On Saturday I went to RoastFest, a beautiful extravaganza of creative and utterly idiosyncratic music, all independent or unsigned, all uncompromisingly true to its various muses, and all performed for the sheer love of it (free entry to eight hours of music, including some acts who are pretty well known in their field). To see so much genuinely creative and original art on show in one place was more than a treat, it was moving; but it also struck me that I was seeing an accumulation of cultural capital to compare with anything mustered by a government funded national institution. The fact that the Tate Gallery, or the Barbican, or the Royal Opera House, or whatever big fish you want to look at, tell us that the stuff they present is the ‘real important stuff’ is no reason to believe it, and so many people do only because that amount of economic capital commands attention from The Culture Show, Newsnight Review, the arts pages of broadsheet papers and all of that malarkey. The only national institution putting their weight behind RoastFest was the snooker player Steve Davis, who for all his obvious cultural alertness is not generally asked about these things by the press.
Many (maybe most) of the acts on at RoastFest were associated in some way with Cardiacs, a band notable for making some profoundly perceptive and creative art, and getting it heard entirely without recourse to the bullshit of either the commercial music industry or the elitist arts and culture scene. Some of the artists are national or international names in the ‘progressive and profoundly unprofitable rock and folk music’ scene. People who like that sort of thing are not often privileged to hear such a diversity of high quality work in one place, and so we made our way to London from a variety of far flung locations. It would be hard to put on a gig like that away from the capital, because it’s hard to find the critical mass of fans to make this (admittedly pretty obscure) music fill a venue. It’s also, you might assume, hard to find so many such bizarrely individual and brilliant artists in any one place.
You’d be wrong. I went to the gig with two friends who could quite easily have fitted onto the bill (Ed Ache, and Paul Rhodes of Hobopope And The Goldfish Cathedral, both of whom have been reviewed on these virtual pages in the past). Both of these very gifted artists make recordings and play gigs, but neither of them do so as often, or earn as much money from it as some bands that you are more likely to have heard of. This does not say anything whatsoever about the quality of their work, but just about the amount of time they spend promoting it, and the lengths to which they are prepared to go to take it around the country building an audience. There are others around my stamping ground as well, in a whole variety of styles; distinctive, creative and quite remarkably accomplished music is being made everywhere, all the time, and in these days of easily accessed digital distribution it’s quite possible for you to hear it. The fact that, on the whole, people don’t, is down to the same reasons that it always was, but it is now a whole lot easier for those that are interested to connect with their local scenes, or with the elements that could become part of a scene.
A scene is a weapon. The scene that was manifest at RoastFest has constituted itself in such a way as to wrest back some cultural capital from the controlling grasp of elite culture and commercial distribution, but that’s a national scene, or even an international one, involving musical fellow travellers from over a huge area. Your local scene is based on a different coincidence of interests (with an obviously greater emphasis on the geographic), and is inevitably more diverse than a scene that is based on a common appreciation of particular musical styles; but if you, and other locals, can be broad minded enough to hear the value in a range of styles then your scene too can be a weapon.
It is almost certainly the case, based on my personal experience, that there are artists working near you that produce work of startling originality and high quality, and that you have no idea who they are. Sometimes they might be best known elsewhere; sometimes they are active in a part of your local scene that you never encounter; and sometimes they are barely active at all, just making work for their own satisfaction. All art is communication however, even if it’s just potential communication, and those artists would almost certainly love to be communicating to you.
I don’t have any answers to the important questions about how to get a local scene up to critical mass, or what makes the difference between a town with a vibrant, buzzing music scene, and one where nothing much seems to happen. What I do believe is that the difference is not to be found in the number of musicians or fans. Good music is everywhere, as are music lovers, and much as capital may drive it out of public life it will always be there in private and domestic settings, in people making bizarrely twisted beats in their bedrooms, or jamming on strange modes for the sheer hell of making a noise together. It’s there, and if you make the effort to reach out and connect with it, you will strengthen it.
While I’m fully supportive of scenes like the one I saw in evidence at Roastfest, I particularly value local, and specifically small town scenes, for a number of reasons. For one thing, the health of the broader, regional and national music culture is directly related to the health of the grassroots; for another, this is music that is essentially impossible to control or misappropriate, and people that are involved in it are, I would guess, far less likely to let the music industry sell them pap. Musicians that learn their craft in the context of an active local scene, with a lot of social contact between musicians, and lots of opportunities to perform, learn good habits in terms of how they go about getting heard, as well as benefitting from the mutual support. Most important though is the fact that delivering sounds from one person to another in the same place requires less effort, time and money, and as with locally produced food, locally produced work has a relevance to both ends of the distribution chain that lends it meaning, and builds community. Musical practice is as important a part of community as anything else, and the relationship between musical and social communities will always be mutual. I’m always amazed at what degree of musical weirdness people will tolerate when it’s being performed in a pub they habitually frequent by people they went to school with; conversely it’s always good to see people who normally listen to drone metal or powernoise getting down to a totally conventional indie band. Your local scene is a weapon you can use to partially reclaim your community from the forces of mass commercial culture, and restore some distinctive, specific identity to your (probably) increasingly generic locality.
Local scenes matter, because people live in localities, and need community culture in order to thrive as other than atomised, alienated consumers; but they also matter because they are the cauldrons in which new music is brewed. A lot of the stuff that has a global reach started out obscure (if it’s in any way interesting), and the musicians who make even the mass produced pap started out making music in their own homes, and performing in local venues. Communities form musicians just as they form everyone else, and the only way we will ever counteract the forces that brought us the recent klepto-rioting and the general perception that musicians don’t need paying for making music, is by reinforcing and supporting those networks of local interaction. Go and see a band nearby: it will very likely be better than the last band you saw playing the O2 Arena.