In the end, all you have to do is write a song that resonates with the whole planet. How hard can it be, really?
By King Lars and David Icke Turner
In every city in America, there are a few dozen local musicians who fantasize that they can tap into some illusory local infrastructure and perform before big crowds; it’s just a matter of time. This is a fantasy not rooted in the history of emergent underground scenes. Take a trip to New York City and stop by the famed Bowery location of the former CBGB’s. It’s current heretical state is a John Varvatos boutique; which adds a whole lot of insult to injury, but that’s for another story. The first thing you’ll notice is how small the venue really was.
Within just a few thousand square feet, a slew of legendary bands arose including the Ramones, Blondie, The Misfits, Dead Boys, to name a very few. This was a small room with square feet to house at best a cramped set of 350 fans, albeit very rabid fans. In the early 90’s heyday of Seattle grunge bands, acts like Mother Love Bone, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam, and the like did not perform before sold out 1200-cap rooms. They built a musical movement with distinctive sonic approaches, a community of intertwined bands, and most importantly: song-craft. And around my parts of Houston, our history demonstrates a strong and yet nimble music community that is capable of projecting globally, despite an often discordant local, live scene.
Arguably, despite our fellow statesman down the road fancying itself as the ‘live music capital of the world’ and the presence of SXSW, Houston has generated exponentially more worldwide musical phenomena than Austin. The paradox of Houston hip-hop that started with the Geto Boys and DJ Screw, and ultimately led to Beyonce, Lizzo, and Megan Thee Stallion, humbly began with artists selling their tapes out of popped trunks. Artists did not secure fanbases by grasping at coveted festival slots or opening for large acts at theater size venues. Sure, they played big venues once they became established, but this was only secondary to the songcraft.
The simple critical point is that active, dynamic music communities are not always made up of huge throngs of fans or giant venues. They are the confluence of artistry, local labels, cooperative venues, and most critically, songcraft. There was also usually a supportive press outlet in the mix, in most cases. Often the pivotal moments of inception were built from a local incubator process. Innovative artists create effective exchange and cooperation with their local media outlet, small venues, and labels which could help disseminate their music elsewhere. And of course, iconic artwork which captures the community and the ethos plays a significant role, as well. But ultimately, all of these examples of thriving scenes or predicated on small — yet nimble — music communities.
However, it seems that the rise of the perfectly instagrammable band has put an end to the more spiritual and meaningful creative pursuit that once was the modus operandi of the underground artist. No longer does it seem that the love of the craft is what sets one apart from the herd. Instead, a dizzying and nauseating mass of posts has sealed the fate of the modern artist as yet another content creator clogging up the digital landscape. It seems only natural that this has resulted in a trend of less-than-impressive local acts that are mainly bolstered by their savvy use of social media accounts rather than their ability to create a song with any real meaning or resonance to the regional zeitgeist. This is ultimately detrimental to the local culture which suffers as a consequence.
Anyone who has engaged in a local scene has heard it all before. The most common mantra is that the scene just isn’t good enough; there’s not enough good bands; there’s a lack of support. An endless list of explanations that don’t have real evidence or answers are scapegoats for a lack in local authenticity. Really, it’s just a lack of work put-in where it really matters: writing a good song. Instead, more and more artists are working on creating content for the endless social media scroll, showcasing the showier aspects of local stardom that don’t really add much to the local culture besides a thin, shiny veneer of what they think an artist should be.
Some of the biggest rock stars started in small rooms playing to intimate crowds. Time is what made them mega-famous, owed primarily to the strength of their artistic and musical capability. I guess these rockers of yesteryear didn’t have the distraction of the internet to derail them from focusing on the music, but it seems that the music just comes second in the current local musical landscape. In the end, all you have to do is write a song that resonates with the whole planet. How hard can it be, really?