The sentiment of "[insert city name here] has a lousy music scene" has existed in every place I have lived (which includes Washington, DC; Champaign-Urbana, IL; Manhattan, KS, and now here in Baltimore, MD). I also hear this complaint from most musicians I know who live in other cities across the country. I have even heard it from people in towns where music is supposedly the core attraction. We can’t all live in Austin, Texas (or wherever the hot scene is supposed to be now). The music scene in your town is what it is so let’s make the best of it.
I am convinced that the complacency over going to live shows is pervasive across North America. There are plenty of other fun things to do that are easier, cheaper, and more convenient than standing for several hours in a club (sometimes a smoky club) to hear some music you are probably never going to hear on the radio. Personally, I would rather hear your music than the shit on the radio, but I realize that I am an exception. I am not a musician but I support local music to the extent that my paycheck and stamina will allow. Of course, it is less of a time commitment to play video games, go to the movies, or just sit on the couch and surf the web than drag myself down to a club to see you. Yet, I do this again and again more than most people half my age and certainly way more than ANYONE in my demographic. I might be a little crazy, but I have always been this way.
Baltimore may never be a music Mecca, but we can enjoy what scene we do have more if musicians are willing to try a few things simple things that will cost them little or nothing. Like all things rock, this list goes to 11.
1) Yes, go see other bands but ALSO bring along 2-3 friends who are not musicians and have NOTHING to do with the scene. When you talk about music, don’t assume your friends know anything about anything. The general music listening public does not understand the infinitesimal difference between musical subgenres (screamo, deathcore, grindcore, WUT?) There are only two kinds of music: the kind people like and the kind they don’t like. Give people a chance to like it or dislike it at their discretion.
2) Make sure your band's website (or Facebook, MySpace or Reverbnation page, YouTube or whatever) has at least three songs for people to preview on it, and change it up once in a while. I feel sad when I visit a band page and it only has one song to listen to. If you only have one song, maybe you are not ready to leave the garage yet. Also spend half a minute writing up some legit information on your band. Give fans the chance to become familiar with your music and who you are in advance. It can make a world of difference. I listen to as much as I can of a band before I see them, even ones I already love. YouTube is especially good if you can post decent SOUNDING live clips. Please don’t post highly distorted live clips. This does not help you.
3) Network with bands from the wider region so when I go out to see you I have a chance to be exposed to someone new from DE, VA, PA, NJ, NY etc. I am interested in all independent music, not just the stuff in the city. The music scene may not be Baltimore; maybe our scene is the Mid Atlantic. Make a mark together.
4) Make sure you talk to people who come to your shows, engage people you have never seen before and get them to like YOU as well as your music. If only one person in your band is chatty and social then guess what, that’s going to be his/her job—Official Band Spokesmonkey. People come back to see people who acknowledge them. This sounds kind of cheesy but it is so true. As someone who has worked in public relations for a long time, I cannot emphasize face-to-face interaction ENOUGH! If you remain aloof and uninterested while standing at your merch table (oh you have merch?) that feeling will be mirrored back on to you from the audience.
5) Carefully space your shows out; don't over saturate your regional market by playing all the fucking time in the same fucking place. Go write some new songs, save for gas money so you can go play somewhere else (see number 3). I hear from bands that audiences go wild in SE Asia, Australia, South America and other places. Why? Because the people are starved for live shows. Now, that’s an extreme comparison, but the principle is the same. Why should I go see you this week if you are playing someplace else nearby next week? Make me want you.
6) If an out-of-town band comes to play with you, make sure they have a place to stay. No sleeping in the van! Don’t make them have to ask you. Offer first and allow them the opportunity to decline. They are likely to return the favor when you play their town. Also get in touch with this organization called Fans 4 Bands that can provide tour support in the form of snacks, water, socks, and other simple things bands need on the road.
7) Use the fuck out of social networks (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Google +, YouTube, whatever, etc.) because it is FREE. When you have a show, create an event and put all the links and crap on there so people know who’s playing and what everyone sounds like and what it costs and where to park. If your show is booked through a promoter, don’t rely on the promoter to do all the promotion. YOU TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. Oh, and don’t underestimate Twitter. It takes consistency and a little time to build up a following there. But you will reach organizations and untapped audiences you might never have imagine just by posting to Twitter. If anyone wants help in managing Twitter, please contact me directly. Or follow me at @mary_spiro.
8) Tip the sound guy/girl or buy them a sandwich or something. Otherwise, they may make you sound terrible, unintentionally, of course. This via guitarist Ken Sorceron of Abigail Williams.
9) Change your set up each time you play so that people hear different songs. Surprise me, please. Thank you.
10) Stop saying we have no scene. “As a man thinketh, so is he.” (That’s in the Bible, kids.) Stop thinking your bad scene into existence. When you do this, even people who don’t know what a “scene” is supposed to be like, will just think ours sucks in advance. Do you think that will make them want to come to your show? I am not trying to be delusional here. But I am sick of Complainy McComplainersons finding fault in everything and everyone. When I was in college, long before people coined the term “hipster,” I was still surrounded by 18-20- something malcontents who could find no good in anything. Now I am hearing it all over again from a younger generation. JUST STOP IT! Life is too fucking short to spend all your time finding fault. You should be squeezing every bit of life out of every moment you draw breath.
11) Don’t give up. The truth is, you probably won’t ever be rich and famous off of playing your music. Even bands you might think are doing pretty well, the members all have very real ordinary jobs in their off hours and there is no shame in that. But is money and fame the reason you do it? Probably not, or at least I hope not. You do it because you love music and you have to make music because you are a musician (just like I have to write because I am a writer, or so I claim). Regardless of whether you attain some measure of success or not, just be happy that you were a part of something unique and that you added your art to the world.
OK, that’s it. Some of you may disagree or say that I don’t know what I am talking about because I am not a musician playing here. Well, so be it. These are my opinions and my suggestions. I will continue to go to shows, large and small, in and around Baltimore as much as I am able, regardless of whether or not I am told we have a scene or not. I love indie, underground music. And I love you. Happy New Year.
Mary Spiro is a full-time writer for a major research university. In her spare time she goes to see bands and sometimes writes about the local music scene in Baltimore, MD. Her favorite musical genres are death metal, black metal, prog rock, ambient, experimental, post-punk, industrial, cool jazz and underground hip-hop. And Devin Townsend.