Think Your City’s Music Scene Is Bad? Maybe You’re The Problem

In my decade of experience playing music around the country, I’ve noticed a strange similarity in many of the musicians I’ve encountered. Lots of active musicians I’ve met firmly believe their music scene is bad or that it used to be good and has somehow lost its luster over the past few years. Being in a young, ambitious band, I used to relate to these negative sentiments as it can often feel hard to find acceptance and support from a music scene when you’re new and trying to prove yourself. But over the years, I’ve come to realize that no, there’s not a widespread worsening of music communities across the nation, but instead a problematic issue with the jaded attitudes often found in the musicians who form music scenes.

What makes a music scene great

What constitutes a thriving music scene? From where I sit, a music scene worth its salt is filled with enthusiastic artists intent on making meaningful music and supporting other musicians within their community. The lines become blurred between fan and band in solid music scenes because musicians in these communities make a real effort to go to other band’s shows and to act as advocates for music they’re making, even if it doesn’t benefit themselves in any way. Over time, enthusiasm for music being made within a scene infectiously spreads outward and people outside the music community take notice and begin getting involved by attending shows and buying music. That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway.

Why you might be the problem

What often happens in music scenes is that bands become isolated by adopting an “us vs. the world” mentality, which makes total sense due to our flawed human nature. “Why should I go to that other band’s CD release show when they’ve never been to one of our shows?” is a completely fair question for a band to ask, but it’s not helpful in terms of building or sustaining any sort of music community. If you think your music scene is bad and you don’t make an effort to see other band’s shows, why in the world would you have the expectation that other local musicians should be supporting you? You’re probably a small reason behind why your local community isn’t everything you want it to be.

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Leave your baggage out of it

I get the feeling that many musician’s complaints about their local scenes are rooted in years of pernicious frustration and disappointment when it comes to making music, and I completely relate. When you devote so much of your life trying to make good music and getting the world to take notice, it can be tempting to blame your scene for why music hasn’t given you everything you’d hoped it would when you were younger. But you know what makes a scene bad? Musicians bitching and complaining rather than making real actionable strides to improve things and make better music.

If you want your city to have a great music scene, then go and become that great music scene. See other band’s shows and buy their music. Stop complaining and start completely devoting yourself to making and performing music. Instead of obsessing over how other bands from your city get opportunities that you don’t have access to, build and develop the ones you do have. If you do these things, you’ll be too busy building a meaningful legacy in your scene to sit on the sidelines and complain.

Patrick McGuire is a musician, writer, and educator currently residing in the great city of Philadelphia. He creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.

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  • Tom - December 6, 2017 reply

    The area I’m living in literally does have about 25% of the live music venues that it did in the 70’s and 80’s. First off, it’s seasonal. Second, it’s gone from being one of the lowest overall taxed states to one of the highest. Third, the native population has aged significantly. Young people leave for better opportunity and it’s tough to get an aging demographic out to spend like drunken sailors in a nightclub. At the same time, it seems there are even more acts competing for these traditional club dates.

    That said, there are still plenty of opportunities for any act with a modicum of talent to play for enthusiastic audiences and get paid a fair price to do so. I mentioned it’s a seasonal area. The affluent visitors hire bands, duo’s and singles to entertain at their house parties and barbeques if they’re educated to the possibility. It pays better than a nightclub gig and you usually have to wrap at 8 or 9 PM to conform to noise ordinances. The majority of them are afternoon shows and have the additional benefit of feeding you. Every community has a schedule of festivals and some have standalone outdoor entertainment. Most of them pay about the same as a club date but you only play a 2 hour show, again, in the afternoon or early evening. Retail businesses come and go. When a new one has a grand opening, it’s a tough sell but sometimes they will bite on a pitch for a live band. Busking in the communities where local regulations don’t make it impossible can offer a reasonable return on spending the afternoon out in the sun. CHECK LOCAL LAWS, restrictions vary from outright bans to requiring licensing to none. Churches and community organization coffee houses often have paid gig opportunities as do farmer’s markets. Mental health facilities, mental health wards in hospitals and other group health care environments often have entertainment budgets. Fraternal organizations often have periodic events that need entertainment. Unbooked function halls will sometimes agree to a reduced rental rate for a concert, dance, jam or open mic show. Once the hall is paid, the performers split the rest as per prior agreement. Corporate events, conventions, annual meetings, sales rallies, etc. often hire entertainment. Check in with any local hotel/conference centers and offer yourself as an add on to their packages.

    Bottom line, there are always gigs if there are any people at all. You just have to work harder to get them than you did when most bars had bands playing instead a dj, “scary-oke” and trivia contests. You may even have to create them yourself. The best part is, most pay better, don’t keep you out as late and are shorter in duration (1 – 2 hours instead of 4 hours with 3 ten minute breaks).

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