We have often heard musicians in Richmond evince envy of their colleagues living in “real music cities.” Which cities were these? Many have compared Richmond unfavorably to the scenes in Austin, Nashville, Minneapolis, Denver, and Baltimore. But when controlling for overall population, Richmond looks better than many other American cities in terms of the availability of musical resources per resident. It has more music stores, music instruction studios, and recording studios per resident than almost all of the other cities musicians tend to list. The number of venues is harder to ascertain because the way they are licensed and registered varies greatly between cities. For instance, according to the U.S. Economic Census (2015), Austin has only ten “concert halls.” But it has 235 bars, many of which function as venues. According to the city’s own 2015 Music Census, there were 124 active venues in the city that year. While Richmond has very few drinking establishments—a consequence of Virginia’s complex alcohol regulations, described below—it has around forty active venues. 

Below is an interactive map of music infrastructure, including layers for venues (defunct and active), stores, recording studios, and teaching studios. Music resources are distributed throughout the city in ways that correlate with socio-economic class, which correlates strongly with race. Most music resources are located in the Southern and Western areas of the city, associated with White flight and higher average income. Few facilities exist in majority Black neighborhoods and all of the instruction studios exist in majority White neighborhoods. Blue shading indicates density of African-American population (darker = higher density).

Click HERE for a full size, fully interactive version of the above map.

Bars are often a crucial component in the economic sustainability of local music scenes in America. This is because they can underwrite live music performance from profits on selling alcohol, without the costs associated with maintaining a full kitchen and its staff. But there are no bars in Virginia. Although prohibition was ended in the US with the passage of the 21st Amendment in 1933, Virginia remained a “dry state” until the sale of mixed drinks was approved in 1968. The Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority (known as the “ABC”) is an official arm of the state government and controls the sale of alcohol in the Commonwealth through its 370 stores. While grocery stores and other establishments may sell beer and wine, the ABC has a monopoly on “hard” or “mixed” drinks. It also has its own armed enforcement officers. In 2018 in generated $940 million in gross sales for the state. The states byzantine performance and alcohol regulations means that the ABC is the de-facto licensing body for most music venues in Virginia.

When issuing an alcohol license, the state can include restrictions that prohibit the performance of certain kinds of music in the establishment. When I interviewed officials at the Alcohol Board, they singled out hip-hop as a targeted genre. For example, a license restriction issued to the Canal Club in Shockoe Bottom from 2004 includes a dress code prohibiting “. . .oversized t-shirts. . . athletic wear. . . ‘do’ rags, head bands [and] bandanas.” The restriction explicitly prohibits “. . . live bands, recording artists, DJ’s and other promotional events that highlights [sic] hip-hop, rap or gangster rap music.” Contemporary ABC policies bear the legacy of the racialized moral panic of prohibition in which blackness, music, and alcohol were bound together in “vice.”

Analysis of the local scene that public venues—forced to operate as restaurants—go in and out of business quite rapidly. Only a few have survived longer than a decade, and those are overwhelmingly White-male-owned—the demographic with broadest access to business loans. Venue volatility is directly tied to Richmond’s byzantine assemblage of sound ordinances, zoning, alcohol laws and permits. The current scene as represented by the digital archive is overwhelmingly White, male, and hipster, in a city where White men are approximately 25% of the population.

The map below includes data from the audiblerva event calendar for the period 2/1/20-6/1/20. Layers can be filtered for genre, BIPOC-owned, Live/Virtual, and Venue.

The image below visualizes data from the audiblerva calendar for the period 2019 calendar year, represented as a heat map. This indicates that the overwhelming majority of events take place in only a handful of venues in the city center. Blue shading indicates density of Africa-American population.

The image below presents the same data as a pie-chart of the relative frequency of events by self-described genre. These images do not objectively measure all musical activity in the city. They do not, for example, include music making in churches or other sacred spaces, private house concerts, or underground shows.  

The sonic geography of African-American music making in Richmond is disproportionately small in the archive, as compared to the actual demographics of the city. Hip-hop only accounts for 4% of events recorded in 2019, while Rock and Indie account for 36% and 11% respectively. Hip-hop is now 40 years old and the top selling genre in the nation and there are many national level hip-hop artists coming from Virginia. This suggests that Richmond could do far more to help realize potential markets and talent.