The State Of The Music Scene

An unfocused (and poorly edited) rant; the direct result of 4 hours in the waiting room without a computer.

Our music scene is in pretty rough shape. Is this really the same town that produced Prince, Hüsker Dü, um… I’m trying to think of some recent examples. Oh, right, there aren’t any. 

I’ve been complaining about the state of the music scene for a while. Get me rolling on the topic, and I’ll subject you to a neverending diatribe against the clubs, the bands, the fans… everyone, of course, but me. I’ve remained pure, above the fray. And uninvolved.

I’ve never taken a particularly active role in my career. I don’t think of myself as a leader, though I’m not much of a follower. bands came and went, forming without me, breaking up after me. I said “yes” to every opening, even when I didn’t like the music. Then I would embrace my adopted Minnesota’s notorious passive aggression, letting my involvement wane until was off the hook.

Through it all, I played gigs. Full nights of covers, 20-minute openers, unplugged sets, smoky bars, outdoor festivals, cable access: you name it, I played it. Every show had one thing in common: whatever went wrong was someone else’s fault.

Nobody showed up? Must be the weather. Everyone left early? Must be the holidays. The bar stiffed us? They just don’t appreciate good music. I played badly? The lights were in my eyes. We sounded like rank amateurs? The sound guy* was an asshole.

So I got burned out and went the way of the trends: to the cover band world. Cover bands are doing pretty well in the Cities. I’m not anti-cover band, heck, I play with a couple now. But I (and most of the people I know in cover bands) would prefer to do something original. Unfortunately, the crowds (and the money) are in covers.

I don’t believe this is inherent, I believe it’s because the original scene has gotten lazy. If original bands approached their careers with the drive, organization and professionalism I’ve seen in the cover circuit, we would be hip-deep in world-caliber bands.

Musicians, rise up an resist! Let’s try something completely new, something that will turn the scene on its ear. I’m not talking about an all-Casio cowprog band. I’m talking about being professional. And musical. At the same time.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a band (that I may or may not have been part of) complain about the response they get from bars and patrons. “They treated us like shit!” Well, of course they did: you showed up late, talked down to the sound guy, brought in no one, got drunk, broke some glasses, played over your time slot, took too long to break down and left before the next band even started. You treated everyone else like shit first.

The first step is to get your act together. Literally and figuratively. Form your band, write your songs, and rehearse them. Then, when you’re ready, find an avenue to bring your music to the people.

The classic approach would be to record a demo, put together some basic promo, and book some shows in bars. This approach can still work if you make it. Just remember that booking the show is not the last step.

Music fans have been conditioned to believe that local music is barely listenable. If you can convince them to come to your show, they will assume the other bands on the bill will be awful. Most people believe that local music, by its very nature, is inferior to what they hear on the radio. They treat their friends’ shows like they treat their kids’ soccer games: they show up ’cause they love their kids, not to see an impressive display of athletic prowess. Sad but true.

It is your job to convince them to show up to show up and then prove them wrong.

Take control over everything you can. Start by eliminating variables. If you’re worried about the sound, find out who runs sound, meet him, maybe buy him a beer. Tell him your concerns and ask him what you can do about it. If you think the cover is too high, negotiate with the club. If you think another band on the bill is a bad fit, try to swap for a different night. If you’re worried about the draw, contact the other bands and try to work with them. In short, don’t let the show happen, make the show happen.

The work’s not over when you get to the show, either. Arrive on time and work with your sound guy for a smooth load in, set up and tear down. Introduce yourself to the bartender. Ask about their expectations from you. Thank them. Follow up afterwards: how did the night go? How can you make it better next time?

Of course, there are other options. You could go with internet distribution, live web casts, house parties, whatever. You could come up with a unique plan to get your music out there and change the industry. The general attitude remains the same: take charge, take control, take responsibility.

We’ll still have hurdles to overcome. The clubs and the media have their share of the blame for our declining scene. The fans have turned elsewhere for entertainment. They will come around if we give them a reason. Put on a show worth seeing and the clubs will host it, the media will report it, and the fans will come see it. That’s what the cover bands are doing.


*Out of the hundreds of shows I’ve played, I can count on one hand the female sound techs I’ve encountered (and still have a couple fingers left over). This is a different problem for a different discussion.