Joshua Davis is a gifted and hard-working guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter who can play the Delta Blues like Mississippi John Hurt and work a crowd into a dancing frenzy with his band Steppin’ In It. He’s been playing venues across Michigan for 20 years, so when Josh settled down in Traverse City a few years back, people like me who love live music were excited for what he would add to our growing base of local musical talent.
The last time I saw Josh live he was playing his heart out at a local bar for about a dozen people. It’s a scene that happens too often in our town: great musical artists performing for sparse crowds.
The next time I saw Josh, I watched him on television—along with 14 million other people. He was on NBC’s popular show “The Voice.” Josh performed a jaw-dropping version of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” that had pop star judges like Adam Levine and Blake Shelton falling over themselves to praise his genius and recruit him to their team.
Josh Davis is among a growing group of talented musicians based in Traverse City who are making a name for themselves nationally.
Katie Larson and Savannah Buist began playing music together as teenagers. They cut their first album as The Accidentals when they were students at the Interlochen Center for the Arts and they’ve taken off like a rocket ever since. They funded their first national tour with an online campaign that included a gig last month at the coveted South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
When 22-year old Billy Strings started picking his hard-driving bluegrass with veteran Traverse City mandolin legend Don Julin three years ago, they lit up the local music scene. Nobody around here ever saw anyone energize traditional bluegrass like they do. Billy and Don still play around town, but as most of us expected, they’ve cracked the national scene and spend more time touring the country playing big festivals than local venues.
It’s a joy to celebrate local musicians making it big—but what can we do to push Traverse City forward as a destination music town that cultivates new talent and supports the musicians who gain national traction when they come back home?
I asked professional musician Seth Bernard, the founder of the Earthwork Music who lives in Williamsburg with his wife and musical partner May Erlewine Bernard. They are widely regarded as leaders in building the Michigan music scene.
Seth said it takes a multi-faceted commitment that unites the local media, business leaders, community organizations, and fans to come together around a common goal of supporting local music. Towns like Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids work hard to get the community engaged in local music, and they go out of their way to give the musicians a warm welcome. In Kalamazoo, music supporters even give musicians free lodging after the shows.
Seth sees that kind of potential in Traverse City.
“We have the opportunity locally to reinvent the music scene,” he said. “It’s like buying local—you’re not only doing the artist a favor, you’re doing your town a favor. You’re creating community and making a music destination that will grow the economy.”
In cities like Austin and Nashville, music is at the center of their local economies. But even in Detroit, which is long past Motown’s heyday, music is big business. A 2013 study found that 6,000 people were employed in the Detroit area music industry. There are 486 music establishments with a total sales volume of over $1 billion.
We’re a much smaller town, of course, but we have some of the music infrastructure. Interlochen is a world-renowned musical institution that attracts some of the very best. Porterhouse Productions brings in national acts and gives local musicians great opportunities for exposure. Radio stations WNMC and WIAA, and print media like the Northern Express and the Traverse City Record-Eagle play important roles, too.
But we aren’t there yet. My hunch is that three-quarters of the people who live in Traverse City area don’t go out with the primary intention of seeing live music (although I bet most of them watch “The Voice” on TV).
What we need in Traverse City is a coordinated campaign to build up the local music scene. What if local music supporters, the media, and the venue owners teamed up with business, tourism, and nonprofit organizations for a coordinated effort to publicize and support local music—to put Traverse City on the map as a music town?
The first priority should be promoting live local shows to local people. We need to tell the stories of these talented local musicians to get the community excited. As that excitement grows, so too would our reputation, and people would come here expecting to find great music. It would be similar to how some of our region’s leading restaurants established Traverse City as a culinary destination, or how the State Theatre made our town a center for film.
And there is a real community-building benefit that is hard to quantify, but just as important. Great music can both entertain and inspire, and when people from different walks of life come together to celebrate the musical arts, a connection develops.
Traverse City has shown that anything is possible. The arts are a growing and important part of our local culture and economy. Now it’s time to ramp up the local music scene to a level that meets the high standards of our terrific town .
Hans Voss is the executive director of the Traverse City-based the Michigan Land Use Institute. One of his favorite things to do on a Thursday night is hop on his bike and go see Billy Strings and Don Julin at Lil’ Bo’s.