By Fred Mills
When it comes to developing and nurturing a robust local music scene, it takes a village.
Making music is an inherently social activity. This assertion may seem mildly counterintuitive if you are a songwriter and/or a solo artist laboring at your craft well into the wee hours of the morning, all by your lonesome. But with the exception of the stray eccentric genius, I’ve never met a musician who didn’t want to share his or her music with the public (and even those eccentric geniuses tend to crave some form of affirmation—see: “Wilson, Brian”). Plus, most artists would like to eventually earn a living at making music, and it’s logistically difficult to do that if you’re an audience of one.
Making music is also inherently local because artists need both the tools and the type of support system that will enable them to keep creating the music—growing their business and their brand, in a sense. (That band headlining Bonnaroo didn’t just beam down to the main stage from the Starship Enterprise; they had to work to get there.) This is true whether you are just starting out, have already developed a modest following, or are a YouTube sensation who has amassed a zillion views and gone viral. Somewhere along the way, you’re going to want to release an album, get it into stores and onto digital platforms, book live performances, pitch your music to radio, and have it talked about in the media. Unless you are confident you can tackle all those tasks yourself, and do them efficiently, you’ll need to call upon the talents of those people who comprise different aspects of the local music infrastructure.
The importance of this cannot be overstated. Those who can avail themselves of an infrastructure that is robust and time-tested unquestionably stand a better chance of “making it” than someone who is isolated and without much in the way of options. There’s also a snowball effect, because if one artist tapping that infrastructure starts to make progress, others take notice and will want to avail themselves of it as well, which breeds, in theory at least, even more success. A rising tide lifts all boats. (Or it at least keeps them afloat.)
This has been proven numerous times. Music pundits—yes, that actually is how we refer to ourselves, but only when in the company of each other and drinking heavily—have long observed how intertwined a thriving musicians’ community and the accompanying infrastructure tend to be. In each instance, the town had:
(a) venues where bands could perform;
(b) studios where they could record;
(c) college—and sometimes even commercial—radio predisposed towards playing the music;
(d) media outlets that could promote the bands;
(e) record stores that could sell the bands’ music; and
(f) individuals with the wherewithal and temperament to advise and assist—the managers, bookers, publicity agents, stage techs, music gear store personnel, etc. For extra credit, there might also be —
(g) local record labels that have experience in getting the music manufactured and distributed; although this is really more icing-on-the-cake rather than a prerequisite, because nowadays plenty of artists self-release their music and have access to regional or national distributors.
Think of this as a small ecosystem—“eco” as in, “economic,” where all those roles needing to be filled represent potential jobs within the local economy. It’s nice to think of a musician as occupying a purely creative space, but such romanticism too conveniently sidesteps the realities of the marketplace.
In 2016, unless you’re a Bieber or a Beyoncé with an entourage to rival a small army, you’re well advised to learn as much as possible about the business of the music business.
Have I forgotten anyone? Oh yeah—the musicians themselves. There has to be a decent-sized pool of talent. The good news, though, is that the type of people engaged in A-G above, and variations thereof, also tend to move in the same social circles as musicians. In some instances, they are musicians themselves, which is why you frequently encounter, say, a record store clerk, a radio deejay, or a bartender at the local punk dive who has his or her own band; their day jobs synch fairly seamlessly with their career aspirations. There’s also another snowball effect going on whereby one of those factors feeds into another, and vice versa; for example, the presence of a college radio station and an alternative newsweekly can help concert venues increase attendance and eventually hire more bands, who in turn will need the assistance of managers, bookers, and public relations personnel to help get them more gigs, from which they start to derive enough revenue to be able to book recording studio time…. You get the idea.
Now, none of this is to presume that an artist should concentrate strictly on the artistry, with everyone else similarly fulfilling their prescribed roles. In 2016, unless you’re a Bieber or a Beyoncé with an entourage to rival a small army, you’re well advised to learn as much as possible about the business of the music business; wearing more than one hat (or at least testing the fit) can not only help prevent your being taken advantage of, at times it can save you some money. I’ve had plenty of musicians inform me how at certain points in their careers they felt that for both practical and fiscal reasons they had no choice but to bring some of the managerial, booking, and promotional elements in-house.
In that regard, today’s working musician is part-artist and part-entrepreneur: The aforementioned marketplace is more crowded than ever, and consumers (i.e., potential fans) have a baffling number of entertainment choices staring them in the face, so you’re deluded if you think that by simply putting your latest and greatest brain blip out there, it’ll be heard, or that people will pay money to hear you perform. As any successful entrepreneur will tell you, you have to get up early, get off your ass, and get to work.
Each music scene has its own unique story, of course, and we shouldn’t discount the right time/right place element when tracing the events and factors that cause a place to blow up.
In thinking about all this, I was trying to come up with one solid example to support my thesis. It’s a recurring topic in music journalism, something that has been discussed and dissected ad nauseum at music industry conferences like the annual South By Southwest (SXSW) gathering each March in Austin. I’ve attended numerous SXSW panels at which the panelists attempt to answer the perennial “what’s in the water there?” question regarding the latest geographical buzz-bin where some newcomer is making critical waves and others are following strategically in its wake.
Nirvana/Seattle and R.E.M./Athens tend to be the gold standards, of course, although over the years other locales have also enjoyed their moments in the sun. Minneapolis in the mid ‘80s, for example, saw the emergence of now-legendary rock bands like the Replacements and Husker Du, not to mention a certain single-name, purple-hued, musical polyglot, since deceased. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was a musical nexus in the early ‘90s, with scores of bands, bolstered by the sudden prominence of alt-punks Superchunk and homegrown label Merge Records, releasing records and touring nationally. Similar things happened a few years later with the Chicago indie rock scene after Tortoise achieved international acclaim for its hybrid brand of rock, jazz, electronica, and worldbeat. More recently, after Canadian indie rock upstarts Arcade Fire won a Grammy for 2010’s The Suburbs album, the media and more than a few record labels descended upon Montreal to find out, indeed, what was in the water there.
Each music scene has its own unique story, of course, and we shouldn’t discount the right time/right place element when tracing the events and factors that cause a place to blow up. R.E.M., for example, arguably would have never happened if it hadn’t been for the national network of small venues and punk clubs, many of them located in towns with an innovative college radio station, that had been gradually coalescing since the late ‘70s—something guitarist Peter Buck himself told me in 1985 when I spent a week on the road with R.E.M. for a magazine profile. “We have been extremely lucky,” he admitted, observing that had all the pieces not been in place when his band started out, “I’d still be stuck behind the counter at Wuxtry.” (Wuxtry was the Athens record store—aha!—that Buck worked at prior to forming R.E.M.)
But the point remains: A music scene doesn’t just happen out of the blue, but via the convergence of the not-so-disparate factors outlined above. (Elsewhere in this issue you’ll read how, in Asheville, those factors are also currently in play.) It also requires the presence of passionate, highly motivated people who understand that music—art—is to be nurtured and shared. To achieve that, everyone needs to work towards a common goal, and understand that it’s not a horse race they are in where there can be only one winner. In this sport, when one person is awarded a medal, the whole village gets to stand up there on the podium.
FRED MILLS is managing editor of Capital at Play. As a music journalist he has also written for such publications as Spin, Stereophile, Harp, No Depression, and Blurt. Contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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