#ncmr11 – Local Media and Culture: What Does It All Mean for the Music Scene? at The National Conference for Media Reform

This morning, I am speaking on the panel, Local Media and Culture: What Does It All Mean for the Music Scene? (http://conference.freepress.net/session/505/local-media-and-culture-what-does-it-all-mean-music-scene)

I am specifically on the panel to discuss how local media can be used to build up a music community. In a sense, my goal is to provide a case study of the Boston scene from the perspective of a musician, “former” blogger, and self-declared/induced indie music-industry strategy writer/complainer. Here I have attempted to put myself into context and develop some of my talking points. I mostly wrote this piece to hone my own thoughts and ideas, but I thought others might also get something valuable from it, so I have chosen to share it here.

Part of what I like about this opportunity is that I have lived in Boston long enough to experience clueless isolation in the music “scene” when I first arrived, which eventually, through hard work, developed into a connectedness in several different “scenes” in Boston. Even though I was successful at getting press/media coverage, I still felt compelled to work in some way to democratize the availability of coverage, and perhaps more importantly, increase the availability of coverage. There were already a few blogs that covered Boston music to some extent, but no one really sought to focus solely on Boston music, and particularly, on those acts that were just starting out and just getting their footing in town. Ashley Willard, Sophia Cacciola, and I (along with a couple of other initial contributors) started Boston Band Crush to fill this void. (Note: Sophia and I stepped down from the blog to allow Ashley to be the full editor in 2010. Although we don’t produce content, we are still very much supporters of the blog!)

One of the main motivating factors for starting Boston Band Crush was to share some love and support for the local kids working at creating music…hence the “hearts” theme, silly name, and no-criticism policy of the site. I’ve never thought of being surrounded by good bands as competition. Rather, I’ve always thought of it as a means for all rising up together. When I see better bands, I get better myself. It’s kind of like how world records stand in sports for decades and then suddenly dozens of people break them around the same time. Performance-enhancers aside, I think of this as a model that partly explains why impressive art scenes crop up every so often in a random place. It’s a self-feeding, self-sustaining process. That process, however, needs fuel.

I knew lots of people making great music in town, but most of them had no idea how to get press coverage. While they had friends coming to their shows, there was nothing telling people outside the “friends circle” that they were an important band. Who cares about being “important” when they can just be good, right? Well, I’ve seen tons of national bands that are no better than local bands at performance and I’ve certainly seen tons of national bands that are no better than local bands at songwriting, so why do people perceive those bands as better or more important without forming an independent assessment. I say media.

This brings me to the key tenets regarding the importance of local media in developing a music scene. We start with key tenets that apply to media producing excitement and stamps of legitimacy and move toward the local:

1. Media, whether corporate or independent, carries a psychological impact. That is, after all, why there is interest here in democratization and control reform. Even in its “least objectively authoritative” form, If I create a blog with a name (other than my own name), and write about anything I want, there is a perception of authority.

When we created Boston Band Crush, we were just some random people who decided to write about Boston music (and we still are). We gave ourselves the authority, but bands flocked to us for coverage (to the point where it became impossible to keep up with e-mails) and regularly used our two-sentence fluff bits as press quotes. Even the tiniest bit of praise was enough for a band to celebrate with glee. Our only qualification was that we decided to do this.

2. I believe that in a general sense (and I don’t intend this as deprecatory, but rather just factual), people seek approval externally and have a hard time making up their minds independently about art and music. If this were not true, I don’t think criticism would have developed. When I’ve gotten press coverage for shows, it’s not so much that random people read about the band and show up, but rather that people I know already gain the impression that because what I am doing is important enough to get that coverage, it’s more worthy of their time and energy. 

Although not local, when my band The Motion Sick got our first writeup on SPIN’s website (and later got some coverage in the magazine) in 2006, all of my friends and family immediately came out of the woodwork, purchasing our album and publicly declaring their support for the band. Would they have done that without SPIN? Mostly, I think they wouldn’t have. Why? Everyone knows a guy in a band. Most bands aren’t very good. Most people aren’t willing or able to discern between my crappy band that happens to get coverage and another crappy band that doesn’t…so they support mine. Someone else said it was good! Local bands begged to play shows with us, expecting that we must be selling thousands of tickets to shows (very much not the case) and that we must be really incredibly good live (also very much not the case at that time). The better the media coverage is, the more the players seem like important superstars. Stars are only stars because the media says they are, not because of some objective truth.

3. Part of that authority arises from the perception that media serves as independent, unbiased commentary. There is the perception, and possibly some merit in the claim that great media will find the bands that will appeal to the masses and will help them rise up by informing the public about them in a way that implies their legitimacy. 

One of the goals of Boston Band Crush was to be the perfect blog that covers every genre and “scene” in the Boston area. We tried to recruit writers that went to all different types of shows to talk about those shows. We had a very idealistic goal, but things kept slipping back to smaller circles that were then grown gradually. To this day, I hear of people talk about the “Boston Band Crush scene,” meaning bands covered by the blog. I don’t agree with this assessment of an entry barrier, but I do understand that inevitably, there are going to be friends of writers and editors that get the most coverage and those that get less (or none) will perceive that as a barrier.

4. In an ideal world, great media will grow and develop coverage as bands grow and develop. There will be opportunities for new bands, veteran bands, and for contextualizing all bands within the history (and future) of the region. The media will tell a continuing story rather than just giving a glimpse.

That is, what is the long-term tale of Boston music? How is it told? History is extremely subjective. Ask 10 writers from 10 different outlets who the best or most important bands in town are and I guarantee you will see little overlap. Subjective, sure. Now, place those 10 writers in the context of their publications/outlets. What bands end up in the Phoenix’s Best Music Poll or the Globe’s list of the 10 best releases of the year? Although these are the opinions of individuals (or small groups), the perception is authoritative. I literally got asked why The Motion Sick was awarded the best local rock band in the Boston Phoenix during the same week that we lost our first-round show in the Rock ‘N’ Roll Rumble. I didn’t even know how to answer. Does the history book then say we were the best band around at the time (I would not buy that history book!) or does it say another band was best? Ultimately, bands cannot tell their own history or place their work in regional or national context. An “objective” external authority must do that. A local authority is certainly most qualified.

5. As the arts grow, so do the sources of information on the arts. There is a symbiotic relationship between music and music journalism. In a sense, one could argue that not only do “scenes” develop further as a result of media coverage, but also that media success develops around “scenes.” 

Artists now spend a lot of energy promoting articles that cover their work, encouraging people to listen to radio shows that play their music, and to buy from stores that carry their products. It’s just plain logical. If a music journalist covers the new Britney Spears album, Britney may have a lot of fans, but she is not going to tell her fans to go seek out that coverage. If a journalist covers my band, you can bet I am going to post that article everywhere and promote the heck out of it. (Perhaps my co-panelist Chris can comment on the number of hits different online articles get relative the regionality of their content.)

Why is Boston particularly lucky?

1. Local music has always been a part of our history. Virtually every single local media outlet has been covering local music for a long time. In fact, I would say that local-music coverage in the Globe and Herald, as examples of very traditional media, has only increased in the 12+ years I’ve lived here. The Phoenix and the Dig were always covering local music to some degree, but it appears, at least to me, that local music has taken the front seat in their entertainment sections.  This is not the result of an editor making a decision to switch focus to gain a readership, but rather because…

2. Many of the writers and editors are out at shows almost every single night! They actually know what’s happening!

3. We have infrastructure/events that encourage people involved in music to actually get together face to face and share ideas…

Some big “scene builders” organized by media outlets include:

 – Rock ‘N’ Roll Social – 2nd Tuesday of every month, a casual meetup where people wander about introducing themselves to one another, talking shop, and perhaps most importantly, rubbing shoulders with DJs (the event is organized primarily by DJs with local-music shows on commercial radio!), writers, editors, and potential musical collaborators. These people make themselves available to everyone and they listen.

Rock ‘N’ Roll Rumble – Although the Rumble has likely had its ups and downs in terms of networking value, it’s current incarnation brought together tons of bands in 2009 (2010 was an off year due to the closure of WBCN) who later collaborated on projects, played shows together, and became close friends. This year’s version is thus far doing the same. Although it is nominally a competition, few really view it as such. The event organized by (formerly WBCN, now WZLX) Boston Emissions DJ Anngelle Wood serves as a way to highlight and showcase some of the bands working hard in town.

One Night Band – Lead organizer Ashley Willard (of BBC) borrowed the Rock Lottery (with permission) to create this annual one-day event where 40 musicians are randomly thrown into 5-person bands with people they have never played with before and given 10 hours to write 3 original songs and learn 1 cover, all of which are performed that evening in a prime music venue. This has led to countless new projects, countless friendships, and countless great songs that would never have otherwise been written.

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