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Mayor John Curtis Discusses the Provo Music Scene

Provo Mayor John Curtis has a lot to say about the Provo music scene. See where he hopes the scene will be in ten years.

By Zach Collier & Alessandro Improta

A lot has happened since John Curtis became the mayor of Provo in 2010. Since he began his time in office, downtown Provo has seen massive growth and revitalization. Storefronts have been updated, buildings have been restored, and downtown has become a haven for startups and small businesses. Forbes has named Provo one of the top 10 places to raise a family, one of the best places for business and careers, the best for community optimism, the best for volunteerism, and #1 in health and well-being. Provo City government has also embraced Rooftop Concert Series as an important community event – one that has grown from small crowds on the roof of a parking garage to packed city streets. We got to sit down with the mayor in his office to discuss the future of the Provo music scene, and what musicians can do to help the city continue to grow.

To start, what about the Provo music scene is something that you love? We’ve seen that you’ve really been a part of it. Are you a musician yourself? Is that why you’ve enjoyed it? What draws you to it?

I’ll tell you a very quick story. In sixth grade, our teacher wanted to have a choir. I grew up in Salt Lake, and they would go around to the malls, and the kids would sing in the malls for Christmas time. So he asked all of us to come early to class and be part of the choir. The first day I went, I was just singing my heart out. And he said, “Okay, well” (and I’m watching this) – he stopped us in the middle of the song and he said, “This half over here sing.” And I was in that half. Then we sang and he stopped us again and he kept narrowing it down until he got down to me. Then he said, “I want you to come here.” And he sat me by the piano and said, “I want you to listen to the piano and practice to see if you could catch the tune here. We’ll try you later on in the year.” And then when we went to the concerts, he told all the kids, “Put your coats here. Don’t worry, they won’t get stolen because John is gonna watch them.” [Laughter] I tell you that story to show you that I have zero – ZERO – musical aptitude or ability. And maybe that’s one of the reasons why I appreciate it in others so much. I admire it. I’m in awe with people that have musical talent. I think that, to further answer your question, in addition to just appreciating it, I’ve seen what it does for the city. It brings an energy level into the city that is extremely valuable. It brings a vibe to our city. It also, I believe, has inspired the other arts to say, “We can do that, too.” I personally believe the other art forms are equally as talented. They just haven’t kind of found their legs like music has.

Yeah, absolutely.

I think music inspires them to say, “Well we can do what music has done.”

Mayor Curtis at a photoshoot with Justin Hackworth.

To follow up on that, what value does that bring to the city – to have arts?

It brings value on a lot of levels. So one is that it makes it feel like a place where we want to be. There’s a good feeling about it. Two, there’s an economic development aspect of it. It brings businesses and it brings people into our city who then become employees for these businesses. And when businesses recruit, it creates a pull. It’s this vibe that it brings into the city that just makes it feel like a happening place. 

So are there any particular musical accomplishments in the city that you’re proud of?

I’m really a novice – I’m not sure what the right word is – I’m inexperienced in determining what a qualified musical accomplishment is. So to me, you know, I think it’s a lot of things that the industry wouldn’t necessarily look at and say, from a technical perspective, “That’s really outstanding.” But things like Rooftop [Concert Series], Velour’s success, our Christmas CD, all those things I’d like to say are just really cool successes. And then I think a big one, too, is that if you just simply look at the bands who have signed national recording contracts, that’s very cool.

Getting into the subject of building the music scene. One of the things that we talk about all the time at Reach Provo is that the arts here are very transient. 

Sure.

BYU, for better or worse, brings people here typically for four to six years. And that’s good, because it’s constantly bringing in new talent. And really talented people at that, because BYU is so competitive. But we joke that bands here are born and die in a day, because they’re only here for school. What do you think would help people stick around Provo to develop their talents and to pursue that more?

First of all, I would like to express my appreciation to the bands who have hung onto their Provo roots. I think that’s really what I would hope is that the Neon Trees and the Imagine Dragons, so to speak, don’t forget that they have roots in Provo. Neon Trees, in particular, has been really good about that. And Imagine Dragons as well. But so I think part of it is like a business. We get a lot of businesses that are transient. They start here and then they move up to Lehi. We have to acknowledge and realize that’s just part of the deal: that a band can’t find everything they need here and they have to move on. Or individuals are going to need to move on at different points. My hope is that they just always feel a tie here. Now, beyond that, I think it’s the Imagine Dragons and the Neon Trees who can help them realize they can stay here. Here, Neon Trees again is a great example of people who have purchased homes and put down deep, deep roots here. And I think that helps a lot. It’s a signal to the others that are aspiring to what they’ve accomplished that you can stay here! Do it. So that’s what I would hope is that they’d realize that it’s okay if you spread your wings, but also give some thought to staying here.

So what then can the rest of us do to foster that? To try and build that?

I think there’s several things. One is: continue to build up a network of resources. Recording studios. Help recruit talent here so that this hub continues to grow and foster so that there are opportunities here and that you can find the people that can help you along the way. Scott Wiley, Corey Fox, people like that that can help people – mentor them – and help them accomplish that. So I would hope that the music community would continue to build up those resources and recruit those resources and fill any gaps that we have that I don’t see and understand. What are the gaps? The music community knows. What are they? Well let’s recruit that in here and get that in our community so somebody can find everything they need here.

Mayor John Curtis at Provo’s Rooftop Concert Series.

During the State of The City address you announced that we’re going to be celebrating International Women’s Day. Why did you feel that was something Provo needed to participate in?

I think throughout the city and state, we’ve not been successful all the time – not completely, but not all the time – at including women in leadership opportunities and leadership roles. And I think they bring so much. What the city is cursed a little bit with is just that the dynamics of what we do tends to lend themselves to a male populace: sewers, roads, park maintenance, power poles. We need to try harder. We need to work harder. We need to inspire in women the belief that if they reach out they can find those opportunities. 

So you see it more as a way to empower women to do these things? Or celebrating women who are currently doing them? Or both?

Oh, I think it’s both! It sure is nice to celebrate those who are doing it. But they’re hard to find. We need more! So I think for me, and there are different members of my staff who have different levels of involvement and might give different answers, I think for me the main hope is to inspire and to prepare future leaders.

Velour participated in the festivities for International Women’s Day. I know you probably have like a whole team of people who put it all together, but did you have any personal correspondence with Corey Fox about getting involved?

I have amazing admiration for Corey Fox. I feel like we bear a pretty strong relationship. And Courtney, do you know Courtney Kendrick? She works in my office. She’s actually the one that reached out to Corey in that case. It’s a little bit hard to answer because when we’re doing well we’re just kind of one as a team, does that make sense? I get this great thing, like, all this hard work goes on and I’m the figurehead, so I get to take credit for it. But in reality, most of what I do is a team behind me that’s laying all of the groundwork and doing all the hard work.

Okay, so this may be our last question. Who are your favorite Provo artists? Who do you listen to on a regular basis?

[Laughter] So, before I answer, let me give a disclaimer. This is like my kids! Like which is your favorite kid? People ask me this about restaurants a lot. Like what’s your favorite restaurant? I refuse to answer that one. [Laughter] But I will tell you that, clearly, while I appreciate them all, there are certain genres that appeal to me more. I’m older. So I’m gonna be a little slower – not as hard rock – as some of the others. So if I throw out any names it’s more because they appeal to my age and demographic than because I appreciate them more. But I’d tell you that my wife would drive across the country to see Mindy Gledhill. Mindy is one of many who has been a pioneer in laying the foundation for other artists. Speaking as me and my wife, because my wife has very strong feelings about Mindy. So without saying which ones are my favorite, let me just say those who relate to my age and my demographic are ones that I would be more likely to spend my time listening to. Mindy is one of those that pops out. But I need to be oh, so careful. You can use that, but make sure you say that I love them all! [Laughter] Because I really, truly feel that way. Neon Trees has been so fabulous, as has Imagine Dragons, in giving back to Provo. That means a lot to me as the mayor. The ones that return, give back, are mentoring, and reaching out and talking about Provo when they are out and abroad or across the world, giving Provo a shoutout. That support. But I love them all. So here’s a good answer: who is my favorite? The group that’s performing and using their talents to give back.

One more thing. Where do you hope the music scene will be in ten years?

I want Provo to be known internationally. That doesn’t mean that we’re perceived as better than Nashville or better than some of these other music scenes, but that we’re branded. Does that make sense? That we’re acknowledged for who we are and our special breed of music and talent. I’ll tell you what. I don’t know if you could go to any other music scene and see the demographic that you see at Rooftop Concert Series or at Velour. At so many places and music scenes, alcohol sales is a big thing. You can go to a Rooftop Concert Series, and I can bring my grand kids and be comfortable, and the Millennials don’t care that old people are there. I think that’s part of owning this uniqueness of who we are. That’s what I hope in ten years is that we’ve successfully branded to the world why we’re unique, why we’re special, and why this is not really duplicated anywhere else. It’s not where you’re trying to measure volume or size or anything like that. I want this to be one slice of the music market that people shouldn’t miss and that we’re an important part of it.

Mayor John Curtis has worked tirelessly to foster growth in the artistic and economic development of Provo City and has established a transparent local government using various social media channels. Check out his personal blog at Provo Insider. You can also like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter (@Curtisut). Check out the State of the City Address below.

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