Monday Musing: Music Scenes And Global Localities

Posted on January 9, 2012

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The critic laughs (at a pint of beer).

There’s a music scene in your local town or borough. People obsessive or foolhardy enough to make the effort are inventing noises, and making them at other people. The chances are (particularly with small town scenes) that there’s a fair diversity of styles and genres involved, and you’ll probably find pub gigs where sludge metal bands share the bill with indie rock outfits, or punk bands with funk acts. This is the beauty of geographically specific scenes, because it’s always good, for musicians and audiences both, to make connections between musics: that’s where exciting new sounds come from.

There is also a scene comprised of artists in your preferred musical style (obviously that’s a dodgy concept, like ‘your regular cheese’ that I once saw used in a TV advert). To pick an apposite example more or less at random, there are geographically distributed networks of stoner rock/ doom/ sludge and related styles. Obviously there’s overlap between styles, and the edges are blurred with hardcore and various less overtly dope-smoking brands of metal, but that’s a central aspect of the way scenes work, which is to say, nebulously. So if there is a sludge band in your local scene, the chances are that they are connected, not just to the various other sorts of bands in the same town, but regionally, to other acts of a similar ilk. They likely know members of such bands across a relatively wide radius, travel to see them play, run into them at shows by the well known, ‘star’ acts of the style, do gig swaps with them, make split releases together, and all the rest of it…

I realise I’m probably telling you a lot of things you know already, but bear with me: I want to put a variety of fairly obvious things we all know about scenes next to each other, and make some observations.

So, beyond the regional, there is a national scene: the acts that make waves nationally (I’m talking the UK here) are probably making modest livings, where those that get attention regionally probably don’t. However, the same bands that are gig-swapping with each other over fifty mile distances are probably in contact with acts two hundred miles away, via the internet, listening to each others’ music, offering each other support, and sharing publicity. Artists and fans know each other, and again, they meet up when they go to festivals, or see big name acts of the genre, but their interactions are more social than practical.

Beyond that, is a global scene. Here the contact is predominantly virtual, but many of the same sorts of interaction can take place, such as promoting each others’ work and releasing split CDs together. I’m not talking with the benefit of any systematic research behind me, but I know from personal experience that unsigned bands talk to each other across the Atlantic, or greater distances, for no better reasons than a shared musical appreciation. This is by no means a new phenomenon, but what was once a nearly invisible network, built around hand copied fanzines and shoestring underground record shops, is now constituted in a very accessible form, and is able to support kinds and quantities of interaction that were previously out of the question.

Note that I started talking about something relatively mainstream, a place where all styles come together, like Top Of The Pops in the 70s and 80s, where anyone might be in the audience, and that as I’ve broadened the geographical ambit I’ve been talking more and more about the underground. People will go out to see a band in their local pub, because it’s free, and their mates are going, and they kind of like music a bit, and there they are, almost by default, in a ‘scene’. For me there’s something immensely positive about that; somehow I feel that a music scene that is constituted as part of a broader community is more valuable in some way. Those same people that end up at a gig, are not the same people that obsessively follow obscure bands around from venue to venue; they might very well enjoy a sludge metal gig, because the music’s got a good pulse and loads of energy, and their mate’s brother is playing bass, but they are never going to buy a sludge metal record. The geographically broader scenes are populated by music enthusiasts, while the local ones are populated by a cross section of the local community, most of whom listen to commercial, as it were ‘non-scene’ music, when they’re not at a local gig.

As I said, I just want to put some things next to each other, and make some observations: I didn’t start writing this with an argument or an agenda, other than my usual ideological commitment to independent music and local communities, and I don’t have any particular point I want to make. I just think it’s very interesting how these things work, and very useful to think about it.

So I’ve been talking about big, global, virtual scenes that derive from, or relate to, smaller, geographically specific scenes. There are also scenes that, while their participants play gigs and sell physical merchandise, have their existence as scenes almost entirely on the intarwebz. Djent is (in case you don’t know) a heavy metal sub-genre (of disputed validity) that does its scene making online. There also seems to be a scene of online, DIY musical artists, that is unified more by an approach to the business of making a living, and connecting with listeners, than by any particular stylistic similarity. Zoe Keating, Amanda Palmer, Hope & Social and Steve Lawson are notable members. Why do I see this as a scene, rather than ‘there happen to be a number of people around who do this’? Time to take a step back, I think, and examine what I have neglected to discuss so far. What the hell is a ‘scene’ anyway?

A music scene is a loosely constituted network of artists and listeners/ concert-goers, I guess, connected around a nexus of common interest, be that geographical proximity, musical style, an interest in skateboarding or whatever. I think that’s a fairly uncontroversial definition, but it begs the question ‘how do I spot one?’ In some circumstances, what appears to be a scene from the ‘outside’ is no such thing to any of the people notionally involved in it. It certainly not something that anyone decides explicitly to form, like a band or a club. Its informality makes a scene difficult to discuss definitively, but these informal social networks are the waters in which much music swims, much of the most interesting music to my mind. Although they may connect to formal structures, such as concert venues, funding bodies, music colleges and so on, it’s the personal connections between musicians that have the most impact, more often than not: outside of the classical world, no one ever got a spot in a band because they had a qualification.

So, a local scene has blurred edges around its geographical boundaries, and you can probably draw a line around the world connecting Player X, who is also in a band in the next town with Player Y, who is in a band in the town next to him with Player Z and so on. There are connections between styles as well, and it is possible to move by small degrees, through a surprisingly small number of steps, from small band swing à la Benny Goodman, to hardcore punk. There are in fact so many webs of relatedness and personal acquaintance, constructed on so many different bases, that wherever you look you can see a scene, if you squint: an alternative definition of a scene might be ‘that part of the globe spanning web of musical connections that you happen to be looking at’.

Of course the ‘truth’, or more to the point, a practically applicable definition, probably lies between that extreme and the one I started with. A scene is neither a club with a membership card, and nor is it an optical illusion; people do have a sense of the networks of which they are a part, and will feel a sense of connection to others who seem to be on a similar wavelength, with similar connections. What a scene is, where its boundaries lie, and what forms of activity define its membership, will look different to musicians, listeners, commentators, record labels, and any other group that might take an interest.

To return to the ‘DIY music scene’ I referenced above, I find that very interesting, because although it makes sense that musicians who work in similar ways would make contact, and conduct a more or less public conversation about their business practices, the fact that there is a good deal of stylistic variety within this group doesn’t seem to preclude the scene working as such for listeners. All my impressions are purely partial and anecdotal, but as far as I can tell, there are listeners out there who have made the connection between sounds like Hope & Social big rootsy rock and  Steve Lawson’s ambient jazz solo bass performances. Perhaps there is something in their shared values that relates the listening experience, stylistic and textural differences notwithstanding. To me this is a very positive thing, because it suggests a global reconstitution of the kind of connections I talked about in local scenes at the start of this piece. The connection of musical scenes to real, broadly based communities, if it takes place globally, by means of the internet, could be seen to represent a sort of global locality, something that has been long discussed by social networking visionaries, but rarely seems to be visible in anything other than niche interests. At a time when global protest movements are taking their baby steps, I’m keeping an open mind, but I don’t believe I’m over-egging the pudding to suggest there is a connection between a musical scene like that, and the sense of connectedness that has stirred so much direct political action in the Arab world in the past year.

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