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The role of Music in Alaska's Economy

I recently met Forrest Dunbar at a retirement party. We were celebrating the career achievements of Diane Kaplan, the former CEO of Rasmuson Foundation. The event brought together musicians like myself, politicians like Dunbar, businesspeople, teachers, artists, and many others. As we talked, Mr. Dunbar mentioned his effort to attract the film industry back to Alaska. He highlighted the opportunities that film offers musicians, so I asked for a phone conversation to share his perspective with readers of this blog.

You may already know that Forrest Dunbar served on the Anchorage Assembly until recently. He has been assiduous in his community involvement since being entrusted with the duties of an Anchorage civic leader. It was his community involvement here in Anchorage, as well as his recent election to the Alaska State Senate, that made me keen to understand his perspective on music in Alaska. He won his senate seat on a platform of jobs, quality of life, and public safety, the first two of which became a focus of our conversation.

My question for senator-elect Dunbar was broad: what is the role of music in the Alaskan economy? I knew that music, as an economic driver, is often hidden in the ledgers of other industries like tourism and restaurants. For example, entire villages sometimes emerge around festivals, and bars may succeed or fail by the bands they book, but the size and shape of a music economy are often difficult to discern. I wanted to know how Mr. Dunbar understands music as part of our larger economy as well as what he may do to protect and uplift Alaskan music itself.

In responding to my question, Mr. Dunbar described four ways that music is important to our state.

  1. Intrinsic Value: Music and other arts have value above and beyond anything economic.

  2. Quality of Life: Music contributes to quality of life, and communities with higher quality of life have stronger economies.

  3. Vibrancy: Music helps make a place vibrant, and some people look for vibrancy when choosing a place to live.

  4. Jobs: Music creates jobs both directly and in combination with other industries.

The second and fourth items, quality of life and jobs, are planks in Dunbar’s own platform. The third, vibrancy, seems to me to tie into the fourth, because even Alaskan jobs that are otherwise unrelated to music may remain unfilled without a socially vibrant place for candidates to live. Vibrancy also ties into quality of life: it is a component thereof for most folk.

After hearing how Mr. Dunbar understands the value of music, I had follow-up questions. How might the state support music making as a component of quality of life? How might we support the creation of jobs in music, both directly and through support of other industries? He offered four answers to these questions.

  1. Film Tax Credits: Mr. Dunbar’s support of the film industry is what touched off our conversation. Supporting film in Alaska can also support local musicians when film projects hire local.

  2. Fund Education: In order to avoid losing school programs including music and other creative subjects, we need better funding for public education.

  3. Affordable Housing: Musicians often need affordable housing, therefore supporting affordable housing projects creates an environment where musicians can thrive.

  4. Brand Alaskan Music: Alaska is a unique place that people still dream about. We can capitalize on and reinforce its appeal by continuing to create and promote recognizably Alaskan music.

I agreed on all four points. Some of them are up to elected officials at the local, city, and state levels, but others we as musicians can impact independently, like education and branding. I brought these points to Marian Call, whose work at AKIMI (the Alaska Independent Musicians' Initiative) provided insight into some of the details of branding and education. I asked her what it means to brand Alaskan music, and how funding education could contribute to a healthy music ecosystem.

To the first question, Marian responded that “We brand Alaskan music by presenting Alaskan songs and artists together, emphasizing that they’re linked by their connection to this place.” She explained that the word ‘brand’ can feel a little uncomfortable to Alaskan musicians – few like being labeled, but most are very vocal about being Alaskan. “Our music reflects our identity and our place,” she said. “So when AKIMI talks about ‘branding’ Alaskan music, what we mean is taking pride in local music because it’s local, promoting it because it’s local, identifying our music as Alaskan in public and on purpose. Lifelong residents and tourists alike should be prepared for greatness when they hear the words ‘Alaskan music.’

To my question about education, Marian responded that “A healthy music ecosystem is like a natural ecosystem: it fosters rapid, healthy growth to maturity, and ensures space and resources for everyone to play a part. [Such growth] requires a pathway for kids and young adults from loving music to making music, and from there to making a living in music. Arts education is that pathway, and although music education happens in many places – private homes, community groups, places of worship – the strong foundation of an arts community is equal access through public funding, by way of schools, community centers, and libraries.”

Mr. Dunbar was careful to note that it is not the role of the government to create a music ecosystem, but rather to support it. Once laws and institutions establish the necessary conditions, it is up to musicians and organizations to build a thriving ecosystem. I am grateful to see the music community already doing our part. AKIMI is already working to brand Alaskan music. Local and state arts councils provide invaluable support to individual musicians and music organizations. This very blog connects and informs the members of Alaska’s music ecosystem about such efforts.

As Mr. Dunbar and I were wrapping up our conversation, he touched again on the intrinsic value of music and gave me hope that our efforts will be reciprocated by local, city, and state governments. He said that supporting music is not only the morally right thing to do, it’s also the economically smart thing to do. We hope other legislators and other civic leaders agree.

Michael Dickerson is an Anchorage composer, writer, and educator. He is a board member at Northern Culture Exchange, a 2020 Rasmuson Individual Artist Award recipient, and a 2021 Connie Boochever Award recipient.

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