Monday, August 13, 2007

Failure of the Fresh-Faced:
How local music scenes dig their own hole

I was thinking the other day about how tough it must be for young bands. More specifically, bands full of kids who've never really been involved in "local music scenes." They come in with fresh faces and they end up falling hard or getting sucked right into the game.
I suppose I've been disappointed lately by how local music scenes seem so xenophobic. How the walls go up and everyone that's caught on the inside reaps the rewards and those caught on the outside have to fight tooth and nail to get heard.
Over the years I was pretty naive. I assumed bands that got all the good gigs were just the best in town. I figured if I went to a show and it was packed full of people, it was because that band must be better than the others.
Then I started to notice that the band with the great draw in Chicago actually had a drummer or a singer who was in a much more famous band years ago. Or maybe the band that got all the great gigs in Cleveland, had a songwriter who is best friends with the guy who books at the Beachland Ballroom - stuff like that.
But I've learned that it goes deeper than that, this xenophobia.
I know people often describe music scenes like high school. But that's not too unfair.
When I started high school, or even junior high school for that matter, I was always surprised how everyone suddenly seemed to know one another. Then you'd learn that most had gone to the same elementary school or junior high together.
It's the same with music scenes. You have these guys who grew up in town. Perhaps they have lived in the city their entire lives (which is most often the case). They went to high school with other future musicians. They are all best buddies. Those people eventually joined bands in college, and then go to each other's shows. They go to the same bars, drink the same beers, date the same girls and play the same styles of music. Normally their entire scene is directed around one band, or one person, who used to have some kind of fame or extra ability that everyone always wants to be associated with.
You can find this in every single city. There is nothing wrong with it. It's pretty natural.
But imagine you're a kid with hopes to start a new band. In fact, maybe you're pretty talented. Of course, you start on the bottom because that's all you know. You do a bunch of open mic nights and people start getting interested.
At this point outsiders have two options, and these two options are what totally stifle the creativity of most local music scenes.
The kid will soon enough get approached by several scenester musicians (old or new school), who offer to help the kid start a band. They will show him the ropes and introduce him to all the other locals.
At that point, the kid joins them wholeheartedly and is welcomed to their scene. His shows have great crowds. Then the kid starts to notice that those locals have rules. Maybe they don't hang out with certain people. Maybe they only like certain music styles. So the next thing you know the kid is being expected to follow along, write punk rock songs now or techno dance songs, simply because that is the stuff locals have been into ever since high school. He can either join further and go along with it, or not.
His second option is to do his own thing. In that case, the kid starts to lose favor with his scenester band mates. The kid is probably not very good onstage yet either. So he has that going against him. Sooner or later the band breaks up, his former band mates telling their friends how the kid didn't know what he was doing.
So that's one option, which I've seen over and over again.
But maybe there's a musician who's great, but doesn't live in town. He didn't go to highschool with them, or even college. He doesn't have the opportunity to hang out with other musicians. He can't be best buddies with the other bands. That's the guy who will toil for years with no draw, until:
A) A bigger local band decides they love his music and gets him into the scene, or
B) He gives up.
Either way, the kid is going to have to deal with the same local scene xenophobics.
The fact is that local scenesters know that their buddies will all go to their shows if they always put the same four or five bands on the bill. Why fix what ain't broke?
But this kills a scene quick. You see, most local scenester bands never do shows out of town. They always play in the same three bars, then they proceed to book their shows every month. Because of their draw and because they are friends with the booker and bar owners, they get the best nights way before anyone else does. Next thing you know, great out of town bands can't get shows in town anymore. The great unknown bands full of outsiders are forced to either work their asses off - or join into the scene like sheep so they can share in the already booked nights.
This direction, of course, leads to bands kissing ass to local scenesters. They hope that if they go out of their way to be friends with them, then they can join in the fun. It becomes this sick game of cat and mouse. They find out where they hang out and try their best to impress them.
Sometimes I go to shows and watch an amazing band perform to three people. I may bar hop to a different place the same night and find 200 people chanting for some band that can barely play their instruments. But maybe they have seven guys onstage, half of which have lived there their whole lives, or they are best buddies with someone or they have the best pot parties after the show.
I have to admit, it's always more fun to see these scenester bands, because the crowd is full of their friends. They talk back and forth with everyone between songs. It makes it look like they are really great performers. But the reality is that if you put them on a bill in front of a crowd they don't know, they choke. They turn into shoegazers. It's easy to perform for your friends. It's much harder to do it in front of people who could care less.
My point is that some of the best bands in town die off because no one will give them a chance. Maybe the locals gave them a chance real early on. But the band was new and not particularly very good yet. The result makes it even more difficult to get back into favor. Locals will never give you a chance again.
The people in these scenes only go see the same several shows, with the same musicians, play to the same crowd. They are stuck moving with the herd to the point of defining themselves.
But local scenester bands also shoot themselves in the feet. They know damn well that they will have an automatic draw. So you have multiple bands with the same members. This way they can play a show every weekend and know each one will be packed. Next thing you know the bands can't book any shows because their band members are in too many bands. Fights start and bands break up - only to reform later on as a different band with similar members.
All of this contributes to how local music scenes develop their "sound."
It's this herd mentality which ends up defining who they are. That's why bands in Columbus mostly play gutteral old school rock. That's why Indiana has a lot of quirky bands, or why goth metal goes over so well in Detroit.
But it's all pretty unfortunate, if you ask me. It seems like everyone loses out. Scenester bands never really learn to be unique and unique outsiders never get the chance to be heard.
So let's work on loosening this up, shall we people?

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