Today is the five year anniversary of the passing of Tony Wilson, the English TV & radio personality who was key figure in creating the Manchester music scene in the late 70’s through the 80’s and beyond. (Check out the 2002 movie “24 Hour Party People” for a semi-autobiographical portrayal of Wilson and the Manchester scene.)
Wilson was a “co-creator” as I describe in my book; a creator of the content that makes cities interesting, fun and lovable. Wilson was not an official city maker, like a mayor or councilman, but his impact on the city was no less profound. He was an unabashed lover of Manchester and it showed in his work as he championed local music and artists and founded the famous Hacienda nightclub that launched the “Madchester” scene to the world.
I only met Tony once, in 2006. While I was visiting Manchester, a mutual friend arranged a lunch meeting and I was just giddy with the prospect of talking to him. I even brought a first edition 12” single of New Order’s Blue Monday. His label, Factory, had produced it and famously, the cover artwork was so complex and expensive, they lost money of every record sold. He smiled and told the story behind it and even signed it for me.
That day we talked about the unique role that music plays in creating identity for cities. He talked about how a scene cannot be forced, but how cities can help facilitate the success of their local musicians and artists. Things like support for local venues that play original music or little things like rehearsal spaces where bands can make as much noise as they want. He also talked about his annual music conference, called In the City that he and his wife had been producing. It had become a SXSW type event where bands showcased to industry in the hopes of being discovered.
Tony clearly loved Manchester, and the city had come to love him as well. His passion projects, Factory Records and The Hacienda had become central to the identity and the mythology of the city. Tony was a central node in what made Manchester a great city though he was not an official city maker. When he passed away in 2007, Manchester lost a great champion and “lover” of the city.
Every city has people like Tony that truly love their community and go way above and beyond ordinary citizenship and make their city better, more interesting and more lovable. The problem is that we think Tony Wilsons just happen. They magically appear like rare gifts for our cities. And because we think of them like gifts, we actually don’t plan on how to use them or on how to create them. We need to be intentional in our efforts to make more Tony Wilsons for our places. We do that first by recognizing the co-creators in our midst and treasuring them the way we value an anchor business or institution. Then we can ask how our communities might support and amplify what these co-creators are already naturally doing.
Tony Wilson was a rare champion for Manchester and he can never be replaced. But he can be renewed if we encourage others to manifest their emotional engagement in their places by doing something for those places. Step up, make some music and make a difference.