In the second installment of the Bad Advice Musicians Hear series, we’re going to get into one of the more daunting pieces of “advice” young musicians will hear as they’re coming up and trying to gain a foothold in their local scene. Like a lot of questionable advice, it’s often tossed off glibly by the speaker, while following it would be a deeply complex process. But that’s why we’re here — we’re focusing on bad advice, and on why it’s bad. Jsyk this one is pretty knotty, and deserves consideration from multiple angles. But here’s the not-so-great advice in this round:
If you look around and you don’t see a place for yourself and your music, you need to start your own scene.
Sounds like it makes sense! That’s the DIY ethos. You can’t assume someone is going to come around and give you the thing you want or need, if it isn’t already there for you. You can sit around and gripe, or you can take action, ideally with some people of like mind.
The overarching problem with this proposition is that it’s extremely complicated, and saying “start your own scene” is head-spinningly simplistic. There are a lot of steps involved and conditions that need to be in place in order to get a new local scene off the ground. You don’t just find a room where you can perform, hang out a shingle, and expect people in the neighborhood to have any idea of (or, to be real, any curiosity about) what you’re doing in there and what it has to do with them.
One of the last things I want to do is discourage anyone from trying to create something meaningful. I’m just saying you have to check yourself at regular increments, and try to think objectively about why you are or aren’t seeing results. I’ve seen people become remarkably discouraged and jaded (and tired) from struggling to create a scene under circumstances where such a scene could not possibly thrive. You don’t want to do that.
Anyway, back to you and your band, in your own local zone. You play x style music (pick any subgenre). You don’t see a local scene for x music. Okay, so why not? Are there similar acts around you, but you don’t have a place to play? Or is your band an outlier? Are there a bunch of other people around you who are into the same music you’re into? Or would you basically need to introduce listeners to a style of music that’s new to them, and also win them over so they keep coming back to your shows?
I often say there’s a particular challenge in convincing people they should want something that they didn’t previously realize exists, or that satisfies a need they didn’t know they had. (A topic for a whole other blog post sometime later.) Manufacturing demand out of nothing is a tall order. It’s possible that there is a great untapped demand for your thing, or that an idea that seems to come out of left field can prove to be the right idea for that time and place. But realistically, there’s usually a pretty good reason why the scene you desire doesn’t exist where you are. General lack of interest is probably more common than lack of motivation or organizational skills.
Everything Comes from Something Else
In reality, music scenes don’t usually appear out of nowhere. They usually build off of slightly more established scenes. There are a lot of romantic, if facile, stories about the genesis of famous music scenes, and a lot of the time you hear the “digest version” of those stories. The part where another, earlier scene acted as a springboard for the new scene’s principals often gets abridged for length. That can make for more engaging storytelling, but less useful advice.
Let’s take a really obvious example: CBGB, widely considered the Ur of punk rock. It would be pedantic to tussle over how and where else punk existed before CBGB. We need to focus on the mythos. The story a lot of people heard is that CBGB was a slept-on Bowery dive bar and roots music venue in 1974, and that Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell bluffed their way into booking a gig for their new band Television. In some stories, Verlaine and Hell even built the CB’s stage. Patti Smith had been putting a full rock band together, and she started playing CB’s. The Ramones started playing there, CB’s became a gathering point for NYC’s hip freaks, and then punk rock went international.
A lot of that is true. It’s not true that CB’s didn’t book rock bands before Television, and there’s no consensus about when the original stage was built or by whom. It’s true that a ton of bands associated with the first wave of punk played there. It’s not true that they all conjured a scene out of nothing, during an era when NYC clubs were hostile to bands that played original music. Patti Smith, various Ramones, members of Blondie and a bunch of other CBGB’s early adapters had been on the scene for a while. They’d hung out at places like Max’s Kansas City and the Mercer Arts Center, which were friendly to original bands and the weirdos who ran with them. There was a need for a new spot when the Mercer Arts building full-on collapsed in 1973. With CB’s, you got a new set of gatekeepers, and the early adapters had the opportunity to set expectations for this new spot. CBGB is where this scene evolved into something that gained critical mass — but it was part of a longer local rock’n’roll lineage.
How about an example I’ve actually lived through? I play in a band called Shelter Dogs that’s involved with a (mostly) cassette label called King Pizza Records. King Pizza specializes in garage rock, punk, powerpop and psych, and its bands gig together a lot. For all intents and purposes, it’s been a coherent scene. It has the internal resources to book your shows, shoot your music videos, photograph your band, design your flyers, and draw a good crowd. And a bunch of the bands in the KP scene have a history that precedes the point where they fell into this scene, or the point where this scene had congealed in the first place. King Pizza has pulled together like-minded musicians and fans from niches and pockets and whole other scenes — either because KP’s principals recognized them as of like mind and offered to help, or because they recognized KP had critical mass that could give them a boost. That critical mass came from somewhere. Some of the OG characters behind the label went to college together, played the same entry-level NYC clubs everyone else does, didn’t necessarily feel they belonged to any scene, and stayed in touch with any bands they ran into in that circuit who were on their wavelength. I was introduced to King Pizza when I was running a DIY space and needed bands for a bill; they stayed in touch because they had bands that needed a good DIY venue to call upon*. There were other garagey rock’n’roll scenes around, but I was drawn to KP because they were especially hard-working, organized, welcoming, and honest.
Back to the 21st Century
In my experience, that’s the way scenes normally happen, in the event they do happen. The talent and interest are usually already present. They just need an opportunity or good reason to come together. With King Pizza, the clarity of vision helped, as did the fact that some of the other garage rock scenes around NYC were full of people who were kind of starting to age out of gigging and show-going. There was a vacuum, but a vacuum ripe to be filled.
Here’s an example of how not to get a scene together; ymmv. Many years ago, a friend of mine decided to find a place where he could book shows, and get a scene happening. He’d been gigging locally for years, so he knew a healthy number of local musicians already and was quite well-liked around town. He noted there was no real venue for full bands within walking distance of the university he and I had attended, and he recognized that university had produced a whole lot of solid local bands. He found a bar near campus that gave him a night, and he started inviting bands and solo acts. I was one of them; most of us at the shows knew each other. It was all pretty well-organized, and my friend talked up this new venture at any other shows he attended or played around town.
But it didn’t stick. There were a couple of fatal flaws. Even though the bar’s management was supportive, the existing clientele was almost totally disinterested. This bar was the hangout for the university’s football team and various frats. Those folks stayed on one side of the room. The music audience was on the other. I have this memory from when I was about 21 — I was onstage at the bar, playing Lou Christie’s melodramatic falsetto jam “The Gypsy Cried,” while five or six linebacker-looking guys standing against the back wall just death-stared at me. I thought it was hilarious. But it wasn’t quite the makings of a scene. And it was a typical occurrence for that place.
Another important factor is that proximity to campus didn’t actually matter to the bands and audiences my friend wanted to draw. Yeah, a lot of the people he wanted to draw would have connections to the college. But none of them hung out on campus. The musicians hung out downtown, which was not a walkable distance. That’s where most of the music venues in town were already. Most of the musicians in my friend’s target audience didn’t live on campus, either; I recall the lion’s share of my arty-type friends moved off-campus as soon as we possibly could. One more thing: I don’t think the audience for local original music in that town, or the number of original bands, was at a point where it would need to spill over into a new spot. We were pretty well served with that we already had, for all intents and purposes. It’s true that a lot of local musicians griped about how they weren’t gigging as much as they wanted — but realistically, they were gigging about to the extent that their audiences might support them. (You get to a point where more gigging can work to your disadvantage, and I talked about that in an earlier post.)
So What Next?
I don’t want to @ my friend, because he made a noble effort, and at that point in time I would have done largely the same things if I’d had a room to book. I’ve seen other folks do the same thing over and over. The process of “starting a new scene” usually looks like that, in my experience. And it usually ends similarly: quietly, and after a few months or so.
This isn’t one of those cases where there are guidelines to follow to get a new scene off the ground. And again, I don’t want to deter anyone from trying to fill a need they perceive on their own turf. Every town and city has its own realities. Start by assessing what you have. Get plugged into local music and arts. You might find there’s already a place for what you want to do in a scene, any scene. You might recognize genuine, underserved demand for something new. Take it from there and make decisions that suit your local culture. If your locale just can’t support what you want, maybe you’ll need to go somewhere else to find it. And then you’ll have to make decisions about whether and how to get yourself there.
Who knows, a little cross-pollination between two towns could benefit everyone involved. It might get you all moving toward critical mass.
* Fwiw the space I ran didn’t materialize out of thin air, either. We were inspired by, and initially pulled bands from, the scenes around DIY spaces like Fort Useless and Shea Stadium (the art loft, not the actual demolished stadium) and DIY event series Hillstock, the remaining pieces of the early ’10s NYC indiepop scene, and the scattered set of Connecticut expat musicians in NYC. I used to joke we couldn’t let the New Jersey transplants hog the spotlight.
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