The Trouble With Music Today

I’ve heard complaints about it for years.  I’ve watched people move away because of it. I’ve conducted a roundtable interview on the subject for the Birmingham Weekly, and tried in a number of ways to improve it.

No, not chlamydia; the local music scene is what I’m talking about.

Birmingham is a hotbed of talent, even moreso than our dominance of American Idol would lead you to believe. We’ve got a few people here who have gotten national recognition (the quality of such recognition, of course, depends on your tastes and your social scene): Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink (formerly of Little Red Rocket and Azure Ray), Brother Cane, Vallejo, Lynam, Dan Sartain, Eric Dover (yeah, Jasper, I know), Remy Zero, Verbena, John Strohm. And, even being tragically out of touch with the local music scene since Bailey’s shut down, I can tell you that there’s some absolutely jaw-dropping talent that tragically few people have heard of — Eric McGinty, the Big Tasties (and every member of that band is a frightening talent on their own), Honeybaked, Heath Green, Stuart McNair,

That’s even more than I thought it was going to be.  Wow. Which is both equal parts exciting and confounding. Exciting, because I had underestimated the amount of very real talent in my hometown, and that’s keeping in mind the fact that I don’t really get out to clubs other than wherever I might be working, so there’s a lot of acts that I’ve never heard or experienced live.  Confounding because, with the amount of talent that has been recognized, I wonder why more hasn’t.

This lack of recognition/difficulty getting noticed in Birmingham has been at the heart of the debates about the usefulness/validity/existence of a Birmingham music scene.  A lot of it is musicians bitching that they haven’t gotten noticed — which to me is equal parts ego, denial, and laziness talking.  Some of it is bar owners or other fans of original homegrown talent wondering why their friends and favorites haven’t found more success, and to me that’s just misunderstanding what the public wants.  Some of it is just cold, hard fact.

MUSICIANS ARE STUBBORN ENOUGH TO SHOOT THEMSELVES IN THE FEET

A lot of the problems that cross my mind are not the sole property of Birmingham, but rather characteristic of a given population.  Artists — musicians, specifically — are a stubborn, proud bunch.  If you write songs, playing other people’s music is not what you want to do, even if it means making money to invest in equipment or advertising, making connections with bar owners or booking agents, or building a crowd.  And yet, sadly, sometimes you’ve got to do distasteful things, like working for an ad agency while you develop your own graphic style, or doing commercials to build a resume for your film career.

Musicians: none of us enjoy playing set after set of covers, but sometimes you just have to bite the bullet.  It doesn’t mean you’re selling out, or that your dignity has somehow been compromised.  it means you’re paving the road and building the foundation for your success.  It’d be nice if all our demo CDs found their way into the hands of Radiohead, but it doesn’t happen that way for any but the rare exception.

Deal with it while you’re figuring out which songs you can learn that you don’t despise but crowds will still dig (the Exhibit(s) have discovered that Radiohead, Muse, and Failure all go over pretty well, as do Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin — and crowds really dig an original tune that includes a bridge filled with random hip hop snippets).

BAR OWNERS ARE PEOPLE, TOO

Ideally, your bar owners and bartenders and booking people are only concerned with business — making money.  If you’re drawing and building a crowd, especially one that drinks a lot and doesn’t cause problems, you should be getting more gigs.  It doesn’t always work this way, sadly; personal politics and tastes enter the equation also.  You might never get a chance at a good club because you’ve pissed the owner or one of the bartenders off, or because they’ve heard bad things about you (musically or personally), true or not, or because you listed Metallica on your cover catalog and they hate heavy music.

Keep in mind that this can also work to your advantage; if you find a bar staff that really believes in you, they’ll push you to all their regulars and new customers alike, and give you chance after chance (even when you maybe don’t deserve another).

MUSICIANS ARE INHERENTLY LAZY

Also known in binary logic terms as {var musician != “marketing genius”}.Your art is just like any other product out there: you’ve got competition.  People have to know you exist in order to become a viable option.  You’re up against people who don’t know if you’re any good, or if you’re even worth trying, and other bands that are equally unknown (or worse, well-known and liked).

Why should people give you a chance, especially in a strong market or a tough economy?

This is a collaborative effort, to some extent.  The bar wants as many people to come in as possible, because their bottom line is affected by your crowd as much (if not moreso, in the case of guaranteed band payouts) as yours.  BUT:

Here in Birmingham especially, people generally don’t follow bands, but rather their bars.  At Bailey’s, we had the same crowds night in and night out, to about a 75 – 85% level.  There were bands that would drive people away because of musical tastes or lack of talent, but evens for the biggest bands, we would only pick up 15-25% of a crowd in new or irregular people that were drawn by the band.  Speaking from the Exhibit(s) POV, we have a small core crowd that will come see us at various and sundry venues, but mostly what I see when I look out from the stage is faces that I’m apt to see at that same bar every weekend.

Point of all this being that the bars already have their crowds, and odds are good they’re not going to follow you to the next show.  Unless you really work hard at getting your name burned into their heads, and work even harder at promoting your next shows.  Make phone calls, make fliers for cars and telephone poles, send out mass text messages, utilize email groups and MySpace and Facebook and any tools at your disposal.  Keep in mind that the more people you bring out to your shows, the better life gets: your payout goes up, your reputation goes up, your guarantee gets bigger, your crowd begins to grow organically because hell — that’s where everyone else is.

This ties into another generalization about artists: that we’re a bunch of lazy fucks who think life shouldn’t be this hard.  To which I say: buy a helmet, ice down your aching vagina, and work to change it or shut the hell up.  No one owes you and your grand masterpiece anything.  Bands don’t talk about paying their dues for nothing, and I guarantee you my iPod is filled with musicians infinitely more talented than you that worked hard and still never made it.

BIRMINGHAMIANS, IN A SWEEPING SENSE, HAVE TERRIBLE TASTE

And here’s the rub, one that is really endemic to Birmingham: the large mass of people here don’t appreciate or enjoy original music, or really anything that is remotely unfamiliar.  You don’t get a chance to impress them with your own tunes, because even the stuff they enjoy is forgotten the next day.  What they do remember, though, is dancing to Jimmy Buffet or the Dead, getting housed to Nirvana, getting laid because they sang along with the hot guy while you played Hank Jr.

We have a sizable number of people that want to hear the originals that Eric wrote, but they’re a drop in the bucket of the audience we would like to have.  And most of that audience has never heard of (much less supported) Verbena, or Maria Taylor, or Eric Dover or John Strohm.  These folks were successful outside of Birmingham, perhaps even in spite of large chunks of Birmingham.  And that’s the saddest thing of all.

—-

I used to think that I was in a unique(ish) position to help fix the music scene around here, as I’m not approaching the problem just from the perspective of a musician, or a music fan, or a bartender but rather all three.  True, it gives me the viewpoint to see where the other groups are thinking egocentrically or blaming things on others for which they are at fault;  sadly, it also let me see where some viewpoints are likely to never change.

Anyone that has suggestions is encouraged to make them, because all three sides of me stand to gain from them.  In the meantime, I’ll be over here, typing and pondering, listening to all the bands like Porcupine Tree and Devin Townsend and Oceansize that certainly would be rich and famous and appreciated in a perfect world.

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