Tuesday, July 1, 2008

People with Animal Heads
Project Update

I have to admit my heart hasn't been into writing about music lately. Underground rock is akin to the Greek mythology of Sisyphus, condemned to ceaselessly roll a rock up and down a mountain over and over again.
But writing about it is a fate even worse than that.
My original goal for PWAH was to do a ton of research on every city in the Midwest, because I was sure that there were dozens of great bands that I was not hearing about. This part was true. These bands exist. I have seen them. I have talked to them. They are just as disappointed as I am.
I'm not even 1/4 way through the project. But after so many months of doing this, I have noticed that our Midwest music scenes are really hanging on by a thread.
The more I learn about music scenes across the Midwest, the more I realize that every city has people in control. There is a glass ceiling. Local writers, people who run the bars, and the organizations that put on shows - all run by little groups in every city. When a festival is organized, it's normally pretty obvious what bands will play. If a great national band comes to town, it's pretty much a given what locals will open for them.
It isn't some covert operation, it's just reality. We live in small towns. It's a lot like politics, you put enough bible thumpers in the government, you will end up with George Bush. It's natural selection.
But it started to make me feel used when I would write glowing reviews about a band, only to realize later on that they are part of the problem.
The more I learn about bands rising to the top in other cities, the more I realize that I'm only hearing about them because someone gave them opportunities. They were those bands whose friends in charge let them open for every national band that came through. They were those bands that knew people who organized the festivals. They knew the people on the radio. They grew up with the dudes who started the label. They were buddies with the music critics at the newspaper and web sites.
The bands that didn't know these people personally? Broke up. All of them. They were good bands too.
And the pissed off hack musicians are way too busy trying to kiss ass to keep the circle going.
It used to make me angry, but now I'm just ambivalent. I'm just amazed at how lifeless our society has become. No one stands for anything.
The worst offenders, aside from music fans, are music critics. I'm sure they had a lot of goals when they started, much like I did. But they soon were ignoring the fact that they were supposed to be documenting their scenes, instead of documenting their friends. Even worse, they started documenting Vampire Weekend.
But that isn't the only problem I see. The fault lies in the laps of music fans, as well. Everyone is infinitely more interested in talking about MGMT and why they are better than Vampire Weekend, or vice versa. Dude, the Brooklyn music scene rulez!
Most people are happy with being told who to listen to by magazines, TV and radio stations. And the sad reality is that they are only getting the top of an iceberg. That chunk of ice is being dictated to them by nepotism. No one cares about putting their face underwater anymore. No one wants to venture outside of their bubbles.
It doesn't matter what city I go to, the hundreds of bands I have seen. People go to shows, but they don't necessarily go to LISTEN to music. People are out there for purely social reasons. Nothing wrong with that. But this is akin to the same reason why people go to see fucking horse shit bands like The Menus. That makes me sick to my stomach.
"Support local music!"
That is what I hear from city to city in our Midwest. In reality, the majority of scenes consist of musicians going to see other musicians. They stand in the back of the bars and talk about themselves. The true audience of underground music is non existent. The bars are empty.
People that do go out, go to the same place every weekend. It doesn't really matter who is playing, as long as the same people they have known for years are there. It's all about repetition.
Maybe the musicians are performing that night, maybe they are just in the audience. Rarely do I see people specifically trying to see new bands they have never heard before. When was the last time you did this? The reality is that when a new band is about to perform, the room clears. People go outside to smoke and come back when someone they know is back onstage. Maybe they talk about "scene unity" while they are out there?
So how do bands break through this wall? I have decided it's hopeless. Because if no one is trying to find better music, then they are being told who to listen to.
Which leads me to another problem. The music sites out there all focus on the same new indie bands. It's a pretty ridiculous cycle. I often take a look at the "recent adds" on the CMJ charts. The bands on those lists (actually only the ones on the best labels) soon show up on the radio and then show up on the music sites. Have I mentioned that they, or their labels, pay thousands and use their influence to be on those lists in the first place? Out of the CMJ list, three bands that have paid the most for publicity end up getting talked about ad nauseam. The cycle then repeats itself.
When I started PWAH I used to poke fun at how every site had pictures of MIA and Kanye West on the front page. Now it's just too depressing to do that anymore.
So how does a band get any attention aside from nepotism? They either have to have a total schtick, go on tour relentlessly until they are broke and tired (which frankly doesn't work either), or it goes back to the old "having friends in high places" thing.
So is all underground music just a smaller version of the constant national circle of glad-handing and nepotism? Yes.
In fact, I'm not above any of this. I'm just as bad.
Maybe if I could somehow quit my job and set out to document each city first hand. But I'm not going to do that.
I used to have hope that local music critics were doing that - because they are being paid to. But they don't.
In fact, as talented as many of them are, not a single one does this. It's too daunting a task.
Instead, they are like the rest of the musicians that make up underground scenes. They hang out with their buddies at night. They go to the shows their buddies go to. They see the bands their buddies are in. They write about what they see.
And they are all stifling their music scenes one by one.
These days I guess I would rather just go outside and enjoy the weather and not think about any of this anymore.
Maybe I can dig out all my Velvet Underground records and go sit in the sun.
But wait - VU only got famous because they rode Andy Worhol's goddam coat tails.
Yeah, it's pretty hopeless.


Kevin said...

Don't be so down on it all, man. Of course it's that way, we are still humans after all. But music is still necessary. And you can still have fun. But do things your way, and who gives a shit if no one cares. It matters to you. And, importantly, sometimes you need a break.

Anonymous said...

You're exactly right but nepotism is unavoidable, look at GWB. But it IS disappointing when it comes to the creative arts world. And I refuse to consider that 10 year old girl as a 'painting genius' no matter who her parents are or how many documentaries are made forcing it down my throat! But I digress. You should take a break and only report on The Buddha Boy. Someone pure and innocent and wanting only to be alone to pray.

Christopher Animalhead said...

I don't think it's necessarily that I'm pissed that nepotism exists. It's more that I hate how society is fooled by it. I think of all the talented people that will wallow in obscurity simply because they had to start working in the mail room, instead of as their daddy's assistant. That is what pisses me off.

Kevin said...

I just read this quote by hayao miyazaki and made me think of this discussion and translates well to any art:

"[on the future of hand-drawn animation] I'm actually not that worried. I wouldn't give up on it completely. Once in a while there are strange, rich people who like to invest in odd things. You're going to have people in the corners of garages making cartoons to please themselves. And I'm more interested in those people than I am in big business."

Christopher Animalhead said...

It almost comes down to a sense of justice. I just don't want to take part in anything that perpetuates the notion that ass kissing and nepotism will get you ahead in life.
I swear I'm not trying to be a downer on all of this. I just am convinced that indie rock is just as bad off as big business rock. We all know mega-labels are effed up. I was just surprised to find out that even the politics surrounding unsigned bands in the smallest of towns, are just as effed up, if not worse.
So I think from now on I'm just going to call bands out if I know things about them. And I'm going to try as hard as I can to find out about those things.

meltones said...

I completely understand where you're coming from with this rant. My whole goal with The Buddha Den was to document the Dayton, OH music scene and maybe help get some of these bands recognized outside of our city. While the latter seems to be pending, there are a number of bands that have started to get local attention. I also make a point to find out about as many Dayton bands as possible and bring them to the attention of our community whether they are "in the scene" or not. I'd like to think that I am truly covering the music, not necessarily the "scene", per se. Every town has great bands and I'd love to see more coverage of local scenes.

Thanks again to all the great work you're doing at People With Animal Heads!

kyle/the buddha den