Sunday, April 30, 2006

Reflections on the New York Music Scene


Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, I viewed New York City as I imagined any young artist from similar small cities like Harrisburg or Kansas City or Indianapolis would: in no uncertain terms, New York was the mecca of the art world. Toledo would be my staging ground, the one horse town that would provide some interesting depth in my future biography but would go unmentioned after page eighty or so. There certainly wasn't a music scene in Toledo, in even the most generous sense of the word. A handful of places to play, no geographic center, and a few bands, none of them doing anything horribly interesting. In the early nineties, Toledo had a ton of 'alterna-rock' bands--pale shades of the Pumpkins and Radiohead and lots of unsuccessful channeling of Kurt Cobain--and the white trash kids from the city and the surrounding areas had the eighties thrash/metal thing going. I haven't been to show in Toledo in ten years, but I wouldn't be surprised if not much had changed. A quick search of craigslist turned up the following band.
Although I didn't realize it at the time, I was already displaying signs of my nascent Darwinism during my Toledo years. I figured that given the right environment, I had the skills to flourish musically; in Toledo, I would perish. So while my peers were off to work at the factories and warehouses, I was off to New York, home of CBGB's, the Ramones, the Lower East Side, Lou Reed, etc, etc.
Early impressions of the city were good. Right off the bat the band hooked up with a very talented singer. Every other person I met was a musician or artist of some sort. And we got offered a gig right away. We were practicing at Smash Studios on 36th street. Haven't been there in a while but at the time it was a warren of rehearsal rooms and had a freaky free-roaming parrot. Considering there was nothing remotely like that in Toledo, I was impressed. After rehearsal, we were at the front waiting to pay when the guy behind the desk asked us if we wanted to play a show. He did bookings at Acme Underground and liked what he heard from our rehearsal. Getting a gig in Toledo was always an excruciating process. But here in New York, as I'd known, the gigs fall like manna from heaven. The guy gave us his card and told us we'd be playing Acme at midnight on a Thursday.
This was our first New City Show and we dutifully showed up at 8pm to watch the other bands. Things seemed to be off to an auspicious start. Acme Underground was located in a trendy downtown neighborhood, there were a bunch of bands playing and already a decent crowd present when we arrived. I figured it would only get bigger as the night wore on and more of the regulars showed up. No such luck. I don't remember anything about the bands that played before us. What I do remember, though, was the revolving door 'fan' base. In Toledo, you could expect a small crowd, but to some extent, you could expect a portion of them to stick around. After all, there wasn't much else to do. It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that New York is not Toledo. Each band played, then packed up and left, taking with them the 10-12 people they'd brought. So much for solidarity among the bands. As the midnight hour approached, I did a quick head count. The place was hemorrhaging people--at one time there may have been upwards of 20 or so people, but no one was sticking around the see the other bands. After the 11 o'clock band finished, we rushed to set up. Perhaps if we could start while the people were still there, they'd stick around. It didn't happen. As we got ready to play, there was two or three people left. The bartender was less than pleased. He wanted to know where our fans were. We tried to explain that we were new to New York and that it was midnight on a weeknight, but he wasn't having it. I wondered where their fans were--wouldn't a happening New York nightspot have a reputation for booking good bands and thus attract a crowd of audiophiles looking to find the next big thing? Sadly, no.
That first gig at Acme Underground set the tone. Shows at the Elbow Room, the Spiral, the Lion's Den, Desmond's, the Baggot Inn, Don Hill's, even the vaunted CBGB's, only reinforced the pattern. A sobering realization set in; promoters were unconcerned with the talent of the bands or their genres. All that mattered was how many people you could bring (Translation: how many friends did you have?) A different form of Darwinian thinking was at play, the cutthroat struggle of capitalism. Knowing that the people were uninterested in sticking around to see other bands that might play a similar style of music, the bookers put together incongruous bills. We played with folk rock bands, rap rock bands, hardcore bands, alternative bands, noise rock bands, r&b bands....it didn't matter that we were a progressive punk pop band. We were booked with anyone and everyone. I began to take a sick fascination in alienating the people who were there to see their friend's acoustic duo play. It made me happy to see them covering their ears and grimacing at our sheer volume. Before each show, our guitar player would implore us to blow the other bands of the stage. It became a point of pride for us.
After a while, it became unbearable and one day the guitar player of the band called it quits. He wanted to play music but didn't want to deal with the garbage anymore. You can only play so many shows on Tuesday nights at 11 for a few die-hard friends, going on an hour later than scheduled, and having to listen to a griping promoter before getting fed up. I realize that it's quite possible that the problem was simply that we weren't a good band, but regardless of our talent level, the patterns were the same for almost every other band I watched. And furthermore, our talent had no bearing on the promoters' booking habits.
So now, after seven years in New York, what have I learned? The last two shows I played did nothing to stir my cynicism. The first show had my rock band booked with a number of r&b acts. We went on an hour late. The band after us never showed up, so we didn't even get the benefit of poaching its fans. After playing, the promoter revealed we had one person show up. Suffice to say the r&b fans in attendance were not won over. At the second show, I backed a country-pop artist. When I arrived at the club, a Long Island metal band was playing (Long Island, the Toledo of New York?) I just shook my head. Why in the world book a metal band to open for a country-pop singer? At least they brought a number of fans. It was great to watch them file out as we set up our equipment.
And yet, in the last few years, some progress has been made in the only way progress occurs--by doing it yourself. Instead of hoping for some mythical New York scene that most likely never existed, I have been working to create my own reality. The whole point of Silent Stereo Records is to create an environment where we are the scene. We've allied ourselves with some good bands and we support each other. It's a model that works and is infinitely more satisfying than what I experienced when I got here. Hopefully other people will catch on.

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