The Dirt Is Red!

oh… and what's a grit?

What’s wrong with Birmingham’s music scene?

Tonight I was watching my local weekly Twitter chat like I do each week. This week was particularly interesting to me because it featured Birmingham’s own comedian Roy Wood, Jr. Not just because I like Roy, mind you, but because he is an entertainer who spent time trying to make it here locally. While I watched the conversation turned towards the failing music scene here in my home town, a place rife with music culture and undeniably some of the most talented musicians anywhere I decided to offer my first tweet into the discussion, which follows:

dgarvich: @roywoodjr the local music scene dies or leaves because of a lack of local support. 🙁 #bhamchat

To which Roy responded:

roywoodjr: @dgarvich the local music scene dies or leaves because of a lack of local support. 🙁 <- who’s to blame? the public, artist, or venue?

First to explain my Tweet. I have played with some amazing musicians and seen even more in Birmingham. Without exception one thing each of them imparts to me is that Birmingham simply will not support good, original local music. They are forced to leave and grow a following elsewhere. Beyond that statement each can offer a thousand opinions as to why this is the case, but Roy’s question got me thinking about at least attempting to define the problem(s). That’s the first step towards fixing things, right?

So I pondered this for a bit and the truth is that there just isn’t enough room on Twitter to make my thoughts on the matter clear. So I put this post together to maybe help some folks understand why the local music scene struggles in a place so steeped with music culture.

To address Roy’s question directly, everyone is to blame. A music scene is a symbiotic collective and success or failure is shared by everyone involved. No one can dodge responsibility for starving our culture just like no one can take credit for creating it.

Now to define some of the failures I’ve seen a little further…

The Public – The public determines what music gets played and what acts succeed, end of story. The vast majority of the “listening public” are completely apathetic towards their music consumption, choosing to listen to whatever they are force fed by the marketing departments of major labels and local FM radio. These folks are far more likely to pay Ticketmaster exorbitant fees to sit 120 rows away from the stage at a national touring act’s show (where the musicians may or may not be actually playing/singing) than they are to show up for a local act and watch them face to face for $5.

We, as a music consuming society, have lost site of what an “artist” is and we very rarely appreciate great music or performances unless they are accompanied by over the top marketing schemes. Don’t believe me? Think you’d know good or amazing music if you encountered it “in the wild”? Read “Pearls Before Breakfast” before you make a definitive statement. We’re further out of touch than we care to admit and we’re getting more so with every Bieber that finds fame.

The solution for this is simple. As a consumer, start demanding more from your personal musical tastes. Start figuring out what music you actually like and why. What is it about your favorite song(s) that moves you? Familiarity (as in, “I’ve heard it a thousand times and it grew on me”) is never the correct answer. Is it the melody? The instrumentation? The lyrics? Once you figure out what you like you can and should start the process of researching some local or regional acts which meet these newly discovered tastes. They’re out there every weekend spending hours setting up a stage, hours playing music and hours breaking down their equipment for almost no money just to gain your ear. They want and need fans and are appreciative of every single person who chooses their show as a way to spend the evening. It’s a refreshing break from the well-known acts who often act like their fans are a bother.

Once you’ve found an act you like support them. Go to shows, buy some of their merchandise and talk with their other fans. Bring friends with similar tastes to their shows and call your favorite venues to let them know that you want your favorite band to play there. Successful acts are just the same garage bands with fans… and you may be that fan that puts them over the top.

The Artist – Local acts these days are doing as much or more to damage the scene they are trying to break into than anyone else. The list of offenses is long, but I’ll try to list a few just to show the angles not always seen by everyone.

Firstly, there is a huge difference between “acts” and “artists”. One is interested in cultivating a connection with other humans using a medium (in this case music). The other just wants attention. Too many local musicians are perfectly content to take on the persona of whatever big act is today’s flavor. They dress like them, play their songs and even pretend to be them when doing a show. These are acts… and while they can be fun to behold they do nothing to evolve the art.

You could bar hop on a Saturday night and catch 5 different bands. You’ll hear the same songs being played at each stop. In fact, you could bar hop the next Saturday and catch 5 completely different bands that will be made up of the exact same musicians playing the exact same songs. They are that interchangeable. This is why those bands generally break up within a few months… only to reform with one different cast member under a new name a few months later. It’s almost impossibly difficult to develop any loyalty towards one of these acts, even if you like the music they’re playing. They might as well be a Pandora station, it would accomplish the same thing without the drama and added cost to the venue.

The solution? Musicians should demand more from themselves. These songs that they are playing are often from a recorded version of the song that took weeks for the original artists to get right. So they’re not always easy. If you have the level of skill required to play these songs… and you have the drive and attention span to sit and learn them note for note… why on Earth would you not be writing your own material and performing it instead? If you’re in a cover band I don’t ever want to hear you criticize people who play “Rock Band” instead of picking up a real instrument, because you’re doing the same thing.

Find a group of like-minded musicians and create something new. Then present it to people wherever you can find a stage and audience. It doesn’t matter who doesn’t get it, it only matters who does. In the end, it will be something you have created and given to the world and that makes you an artist instead of a faceless mimic pretending to be the marketed image of someone else.

Other things artists should work on? Sticking together, sharing fans, collaborating and being as professional as possible when dealing with venues.

The Venue – Speaking of dealing with venues… My experience has been that most venue owners, also known as “business owners”, have very little interest in doing business in the local scene. They are content to let acts do 100% of the marketing and 100% of the work. That may seem like a good deal to the venue owner on the surface, but the fact is that they could be ruling this starving scene relatively easily. In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.

Too often twenty different venue owners all target the same audience and then complain when they are only able to score a 10% market share. If you have twenty other venues competing for the same “Ohmaigawd play Nickelback/Hinder/Whatever” crowd you’re going to hit a ceiling of how many people could possibly show up at YOUR venue to watch an act. It’s not rocket surgery.

Additionally, many venues treat acts like they’re a bother. Now a lot of that probably has to do with acts being unprofessional, but that’s no excuse for a BUSINESS OWNER to act unprofessional. I once spent 2 months working with a well-known venue to book a show, being told “Yes we definitely want to book you, call me on Monday and don’t forget!” for 2 months straight until we finally got on the same page. Then, a time was agreed upon that was early (8:00PM, it was on a Thursday). However, the person booking for the venue, which required us to use their sound, didn’t even have their sound guy there until 9:00PM. We brought over 100 people at 8:00PM, the venue sold out of their wares… and we didn’t get to play a full show for our audience. That’s shady… and far too common.

So what can venues do to improve? For starters actually take an interest in your venue’s image. Find local / regional (and maybe even national) acts that match up to the type of patron you want to attract and then book them relentlessly. Book them 2 to 3 months in advance to make sure someone else doesn’t get them. Corner the market on what your patrons would consider good music and don’t let anyone else in on it. Protect it by offering the acts good and steady gigs.

Let the acts determine things such as door (if you’re paying them by the door) and show time. Every act will bring their own fans which are going to be a slightly different type of audience for each act. If an act has a more mature audience who will show up in droves for an 8:00PM-10:00PM show, don’t force them to start playing at 11:00PM and then get upset that they didn’t bring an audience.

And this is the biggest one. Help the acts market the show. This is a partnership and you stand to gain far more than the act does if you play your cards right. Offer to go in half on posters and make sure their show is listed… with the artist name spelled correctly… in all of the local publications. The more you market the show in a professional manner the more seriously people unfamiliar with your venue and/or the act will take you. And never forget, it’s the people who don’t know what you’re about that you want to reach. The first impression could and often does make a loyal patron.

The Conclusion (finally!) 😉 – This was a rant and I tagged it as such. But if you read this far at least you have an interest in the local scene and I applaud you for that. If we don’t start to work on this scene, more and more of our musical talent will leave for greener pastures. It’s happening all the time now and will continue to happen, much to the detriment of Birmingham’s amazing musical heritage.

bham musicrant

July 28, 2010

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