time, Moore remembers, artists had what he refers to as the "privilege" of "just making fun of and ignoring [politics]," and "protesting to some degree through hardcore bands and stuff." Today, nearly 40 years later, such immunity to current events hardly exists anymore; socioeconomic, political and racial tensions touch every facet of daily life—and it's all taking place in the backdrop of a global pandemic.

In response, Moore has unleashed By The Fire, a nine-track project that, as he puts it, "alludes to a lot of the heat that we see in the streets... But it's also essentially about the idea of communication. I wanted it to be about focusing on sitting around a fire and exchanging ideas and dialogue."

Musically, By The Fire, which features Deb Googe (My Bloody Valentine) and Sonic Youth's Shelley, reflects Moore's penchant for both pop-minded, college-rock cuts (opener "Hashish" and its follow-up "Cantaloupe") and lengthier instrumental musings ("Locomotives" and chaotic album closer "Venus").  

Below, Moore dives deeper into the duel meaning of By The Fire (which he and the rest of the band recorded immediately prior to quarantine), how living abroad has affected his view of the States and how young people today—including his own daughter—give him hope for the future.

You’ve been living in London for almost a decade now. How has living abroad changed or affected your perspective of the U.S. in the last eight years?

I relocated here at a time when I thought the U.S.A. was in a place of having a bit of dignity as representation, let's put it that way, with the Obama Administration, the Obama-Biden Administration. And so, I don't think anybody at all foresaw the turn of events that happened in 2016, and it was a surprise to just everyone, especially here, living here.

But the fact that it happened at the same time when this country was dealing with this whole selling of Brexit, which was based on this idea of economics, but was sold through this fear of immigration. So, it had this nefarious subtext to it.

I think we just go through these cycles through history, that you can see, where totalitarianism comes to a head. And these fascistic aesthetics come into play, where divisiveness in the culture happens, and through the outpouring of subserving, where people who feather their own nest, as far as being this billionaire elite, and the real estate of the world, and this kind of control mechanisms.

So, in some ways, it's not surprising when you look at it historically, and thinking that, with some resilience and some resistance and with some activism, which we always have expressed, especially in youth culture, that we can bring it back into a situation that's more progressive and humanitarian-conscious. I think the big difference now, and that the pandemic, where we're all in this quarantine state and it's a global affair, that's a big difference, from when you can look at it, and history books, to some degree.

Because it points to a problem that we have that's more essential to the earth. It's about the health of the earth and how we're so much a part of nature, whether we like it or not. And that defines a lot of our existence.

I think a lot of what's going on with our social crisis is, of just the people who are on the margins, and have historically been on the margins, just through means of being oppressed, having to rise up and be angry. And, in support, so many people joining in with that fight, people who have the privilege of not being in a situation, to join in on that fight, as well.

It almost becomes secondary to the health of the planet. Because with the planet in a mode of destruction for the next 10 to 20 years, that will override any other situation. I mean, if you don't have a habitable world, it doesn't matter who you are. And so, that, to me, is something that's very significant and distinctive to what's going on right now. So when I see young people, particularly a very high-profile person like Greta Thunberg, really coming out and drawing as much cogent attention to this, it just does my heart good.

I saw an interview a few years ago with Naomi Klein, she's an essayist on politics, and focusing a lot on climate activism. And she said, when the U.S.A.'s really swung to this right-wing agenda that was exemplified by what the administration is now, she felt like a lot of people did, very, somewhat hopeless. And do you even deal with such inanity?

But then, to see somebody like this young girl from Sweden, Greta Thunberg, who Naomi said, "I'd never even heard of two months prior, all of a sudden becoming such a force of critical information," that just made her feel good about prospects. And so, I feel the same way.

I really feel, for the most part, the people that I come across are desirous of living in harmony, and wanting to have some more non-hierarchical socialized way of living, where everybody has equal value when it comes to healthcare. I rarely come across somebody who is so deluded by the fact that maybe it would be better off if we just allowed ourselves to be told what to do by this authority of this billionaire class. I don't really know people like this, but I know they're out there, because I see them on social media, screaming and yelling "Trump."

There is a real social division, and I don't live amongst that anger so much. But I certainly do see it. And I'm not quite sure, I don't really believe that that is the majority of the country, let alone the world. I think it's just the noisiest. And I say that as a noise musician who really focuses on noise. I can't compete with that sort of thing.

"A noise musician who can’t compete with noise." Well, there you go. Would you say that you generally consider yourself an optimist?

Yeah. I consider myself a musician and an artist who realizes that it's very important to be socially engaged in your work. And if your work is about the exchange of pleasure as information, I think there's something very political about that. I consider that to be a responsibility. So when I put together a record like this, at a time like this, I'm very aware.

And I'm very activist conscious when I call a record By The Fire, where it alludes to, certainly a lot of the heat that we see in the streets, in the contemporary streets of fires being lit through it, through anger. But it's also essentially about the idea of communication. I wanted it to be about focusing on sitting around a fire and exchanging ideas and dialogue.



It's funny you say that, because I was curious if By The Fire had any allusions to, say, Roosevelt’s famous Fireside Chats.

Sun Ra had a record called A Fireside Chat With Lucifer, which I always thought was really intriguing. But I think in a way, it was just, "What an interesting title."

I mean, if there's anybody who was a prophet of peace and understanding, it was Sun Ra. To call a record, A Fireside Chat With Lucifer, in a way it was him wanting to come to terms with everybody having a voice, and realizing that, right?

I realized there's a dynamic of voices in our culture, obviously. But for me, it's just, the activism measure is to keep promoting the voices that you find are to the health of humanity, especially to the health of the earth. People ask me if I'm voting for the Democrat ticket of Biden and Kamala Harris, and I say, "Yes, I am."

It's not so much about Biden being versus Trump. It's more about me being versus Trump. And it's more wanting to bring these voices that I find really, really important in contemporary society, voices like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, these women who have these really political intellects, that are all about the welfare of everybody, regardless of the hierarchy in this society.

It’s progressive socialism, for want of a better genre term. But I find that to be these great voices for the welfare of the country that I was born and raised in. And so, I find at least a vote for the Democratic ticket allows them to have a voice at that table, more so than not.

I mean, that seems to be the promise, and a lot of it has proved the empowerment that Bernie Sanders has enforced in the last decade. I think the Democratic ticket recognizes that voice, and is very wary of it, because it's demonized as being, well, too left of centrist. But at the same time, I think at least it's going to have a welcoming into the government and its future policies, hopefully. I can only be hopeful.

I think anything less than that is without hope. So I see what's going on right now. And as far as the two-party system, when I look at the Republican Party, and how it's been hijacked, I don't see a grain of hope there. I see nothing.



It’s funny that you bring up both Bernie and AOC. Are you aware of the “Socialist Youth” T-shirt design that has Bernie and AOC drawn to mirror Sonic Youth’s Goo cover? It’s one of the best things I bought this year.

I do remember that. I was really happy to see that.

Had you planned to begin recording a record in March of this year, or thereabouts? Even if a pandemic hadn’t happened?

Yeah. Well, I knew that I wanted to put a record out this year, even before the pandemic became a reality. But when it did become a situation, it was just global, galvanized situation that we all dealt with.

Once I seriously focused on what the aesthetic of the record was, and how I would sequence it, I wanted to have the story on the record be more in tune to what was contemporaneous. So I sequenced it thus. I mean, all the material was recorded before anything happened.

But the record itself was put together while we were in quarantine. So, the material, I just organized it in a way where I wanted it to come out of the gate with these more joyous, short, sharp, rough, sonic rock and roll tunes. And then it moves into more contemplative material.

Then it would go into some darker spaces. And then it had this deliverance at the end—this long instrumental piece called "Venus," which was just this pattern-based guitar piece that opened up into this sound of deliverance, and with hope. And I wanted it to go out the door that way.

I really worked closely with the people who do the distribution and the manufacturing, all of whom were dealing with this sudden shock to their work days, and wondering where their revenue was going to come from, and how they could continue to operate. Summertime is traditionally a time when a lot of the record industry just goes on vacation. So everybody was on staycation mode. And I was like, "Oh, actually, I'll take advantage of that. You're home and you're working, right? So let's get the guts around this."

[By The Fire is] coming out this month, which is really great. It's coming out on the same day as this other community of records that I'm really happy being part of: Public Enemy's new record [What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down] that they're putting out on their old label, Def Jam. And my old friend, Bob Mould, has a record [Blue Hearts] coming out.

There's a local band in London that is really, it's a real strong voice for a lot of people here, called IDLES.


Oh yeah. Sure.

And they have a record also. So, these things are all happening on that day. I just feel, if there's anything I really love about being in a band and playing music through the years, it’s the power of the community. And I've always loved collaborations. I always loved compilation albums. I was always drawn to being on compilation albums earlier, when Sonic Youth was first starting. I was just, if anybody asked us to be on a compilation, I was like, "Yes, of course, of course." The first record I was ever on was a compilation record that Glenn Branca and Barbara Ess put together in downtown New York, of all these different artists, doing one-minute pieces.

That was the first time I was ever invited [to collaborate], was when they asked me to be on that. And that was just at the very beginning of when Sonic Youth was forming. I don't even know if we had that name yet.

Speaking of New York, earlier in the year, New York City was especially suffering from high coronavirus cases and deaths. I wonder what that brought up for you, just as somebody who has such a connection to that city?

Right. I think it's such a—more so than just about any other city I can think of—it's the most street-social city. When I was living there, nobody really had a car. You could actually walk from one end of the island to the other, and during the day, without a problem. I think it's, what is it, 12 miles long and three miles wide? It's all up into the sky, in a way.

The fact that it has such a huge population, and it was so condensed, that everybody's on the street and all the time. And everybody was in each other's way, in each other's face. You learned social responsibility from living in that city. It was gloriously multi-ethnic. And even though there was neighborhood divisions of ethnicities that had been defined from when people first came over from Europe and Asia and such, but they were soft lines, for the most part. And it was all about merging traffic. And I think that, to me, was a model for the world.

It’s the true essence of nature, where migration is so essential to nature. It was like, at the heart of nature, it's always about migration, and the plant life and animal life. With people, it's the same thing. And so, I think the situation where borders start going up, and it tries to stop the migratory nature of people, whatever the causes are, whether it's from climate, or where it's from seeking higher water, or trying to find salvation from war or violence. Or the impossibility of a life, in certain situations. And to prohibit that, through any border or law of movement, for me, it's like, it actually goes against the actual truth of nature.

That's where the problem is. It has nothing to do with anything else. Or anything else becomes, it just becomes bigotry. So I always saw New York City as this great experiment in coexistence from the end of the century. And I loved living there in the '70s, before real estate became more monied, and it allowed everybody to live in poverty, and still create, and be free.

That, and the creative impulse was still available, without having to pay exorbitant rents, but that's really neither here nor there. I mean, the city continues to be this great social city. And to see it have to deal with a situation where everybody has to stay away from each other, it's disheartening, to say the least.

I can only hope that that will fade away, and we don't have a follow-up, a virus coming through. Nobody has a crystal ball on this, that I can see. So, I take value from seeing people be of service to each other.

I have a 26-year-old daughter who lives in Bed-Stuy, and she is very activist, and she goes out daily and helps be of service to people who are living in the margins, or young women who are incarcerated and don't have any funding to deal with their plight, or people who are so marginalized, trans people of color who are just completely ignored by so many of the services of the city, and are at odds with the prejudices of the culture. She's out there helping in that regard. And so, it does my heart good. It makes me a proud daddy.

But she's not the only one. And there's just so many people, she's just in her mid-20s, and there's so many people at that age who are out there doing that. When I was in my mid-20s, we didn't really have such a crisis as this. We had Ronald Reagan who was like, he was really creating an economic division, and especially in the city. [But] it was something that we could actually have the privilege of somewhat just making fun of and ignoring, and protesting to some degree, through hardcore bands and stuff.

What people in their mid-20s are experiencing now, it's such a far cry from what I remember. And it's just, their lifestyles of having digital media, where there's this Internet connectivity of the open library. That's a huge paradigm shift from the reality that I experienced.

I love it. I think it's just completely exhausting. I'm really glad to be alive and witness this kind of world, and just thinking about what it will be in the next couple of decades.

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Judah & The Lion On Choosing Hope In Tough Times: "Just Talk About It, And You'll Feel Less Alone"

Judah & The Lion

Photo by Daniel Mendoza / The Recording Academy

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Judah & The Lion On Choosing Hope In Tough Times: "Just Talk About It, And You'll Feel Less Alone"

"Choosing hope and choosing a way forward is something that we all have the power to do," the Nashville trio told the Recording Academy at Lollapalooza 2019

GRAMMYs/Aug 7, 2019 - 10:23 pm

Nashville trio Judah & The Lion, a.k.a. singer/guitarist Judah Akers, singer/mandolinist Brian Macdonald and banjoist/singer Nate Zuercher, recently released a powerful third LP called Pep Talks.

Dealing with tough themes like death and divorce, Pep Talks covers some deeply difficult subjects, but it is also the band's way of connecting with audiences, who might be going through their own hard times.

"It's really wild what people are going through in life. People struggle, whether or not they admit it," lead singer Judah Akers tells the Recording Academy at Lollapalooza 2019. "People are going through stuff. And I think that music is such a beautiful way for us to express that. What we like to share is, 'You're not alone in this.'" 

Akers went on, describing the way fans approach him to tell him how the band's music has helped them get through some difficult times: 

"We had somebody the other day who came up to us and say, 'Your song really helped me out. I was wanting to commit suicide, and I listened to it, and I didn't want to anymore.' And I'm like, 'Oh no, dude, it's OK that you're having those thoughts, but go and talk to someone. Express the way that you feel. Somebody that you trust. If you can go to counseling, talk to a friend, talk to a sibling, someone that you love and trust.'

"Nine times out of 10, or 10 times out of 10, in my experience, that person is going to meet you with so much empathy and solidarity. And then you can just talk about it, and you feel less alone in the world. That's what we're trying to do as humans, is figure this sh*t out. Nobody's got it all together. Nobody's perfect. We're just going for it. Choosing hope and choosing a way foward is something that we all have the power to do."

Check out Judah & The Lion's interview in full above. 

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

Joan as Police Woman

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors

GRAMMYs/Apr 7, 2020 - 07:21 pm

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors. Today, singer/songwriter Joan Wasser of Joan as Police Woman, whose forthcoming covers album, COVER TWO, includes tracks by The Strokes, Prince, Talk Talk, and more, shares her Quarantine Diary.

Thursday, April 2

[10 a.m.-12 p.m.] Went to bed at 4 a.m. last night after getting drawn into working on a song. Put on the kettle to make hot coffee while enjoying an iced coffee I made the day before. Double coffee is my jam. Read the news, which does not do much for my mood. Catch up with a few friends, which does a lot of good for my mood. Glad it goes in this order.

[12 p.m.-2 p.m.] Make steel cut oats with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, fresh ginger, fresh turmeric, a sprinkling of cinnamon and cardamom, and of course, coconut butter to melt on top. If you’re not into coconut butter (sometimes marketed as coconut "manna"), I’d suggest just going for it and getting it (or ordering it) and putting it on your sweet potatoes, your oats, anywhere you’d put butter. I’m not vegan but I do enjoy hearing the tiny scream uttered by a strawberry as I cut into it. 

Contemplate some yoga. Contamplate meditating. Do neither. Resume work on the song I want to finish and send today. I have a home studio and I spend a lot of my time working on music here. The song is a collboration sent to me from Rodrigo D’Erasmo in Milano that will benefit the folks who work behind the scenes in the music touring system in Italy. 

[2 p.m.-4 p.m.] I traded in a guitar for a baritone guitar right before all this craziness hit but hadn’t had the time to get it out until now. I put on some D’Angelo, plugged into my amp and played along as if I were in his band. Micahel Archer, If you’re reading this, I hope you are safe and sound and thank you immensely for all the music you've given us always. 

[4 p.m.-6 p.m.] Bike repair shops have been deemed "necessary," thank goodness, because biking is the primary way I get around and I need a small repair. I hit up my neighborhood shop and they get my bike in and out in 10 minutes, enough time to feel the sun for a moment. 

I ride fast and hard down to the water's edge and take in a view of the East River from Brooklyn. There are a few people out getting their de-stress walks but it is mostly deserted on the usually packed streets.

[6 p.m.-8 p.m.] Practice Bach piano invention no. 4 in Dm very, very, very slowly. I never studied piano but I’m trying to hone some skills. Realize I’m ravenous. Eat chicken stew with wild mushrooms I made in the slow cooker yesterday. It’s always better the second day.

[8 p.m.-10 p.m.] Get on a zoom chat with a bunch of women friends on both coasts. We basically shoot the sh*t and make each other laugh. 

Afterwards I still feel like I ate a school bus so I give into yoga. I feel great afterwards. This photo proves I have a foot. 

[10 p.m.-12 a.m.] Record a podcast for Stereo Embers in anticipation of my new release on May 1, a second record of covers, inventively named COVER TWO. Continue to work on music (it’s a theme).

[12 a.m.-2 p.m.] Tell myself I should think about bed. Ignore myself and confinue to work on music. 

[2 a.m.-4 a.m.] Force myself into bed where I have many books to choose from. This is what I’m reading presently, depending on my mood. Finally I listen to Nick Hakim’s new song, "Qadir," and am taken by its beauty and grace. Good night. 

If you wish to support our efforts to assist music professionals in need, learn more about the Recording Academy's and MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.

If you are a member of the music industry in need of assistance, visit the MusiCares website

Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

Hero The Band perform at the Recording Academy Atlanta Chapter Annual Membership Celebration
Photo: Marcus Ingram/WireImage

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Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

How sound planning for a creative future in our urban areas makes all the difference for artists and musicians

GRAMMYs/Oct 24, 2019 - 01:27 am

The future, as they say, is now. And for music makers around the world, building a future for themselves often starts at home, in their local creative community and in the city where they live. While technology has expanded communication and made the world smaller, cities continue to grow, making planning for the future a critical cultural mission of the present.

To that end, a new report by global organization Sound Diplomacy titled "This Must Be The Place" examines, "The role of music and cultural infrastructure in creating better future cities for all of us." The 37-page deep dive into community planning and development highlights the importance of creative culture in what it calls "Future Cities."

"The government defines ‘Future Cities’ as 'a term used to imagine what cities themselves will be like," the report states, "how they will operate, what systems will orchestrate them and how they will relate to their stakeholders (citizens, governments, businesses, investors, and others),'"

According to the report, only three global cities or states currently have cultural infrastructure plans: London, Amsterdam and New South Wales. This fact may be surprising considering how city planning and sustainability have become part of the discussion on development of urban areas, where the UN estimates 68 percent of people will live by 2050.

"Our future places must look at music and culture ecologically. Much like the way a building is an ecosystem, so is a community of creators, makers, consumers and disseminators," the report says. "The manner in which we understand how to maintain a building is not translated to protecting, preserving and promoting music and culture in communities."

The comparison and interaction between the intangibility of culture and the presence of physical space is an ongoing theme throughout the report. For instance, one section of the report outlines how buildings can and should be designed to fit the cultural needs of the neighborhoods they populate, as too often, use of a commercial space is considered during the leasing process, not the construction process, leading to costly renovations.

"All future cities are creative cities. All future cities are music cities."

On the residential side, as cities grow denser, the need increases for thoughtful acoustic design and sufficient sound isolation. Future cities can and should be places where people congregate

"If we don’t design and build our future cities to facilitate and welcome music and experience, we lose what makes them worth living in."

For musicians and artists of all mediums, the answer to making—and keeping—their cities worth living in boils down to considering their needs, impact and value more carefully and sooner in the planning process.

"The report argues that property is no longer an asset business, but one built on facilitating platforms for congregation, community and cohesion," it says. "By using music and culture at the beginning of the development process and incorporating it across the value chain from bid to design, meanwhile to construction, activation to commercialisation, this thinking and practice will result in better places."

The report offers examples of how planners and leaders are handling this from around the world. For instance, the Mayor Of London Night Czar, who helps ensure safety and nighttime infrastructure for venues toward the Mayor's Vision for London as a 24-hour city. Stateside, Pittsburgh, Penn., also has a Night Mayor in place to support and inform the growth of its creative class.

Diversity, inclusion, health and well-being also factor into the reports comprehensive look at how music and culture are every bit as important as conventional business, ergonomic and environmental considerations in Future Cites. Using the Queensland Chamber of Arts and Culture as a reference, it declared, "A Chamber of Culture is as important as a Chamber of Commerce."

In the end, the report serves as a beacon of light for governments, organizations, businesses and individuals involved in planning and developing future cities. Its core principals lay out guideposts for building friendly places to music and culture and are backed with case studies and recommendations. But perhaps the key to this progress is in changing how we approach the use of space itself, as the answer to supporting music may be found in how we look at the spaces we inhabit.

"To develop better cities, towns and places, we must alter the way we think about development, and place music and culture alongside design, viability, construction and customer experience," it says. "Buildings must be treated as platforms, not assets. We must explore mixed‑use within mixed‑use, so a floor of a building, or a lesser‑value ground floor unit can have multiple solutions for multiple communities."

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