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Detroit’s secret sauce: High tech firms and rock and roll

Keith Woolcock, founder of 5th Column Ideas, a technology research firm, says “Google has become the Microsoft of its generation: big, bad and quickly becoming irrelevant.” You’ll never hear the same said about Detroit music.

“Creativity” and how to harness it seems to dominate discussion about an information-based economy. Most recently, it was central to professor and Huffington Post writer Jason Schmitt’s presentation at the Future Midwest Conference. He suggests that in Detroit, we need to answer two questions.

How is our city particularly creative?

Where does this kind of creative longevity come from?

I don’t think it’s cliché or terribly off base to say that there is something in Detroit’s blood that spurs long-term innovation and creativity. The music scene is a great example. Stop and think about it for a second. What would it have been like to see the MC5 explode out of a paisley-lame sea of hippies?


This wasn’t an isolated incident. Detroit was at the forefront, if not the birthplace of, the Motown, punk, electronic and hardcore sounds. Even as the city’s economic infrastructure shook musicians kept on creating and enjoying enormous success … Iggy Pop, the Ramrods, the Belleville Three, Eminem, Madonna … the list goes on and on.

Is it fair to say that it’s the lack of resources that actually fosters creativity?

It seems like Schmitt suggests it does, at least obliquely. We don’t, for instance, have a light rail system. The natural conclusion should be that we’ve suffered because of it. Creatives tend to be attracted to walkable, dense cities and, although we’ve taken strides, we aren’t there yet. This city isn’t kind to people without cars. Even if they’re available, we tend to stick in our own communities … especially if there are amps to haul around.

That’s often true in the suburbs as well. Suburban sprawl is rarely looked at as a positive thing. It connotes racial tension, creates plastic shopping malls and leaves the region with other aesthetic and monetary problems still lingering today.

Still, something very interesting was born out of this set back. The music scene grew in the suburbs as well as the city.

Schmitt says there are these genre-specific pockets of music around the metro area. Birmingham has a Brit Invasion sound going on … Ann Arbor a Psychedelic San Francisco… Down River sounds Southern Blues. While all of these categories are debatable, it’s an interesting concept.

Detroit owes its long standing creative tradition to resisting homogenization.

In other words, Detroit chooses what Detroit listens to. The main takeaway here is the idea that Detroit musicians could steadily create cutting edge music because they didn’t all merge into one amorphous umbrella culture or sound.

This is exactly where tech people should take note. It might be a temptation to fill your time up reading what everyone else in your industry is reading and attending the same conferences. Doesn’t it follow that you’ll produce similar, if not virtually the same, products? That extra bit of work … finding outlier content that’s useful for your unique development … could be the crux of your success.

Schmitt calls it obvious, and it does kind of sound that way, but maybe it isn’t such a bad reminder to be conscious of the kind of media you’re consuming. It’s been relevant for Detroit musicians for over half a century now, and it’s particularly relevant today. Theoretically, it seems both easier and more difficult to avoid homogenization. We have worlds at our fingertips, literally, but spend the majority of our time balking at the same twitter streams, reading the same article on the same websites. Do I even need to mention Facebook?

Think about the kind of media you use every day. Does it lend itself toward creativity and innovation? Does it find outlier content that’s useful for your unique development? Or is it an avenue that will make your idea for a new business irrelevant?

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