Why Can't Detroit Cash In On Its Music Scene? Even with a music scene that's been churning out stars for decades, Detroit has yet to find a way to make "Motor City" a music city.
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Why Can't Detroit Cash In On Its Music Scene?

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Why Can't Detroit Cash In On Its Music Scene?

Why Can't Detroit Cash In On Its Music Scene?

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Michigan residents are waking up to news that General Motors may take most of the summer off. People familiar with that plan say many factories will shut for up to nine weeks. Cars aren't selling. The latest news comes even as Michigan struggles to diversify an auto-dependent economy.

NPR's Don Gonyea is with us in Detroit this week. He's been looking into one potential source of business that is harder to tap than it might seem. And, Don, what is it?

DON GONYEA: Steve, it is the rich, rich treasure trove of music, all kinds of music that have come out of Detroit.

INSKEEP: You're talking about, like, Motown music, right?

GONYEA: We are talking about Motown music, but it is more than that, though it is true that for many people the Detroit music scene does begin with those great Motown groups, groups like the Supremes.

(Soundbite of song, "Can't Hurry Love")

Ms. DIANA ROSS (Lead Singer, The Supremes): (Singing) You can't hurry love, no, you just have to wait. She said love don't come easy. It's a game of give and take.

GONYEA: Motown, though, is only part of the Detroit story. Popular music made by people with Detroit connections include something for just about any taste. It's been as much about groundbreaking as hit-making.

(Soundbite of song, "Boogie Chillun")

Mr. JOHN LEE HOOKER (Singer, Guitarist): (Singing) Well, my mother loved me. She had to stay out all night long.

GONYEA: That's the sound of John Lee Hooker, who worked at a Detroit Ford plant well before the Motown sound came around. Detroit has also been home to great jazz artists as well as folk, country, hip hop and rap. And don't forget the non-Motown soul singers - first and foremost, a woman who started out singing in her father's Detroit church.

(Soundbite of song, "Respect")

Ms. ARETHA FRANKLIN (Singer): (Singing) R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me, R-E-S-P-E-C-T…

GONYEA: And there was this guy…

(Soundbite of song, "Good Golly Miss Molly")

Mr. MITCH RYDER (Singer): (Singing) Good golly, Miss Molly, sure like to ball.

GONYEA: That's Mitch Ryder and his Detroit Wheels. Then, there are big arena rock icons like Bob Seger, and a performer whose stage name is Alice Cooper.

(Soundbite of song, "School's Out for Summer")

Mr. ALICE COOPER (Hard Rock Singer): (Singing) School's out for summer…

GONYEA: Detroit was also a breeding ground for some of the icons of hard rock and punk. There was the MC5 and a guy named James Osterberg, better known as Iggy Pop.

(Soundbite of song, "I Wanna Be Your Dog")

IGGY POP (Hard Rock Singer): (Singing) Now I wanna be your dog.

GONYEA: As each decade has passed, another crop of artists with Detroit ties has risen to the top of the charts.

(Soundbite of song, "Lucky Star")

MADONNA (Singer, Songwriter, Performer): (Singing) You must be my lucky star, 'cause you shine on me wherever you are…

GONYEA: Madonna grew up in the Detroit suburbs. Then there's that white rapper from just north of 8 Mile road.

(Soundbite of song, "8 Mile")

EMINEM (Rapper): (Rapping) Ain't gon' follow no footsteps, I'm making my own. Only way that I know how to escape from this 8 Mile Road.

GONYEA: These days, one of the most highly regarded bands in indie rock is another product of Detroit: The White Stripes. And there's an entire genre of music sprung from Detroit in the late '80s that has built a global following: techno.

So you might assume the music business is a big element in Detroit's economy, just like other cities that have taken local music and made not just an image but a whole industry of it. In Memphis, it's Beale Street. In Austin, it's Sixth Street. In New Orleans and Nashville, well, it's just about everywhere.

All these cities have made their music scene a major tourist draw, and not just for the big festivals, but week-in and week-out at clubs and small theaters. People gravitate to these places as destinations to hear great live music. That hasn't happened for Detroit, despite the decades of immensely popular music associated with the city.

W. Kim Heron is the editor of the alternative weekly newspaper The Metro Times. A veteran Detroit journalist and music writer, Heron says Detroit did once have such a district. But it got buried, literally, a half-century ago when they built the freeways that intersect this automobile capitol.

Mr. W. KIM HERON (Editor, The Metro Times): The real African-American entertainment district was in the old black bottom, the old, you know, Hastings Paradise Valley, and that was torn out for an expressway. And so, you know, where would you put that street, you know? Our Beale Street is somewhere under I-75.

GONYEA: One member of the Detroit City Council says Detroit needs to do more to promote its legacy. Her name is Martha Reeves. And yes, she is that Martha Reeves.

(Soundbite of song, "Heatwave")

Ms. MARTHA REEVES (Singer, Detroit City Councilwoman): (Singing) Whenever I'm with him, something inside…

GONYEA: That's Reeves singing in 1964. She talked to us in her office at City Hall yesterday.

Ms. REEVES: I've gone to other cities and seen statues and plaques depicting the wonderful, great artists that were created and discovered in their different hometowns. And since Motown left Detroit in the '70s, there had been very little memorabilia.

GONYEA: There is a Motown Museum in Detroit. It's the original Hitsville USA studio in the little house on West Grand Boulevard. But Motown Records has been gone ever since founder Berry Gordy moved to L.A. and expanded into the movie business.

Detroit Lawyer Gregory Reed is convinced Detroit can still turn its music scene into a tourist destination.

Mr. GREGORY REED (Lawyer): We haven't cultivated our music culture or our talent or to create the industry around it, except through Motown. We haven't harvested and we haven't nurtured it, and we have literally neglected it.

GONYEA: Reed has been named head of a newly created Detroit Entertainment Commission. He says businesses need to see that there is money to be made and that they need to work together to draw an audience. He says the goal is to do it with private funds and entrepreneurs who realize music is a valuable resource the city hasn't fully tapped.

Mr. REED: You've got to plug in the business side, because other than that, the talent will leave the city, and there's a cycle.

GONYEA: But even without a place to point to as the home to Detroit's music scene, the city continues to cultivate new talent that it exports to the country and the world.

Ms. RACHEL NAGY (Singer, Detroit Cobras): We're like punk rock soul, you know, rock and soul. You know, that's like the best way I think you could put us.

GONYEA: This band is the Detroit Cobras. That's singer Rachel Nagy.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. NAGY: (Singing) Nothing but a heartache every day, nothing but a teardrop, all of the way. Oh, God…

GONYEA: Mary Ramirez plays guitar for the Detroit Cobras. She says Detroit offers a lot of inspiration to its musicians, and something else even more basic.

Ms. MARY RAMIREZ (Guitarist, Detroit Cobras): 'Cause the rent is cheaper and you can get, like, five people in a big house, and people don't spend a lot of time working. There's a lot of people available to play with you. You know, I mean, you know, just…

Ms. NAGY: Yeah, it's not like New York, you have to have three jobs just to pay your damn rent.

GONYEA: But can Detroit regain its mystique and become a music Mecca? Nagy has her doubts.

Ms. NAGY: They've been promising, oh, the rebirth of Detroit since I was a kid. And it's never happened. And I am sorry, I don't really have faith, especially now with the economy. Now's not the time for that to happen, either, because people are really hedging their bets. So, you know, but and that environment is also a reason why this kind of music thrives, because we can do whatever we want. We can play as loud as we want.

(Soundbite of music)

GONYEA: The Detroit Cobras tour regularly, returning gladly to their home base to regroup and recharge. The city still offers a connection to roots and to older performers and to community. What it still lacks is the business model that would allow Motor City musicians to thrive and contribute to the city's economic survival as well.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Detroit.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. NAGY: (Singing) Nothing but a heartache. You know that I have nothing to put out right now.

INSKEEP: And from Detroit, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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