Higher Ed Hot Takes
• Issue #30

Our community is our product

A saxophone lays on an open book of music. There is an off-white background.

What Higher Education can learn from Live Music Ecologies

I hold a belief that, for an institution of higher education, its community is its product.

I think this for several reasons. Mainly, our course content is already available in libraries and on YouTube. And yet the model for testing out of credits for content obtained from other sources hasn’t totally taken off yet. People like the social aspects of learning. Learning with others builds our confidence and enhances our understanding. It allows us more space to practice applying our ideas when we learn with others.

Thinking this way leads me to consider that we over-rely on marketing and branding strategies from models for services or consumables. I want us to experiment with drawing on branding and marketing strategies from other community-building disciplines - namely, urban and city planning.

Recently, I read an interesting academic article on live music ecologies and understanding their value to communities. Authors Van der Hoeven and Hitters (2019) use a qualitative content analysis approach to surface the social and cultural merits to live music performances described in city planning policy papers. The cultural and social benefits of a live music ecology are often overshadowed by economic benefits. This is because there is fierce competition for public funds, and many other competitors rely on economic returns on investment to build their cases.

Thus, we usually understand the benefits of live music as providing jobs, attracting tourism, and increasing consumer spending. But, for any music lover out there, you know there’s more to music than the exchange of cash. It’s just hard to describe and hard to quantify.

To expand this perception, Van der Hoeven and Hitters look for evidence of social and cultural value attributed to live music ecologies. They also make clear that adopting the term ‘ecology’ is intentional because ecological thinking insists that we examine our relationships with each other and the environment. And, environmental factors, such as public policies and planning, play a role in the varied degrees of success of music ecologies.

While there is a clear consensus on what we mean when we talk about economic value (i.e., the measure of various financial gains), there is little consensus on articulating and measuring cultural or social values. Van der Hoeven and Hitters take a pretty good stab at those concepts anyway, and come up with the following:

Social values include social capital, community engagement, and a sense of identity. Cultural values include creativity, cultural vibrancy, and talent development.

While reviewing gray literature (non-academic reports, often commissioned by policy analysts and music organizations), Van der Hoeven and Hitters found that an active live music ecology increased social capital, community engagement, and especially the sense of belonging and local pride. People made friends and created memories at these events.

In terms of cultural value, cities with thriving live music ecologies often have storied venues that added to the artistic and aesthetic legacy of neighborhoods. Essential to the development of talent and increased creativity were smaller, more experimental venues willing to take a chance on new acts. These types of venues also provide collaboration space with other cultural and civic organizations. Music venues host debates and town halls and provide space for counter-cultural movements, along with hosting language classes, reading groups, dancing, and religious groups.

Ultimately the article mapped out public policies that create the environment for a live music ecology to thrive. This ranged from providing late-night public transit to adopting an agent of change policy for noise cancellation (meaning, if new housing goes up near music venues, the burden of protecting residents from the noise falls on the new development, not the venue).

This article excites me because it feels so transferable to higher education and to many possible community ecosystems.

Whether your campus spirit is captured by the arts, entrepreneurship, or public health and service, your campus could grow and support incredible social and cultural value. And that value can contribute to your community-as-product model.

For me, there are two implications for us to consider as members of our campus marketing and digital strategy teams. First is that we have internal work to do to promote the campus policies and permission structures that encourage these community ecosystems to evolve and thrive. In the same ways that there are public policies that support live music experimentation and crossover with other cultural organizations, we can support our campus community ecosystems through supportive campus policies.

I also want you to think about rules in form and rules in use. Most of the time when we consider this distinction, we are talking about rules in form that no one follows because rules can be hard to remember, and the rules in use are sufficient. But, rules in use can exceed rules in form as social norms. For example, we might technically allow students to request practice space or reserve venues (rule in form), but if, as administrators, we’re always complaining about it, and we make the reservation process vague, scary, or uncomfortable, they won’t ever take advantage of the possibility (rule in use).

The second implication for us to consider is how we might talk about the social and cultural benefits of our community ecosystems.

I worry sometimes that we have created a feedback loop where we constantly tell ourselves and each other that all prospective students care about are economic outcomes: Will I get enough academic support while I am in college? Will I get a job when I graduate? Will I make a good salary?

I am not denying that prospective students care deeply about how their time in college will set them up for future success. But that’s not all they care about. They want to be a part of something meaningful that gives them a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, and pride in their institution. They also want to be brought in as members of our community and be actively engaged. They want to develop academic skills and personal and professional competence through community experiences.

The thing is, when we assume they only want the economic outcomes, that’s what we focus on, and that’s what we train them to ask for and expect. They begin to think that’s all we offer, and we hollow out our community ecosystem before it even has a chance.

But we can change that.

We just have to remember that our community is our product.

- Kristin Van Dorn


Van der Hoeven, A., & Hitters, E. (2019). The social and cultural values of live music: Sustaining urban live music ecologies. Cities, 90, 263-271.