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I Hate Local Music
Published on December 3, 2012 by guest author: Tony Are

I hate local music.

Well, I sort of hate it — that is I hate thinking of local music as “local music,” and I hate being told that I need to support it.

I guess I should explain. Over the last month or so, at least seven of my Facebook “friends” have forwarded some version of a “support local music” meme. They are mostly musicians, or people with an active interest in music, and some of them are in what you would call “local bands”, so I guess I can understand why they thought they agreed with this enough to pass it along. But when I started thinking about it, I realized that something was bothering me about this whole deal.

First of all, when people say “local music” I'm not sure they are thinking about what it means. I live in NY, so for instance, Lady Gaga, Jay Z, and Madonna are all “local.” But I don't think I'm being implored to be sure to catch the “MDNA tour” as it blows through town. The idea seems to be supporting struggling, mainly unknown artists from your home town — you know, the ones playing in that bar just up the road. Now that seems like a worthwhile thing. But supporting local artists is not like supporting your local farmer. Fresh eggs and tomatoes are actually better than the ones that have spent time in the distributor's warehouse. And there is the thing about cutting down your carbon footprint, although I guess the jury is still out on whether buying local really makes a significant difference. But art is a different type of thing, a form of communication that intends to make you feel something, to re-connect with the world in a way that combines the artist's intentions with your own experience. It's a thought process made physical.

And that has nothing to do with being local. One of the problems with the meme is that it cuts out the art. I'm pretty sure that's not the intent, but focusing on the local support ends up in that place. Yes, supporting art needs to be about fostering a creative community where new things can be invented before being tried out on the national stage. But what we need to be encouraging is aspiring to make that flash of communication between the artist and the audience revelatory. That's a tall order — it's hard, and frankly, a lot of art doesn't make it. But even an attempt to do this creates its own type of pleasure, and when it does happen — that's when it all becomes worthwhile. What people need to be supporting is good music, not local music — and by good I don't mean only music that I happen to like, but I mean any music that is made by someone trying to connect something profound within themselves to an audience.


Anyone who has read my pieces here or elsewhere knows I like “undiscovered” music as much as (actually probably a little more than) the next guy. But I don't like to compromise on my definition of “good” and I don't believe in grading on the curve. And I think “local” takes you there — if what defines your support is the geographic location of the bands (or the venues, which is worse, I'll get to that in a minute), then you are probably giving a pass to some mediocre music, unless you are living in London in 1967. And although it seems like a nice thing to do, it doesn't help anybody (except the venues — did I mention that I'll get to them?) in the long run.

Sometimes I do think this injunction to “support local music” was started by bars and clubs, who have the most to gain in all this. Back in “the day,” music venues, even small ones, felt they had a stake (even if it was purely commercial) in promoting the idea of “art.” When I was coming up back in the late 70s, there were only about four or five places in NY for “unsigned” bands to play. And those places were picky. I was once in a band that rehearsed for six months in order to play audition night at CBGB. But the trade-off was that the audience knew that there was a consistent aesthetic sensibility at work (despite its many quirks and gaps), and so they would enthusiastically pay to check out a band that they had never heard before. The audience and the venue developed that sense of musical community together. But now there are a million clubs, one on every corner, and most of them have gotten both lazy and greedy. They figured out that they could take advantage of the desperation of bands trying to get an audience, and so they relaxed their booking policies and at the same time forced those bands to do the heavy lifting — publicity, promotion, and gathering an audience. Unfortunately, a lot of them aren't very good. And a lot of them are not attempting to make “art” as I defined it above.

And instead of musical community you have bands that probably don't have any business being on stage basically renting performance space on consignment, and attempting to harangue their friends into coming, because if they don't draw enough people, they won't be able to repeat the process again next weekend or whenever. And once you are within this structure, there is nobody that is going to insist on them turning what they do into art — not the club owners, who are just counting the door and the liquor proceeds, and not the audience, who are only there because their friends in the band facebooked them 25 times or they feel a moral imperative to “support local music.” Musicians today are encouraged to become more adept at promotion than they are at making art.

It's not all dire — there are artists who have found ways out of this dead end, and there are also venues that are attempting to counter it as well. There are DIY performance spaces and lofts in places like Bushwick, Brooklyn (and elsewhere) that are attempting to define an aesthetic and attract a like-minded audience. And there are bands that decide on their own that they are going to try and create something profound and wonderful, whether it reaches an audience or not. And if there is something compelling, something that resonates and is backed up with craft and wit and intelligence and maybe even some skill, it will attract an audience. But that's not local. I go to see art because I want that transformative experience, and frankly I don't care where it's from or where it's being performed. Sorry, I'm not going to buy some friend of mine's CD or go see their band, even if they are playing down the street, if I don't think they are any good. That goes for famous national touring bands as well as those guys from my block who recorded in the basement — I hold both to the same standard.

If you've played a few times and no one is coming to see your band unless they are shamed into it, it is not the audience's fault. The empty house is probably for one of two reasons: You aren't good enough to create that spark that compels people to come and watch it, or you are doing something so unique, so different from the local sensibility, or so  intense that people can't appreciate it. The artist has to figure out which it is. And if it's the first, you should be doing a lot more thinking and a lot less performing in local clubs. Or if you do want to continue performing (and I've known some bands who went through the whole learning process right out in public and still got to be pretty good) you have to be prepared for an audience that slowly builds as you become better at both the concept and the craft of making musical art.

And now in the age of the internet, “local” really starts to lose its meaning. I like the Space Rainbows who live in Germany, Schwervon! from Kansas, Agent Ribbons from Austin, and Art Sorority for Girls from DC. I support those bands (and many, many others), which mainly don't have a major national audience, even though they aren't local to me. I communicate with them online, listen to their recordings, buy their CDs, and see them when they come into town. And I also support many bands, like Brooklyn's Kung Fu Crimewave, who are local to me. They receive my support because each of those bands is doing the one thing they do better than anyone else I could see at my local club, or anywhere — and that's what matters.

This great xtranormal animation pretty much sums where we have come to.

Tony Are is a writer, critic, and occasional musician who lives in New York City. He started playing in bands in 1967 and finally gave up in 2003. Now he sits in a rocking chair and tells the young whippersnappers how much better it used to be in his day. His poetry is at http://tonyare.weebly.com/index.html.

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User Comments
Todd | December 06, 2012 03:47

Oh, heck yes. As the host of a local music show, I've spent years trying to explain people shouldn't dislike something and then suddenly lower their standards once they find out it's local. On the contrary, if people find out something they already like is local, suddenly they can see and hear it live without the hurdles of scalpers, cross-country airfare, etc.

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