What does local music mean to you?
When people talk about local music, the ensuing conversation can lead to talk about everything from neophyte groups that play super obscure genres, to those that even hide their actual identities and faces – only releasing and performing music at haunts within their hometown to a certain crowd – to bands that have long since departed from their originating cities and now live elsewhere while mostly supporting nationally or internationally touring groups more widespread than even themselves. In any of these cases however, an even more importance factor of distinction often gets overlooked or just maybe taken for granted in the conversation:
How much value does your local community place on local artists?
When taking a good look at the three kinds of examples mentioned above, despite an upfront slew of outright, as well as unspoken but potential differences in motivations for making music, for all three, a question of how much one’s home stomping grounds gives priority and public reinforcement to music, and analyzing what kind, is a query pertinent to all of them.
Play music solo, or in a group that is of a less familiar variety / downright uncommon stylistic hybrid of one’s own creation, and there are going to be barriers from the outset that makes getting and retaining an audience anywhere, even one’s hometown, difficult. Anyone newly presenting themselves to an entertainment circuit, even if they offer sounds and song structures that feel ubiquitous and are therefore more easily received, is going to be dealing with an initial introduction period that any new artist has to break past.
Local performance and exposure is the starting ground in this case but what if you are so unique in your creative songwriting process, that you can’t seem to identify with any existing musicians in town to give yourself or your band a jumping off point for connection and associated familiarity? And what if your town doesn’t have a free-for-all open mic that is blind to style and just wants to fill slots? How does one put themselves in front of people? What if, on the other hand, there are plenty of restaurants, clubs, and venues that feature live music but the kind of music presented is severely limited in style to the point of bookers only accepting inquiries from groups identifying with certain genres or even just presenting themselves exclusively as a cover band?
Last week, local Long Island newspaper, Newsday, published an article by staff music writer, Glenn Gamboa, wherein Gamboa breached the topic of a struggle to find the balance for presence and awareness of local original music and local tribute bands, due to the increase of the latter over the former in more recent years. The subsequent conversations that arose across social media among a whirlwind of local, original music producing musicians, expressed everything from quiet agreement with Gamboa’s sentiment, to agreement with added aggravation toward the cover and tribute segment of Long Island’s music community. Reasons and proposals for why Long Island currently isn’t, but could become a place that’s more wholesomely receptive to original music, were plentiful: Splitting set times between cover bands and original acts. Dedicating certain nights at venues to original music on a recurring basis.
Woven among actionable ideas, some popular sentiments over the dilemma included emotional declarations over the passion, heart, and challenging creative processes involved in writing one’s own music over solely performing pre-existent songs. Still others seemed to lean toward the idea that a good portion of the local populace won’t take to original because the majority is stuck on familiar established classics they already know and know that they like. (Looking at you Billy Joel!)
Here’s the thing though:
Let’s start by establishing an understanding about one very straightforward set of concepts: Music is an art form. Many people like to make it, to perform it, and to write it. Some people like to do all three; others don’t. However, regardless of why a person chooses to have the kind of relationship with music that they do, it doesn’t necessarily mean one kind of relationship is better or has more value than the other. If Long Island, or any other smaller local area has a decline or lack of presence for original music acts, pointing a finger at the pursuit of another is not the answer.
Firstly, it’s condescending and that’s appealing to no one – whether you’re in the business or not. It’s like the idea of women tearing down other women. Music is a struggling field to try to even exist in, let alone perform often, or even make sustainable money. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.
Secondly, if a community of local original bands starts down the path of quantifying what makes them somehow more legitimate or more valuable – whether it’s emphasizing the factor of original composition, the factor that everyone in the band worked hard to and is instrumentally self-taught, or some other facet of identifying accomplishment tied explicitly to being an original music band – then not only is the discussion going to rapidly decline into an old school pit of classicist, elitist, and purist shame but anyone unfortunate enough to get caught in that kind of verbal tornado will end up missing the the actual problems entirely.
If a local community has an ingrained attachment to cover and tribute bands, the question to ask is why and the problem to work on, is figuring out how to shift the public’s cultural mindset to one that is open to hearing people from around town but performing something new.
Some events and discussion-oriented panels have already taken place, as addressed by Gamboa, but the results were rather combative and competitive between the two sides. This is just not the point on which to focus. In addition to tackling a public change in outlook toward all kinds of musical groups, there’s a supplementary question at hand; the answer to which relates to solving a stagnant mindset and greatly affects the chances any musician in a local market has of succeeding when it comes to sustained, positive reception:
What is the presented image and and level of priority the local media gives to musicians and to what it means to be “local?”
Local music can mean:
- Songs that aren’t original compositions, but are performed and-or recorded by people local to the area.
- Groups that perform locally and play original songs.
- Artists that had a connection to the local area at one point in time and moved away but continue to be valued; not for their current residence but the existence of a local legacy.
The aforementioned reference to Billy Joel is a perfect example for the Long Island scene. Joel, known for both his radio hits and outwardly expressed devotion to Long Island (so often heard in his songs,) is an international icon. Arenas sell at the drop of a hat, the man has toured well beyond New York’s borders, and his music hasn’t been confined to the local radio station in decades. Yet, it would be an understatement to say that Long Island’s local media doesn’t love to look over to the metaphorical trophy shelf and remind the world that Joel is from Long Island when the opportunity arises. (Ironically, however, in this same line of thought, other highly acclaimed stars like Broadway actress and award-winning singer, Idina Menzel, are not always noted for being from the island in the same fashion.)
What becomes important to remember with regard to this aspect of music and locality, is that media acknowledgement plays a big role in shaping the importance and perceived value of what the accompanying local demographic can and should direct its attention to. Whether it’s print papers, digital publications, televised local news stations, or local radio shows, all of these mediums can have a profound impact on encouraging or stifling public interest in local residents who make music – original and tribute alike. If a town is only really about mentioning its “localness” when it comes to big name artists that have already moved beyond its borders, then the definition of local in that case really is somewhat of a misnomer. That approach is running on the fuel of legacy association and does nothing for the people currently active and working their way around town to get others to give their music a chance.
That being said, no one can expect even the most locally devoted media to just place a band front and center, on demand. Putting oneself out there as a solo artist or band is always going to require an inherent amount of work in order to attain new interest, new intrigue, and new commitment to following musician progress. Some areas have fewer resources or opportunities for musicians to put themselves out there in a way that doesn’t simply involve just posting music to the internet, which would tend to defeat the purpose of focusing on the people in one’s own area. However, the blessing in disguise that is the flip side to this problem, is that focusing solely on shifting the culture of a single town or area means more intimate and less conventional approaches to forging relationships, can be part of the change. Doing things in an old-school way – less digital, more face to face – isn’t as odd because the people you’re trying to reach are around the same places you are: the local schools, stores, churches, parks, and malls. There’s a built-in degree of recurring visibility with people from your own hometown. So the difficulty of trying to ensure one announcement on a social page gets seen before it drowns in an algorithm, is less of a factor.
And if the idea of doing so much leg work seems daunting, think about this: Have you ever bothered to ask people why they don’t gravitate to locally written and performed music more? Perhaps the answers will surprise and if it’s a matter of access or lack of exposure from local media, then there’s a problem that can be addressed! Talking to people one-on-one might seem old-fashioned but information is key. And what’s more 2018 than gathering social data, right? Maybe take a survey or poll around town. Do some digging. Get a sense of what the local community is aware of, isn’t aware of, wants, doesn’t want, and why. If media and venues believe a community is after one thing but in reality the public is more open-minded, then the answer might just be bringing that actuality to light, in front of the right people.
Perceptions of something that “have just been that way” for a long time might have some truth to them but odds are the perpetuation of a local music stereotype about an area is a vicious cycle. Just like any “problem” with multiple sides or parties, everything starts with perspective, understanding, communication, and collective effort for compromise and patience for gradual change. Nowhere in that formula of evolution, is the idea of digging one’s heels in or insulting the status quo, a helpful piece of the equation.
Value, like strength, is accrued over time and grown.
If your local community seems closed to the value of its own art, don’t give up or get angry. Listen, ask questions, and think outside the box about how to re-shape the landscape – not simply burn it to the ground.