The Trouble with Local Scenes
Published in Blog Archive, Culture Bully. Tags: Media, Music.
I moved to Nashville last summer on a whim, really only because one of my best friends lives here and it seemed like a not-so-terrible idea. And here I am 17 months later, still waking up each morning in some strange city that has somehow become a part of me. I can’t explain what exactly it is about Nashville that makes it unique, nor can I narrow down what it is about the city that I really enjoy, but perhaps part of my appreciation reflects the circumstances that have arisen during my time here that have allowed me to swap out certain labels that help define who I am. For the past three years I’ve been able to miraculously survive as a “professional” music blogger – which, as far as job titles go, doesn’t really have an authoritative ring to it, does it? – but in recent months, largely because of dumb luck, I’ve been able to slowly move on from that stage of my life. I can now just be a fan of music again, which has been kind of nice because I’ve become very conflicted about this whole blogging-about-music thing. The daily obsessing, processing and digesting of an endless supply of music is tricky, and for whatever reason, six and a half years of it has left me a bit tired of actually listening to new music. The irony of this coming to a head while living in Music City isn’t lost on me.
While reflecting on the past few years though it’s become quite apparent to me that this growing distaste for the process is largely of my own doing, and mostly because of my own inability to be honest with myself. For the most part, having to push out blog posts to get the page views to get the pay checks means promoting music that’s not necessarily good, but really only good enough to blog about. This issue becomes amplified for “local blogs” that seek to promote “local talent,” something that I’ve aimlessly tried to do for a number of years and something that, quite frankly, I’ve really made a mess of. Again, mostly because of that dishonesty with myself.
Early in 2007 I met a bunch of really fun and interesting people who were working together under the banner of a review website called How Was The Show in the Twin Cities. I wrote a few forgettable concert recaps for the site but the introduction helped open my eyes to something I hadn’t even really considered before: focusing on local bands. This process of digging into the scene was rewarding in that it led me to discover some cool music that I didn’t know existed, and the consideration of local artists ultimately spread to this blog where I started to document local goings-on. In the following years some friends joined in and this Twin Cities focus on the blog gained some momentum. Around this time the opportunity became available to contribute to the local alt-weekly, City Pages, where for a little under a year I put together locally-focused news posts online (nearly) every weekday, while also adding various show previews and features along the way to the print edition. By the end of 2009 though I was really struggling with some things in my personal life and I made some poor decisions which led not only to putting this blog on the shelf, but the unfortunate crumbling of a few good friendships. If I could do that all again, I’d handle things much differently.
A couple months later, I found myself unable to land work up in Canada, where I’d moved, and out of necessity to get some sort of income going again I started blogging again. I should have just done my own thing, but to some degree I had sold myself on the idea that there was some inherent value in building that local presence and promoting local artists. Unsuccessfully grasping for some sense of relevancy I tried to put together some locally-based news posts (something I later failed to do consistently here in Nashville, as well) and I even went as far as putting together a local band directory. Before long however I was back in the States and I lazily tried to again turn the focus locally. I really didn’t have any direction with what I was doing until some time in December though, when a phone call influenced how I approached the next few months of blogging.
Chatting with a friend online I was asked if I’d met John Gotty, who runs The Smoking Section, yet. Honestly, I hadn’t frequented the site in ages and had no idea he even lived in Nashville. A few days later I got in touch and we eventually connected on the phone. Unable to really figure anything out on my own, I was curious to ask him about what was going on in terms of rap and hip hop in the city and by chance it just so happened that he was preparing an idea that would start showcasing the very community I was trying to learn more about. He was still in the planning stages of bringing Yelawolf to town in a move that he was hoping to replicate: attracting audiences to come out to shows by alluring them with a big name and offering local MCs the chance to be seen by new faces by adding them to the bill. The Yelawolf show at Phat Kaps worked (big time) and the procedure has continued to do so, bringing a bit of visibility to local names who might not otherwise have the opportunity to perform in front of large audiences. But what it also did was spark a bit of a push to encourage local MCs in general.
This past May, Sean Maloney wrote an article in the Nashville Scene that covered this rebirth, of sorts, titled “How guys like Openmic, Dee Goodz and more are leading the Nashville hip-hop charge, and creating a scene all their own.” In the article Sean discussed a few of the MCs he felt were driving this new breed, while also touching on a few additional factors which were helping to drive the shift including an increase in media coverage, including a push from such blogs as Break on a Cloud, 2Ls on a Cloud (I still crack up at the unintentional similarity in their names), and this blog. Why go through explaining all this? To emphasize that while I’m still relatively new to Nashville, and still have no idea how deep or shallow the pool of talent in the city might be, I’m not new to the idea of supporting local artists, pushing for them in local online and print publications, and hyping local shows. What I am new to, however, is an idea that leaves me feeling that depending on how it’s done, it might not have the value that it appears to. But supporting the community is the right thing to do, right? Buy local, support local artists, etc. Well, there’s a little more to it than that.
Part of the reason that I personally grew tired of focusing on Twin Cities’ acts was that when it comes right down to it, a lot of them just really weren’t that good. Or maybe they were good, but they just weren’t my thing. Numerous times I was responsible for blog posts on City Pages’ website or show previews in the paper that promoted artists in the name of community who I genuinely didn’t care about. Instead of being honest with myself however I went with the flow: To some degree it’s part of the job, but had I realized then what I believe I do now I would have given up on the local-focus long before I landed in Nashville, and long before I got involved in promoting local artists here. I would have never blogged about plenty of the acts that hit the front page had it not been for the fact that they were based in the community which I lived. This doesn’t reflect well on me, and I realize this, and that’s fine, but it’s important to consider because dating all the way back to 2007 when I started to spend more time looking at the city around me, no matter where I’ve lived, I’ve hardly been the only person selling local mediocrity as something truly worthwhile. Sadly I think that this is a symptom of locally-aimed outlets wherever you go, and I might take some heat for saying this but Nashville is no exception.
What might be most interesting thing about Sean’s May-article came not in the cheerleading but in a comment which followed from “Yep” that read, “We’ve seen iterations of this same story since the early ’90s. Between Count Bass D, Iayaalis, Haystack, Utopia State and others, Nashville hip-hop still has not taken off. This city is still in retrograde mode when it comes to supporting music that does not have a country spin or a light & bright face attached to it.” Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps by purpose, it was around the time that a friend of mine gave me an article which ran in the Nashville Scene in September of 2005 titled “Cashville Underground: Nashville’s hip-hop scene is poised to blow up.” The timing was remarkable.
Written by now-Managing Editor Jack Silverman, the article detailed the rap community in Nashville and defined the landscape as being “a scene that, given the right set of circumstances, could boil over at any minute.” Citing MCs such as Cadence & Jelly Roll, the article reflects a similar feeling of optimism that Sean’s did when he called Nashville “a scene on the move.” Jack’s article did well to not get entirely ahead of itself by explaining some of the difficulties facing local artists though, and while Sean’s didn’t detail them, many of the problems still exist: the city’s MCs tend to stand on their own rather than work together, there is a scarcity of local venues that consistently welcome MCs, and the list goes on. All of these issues might be changing, and some are even beginning to turn around completely, but there remains this curious tendency to hyperbolize the local rap scene here in the city. To some degree I think it has to do with the anger tied to Nashville’s image being so very tightly pinned to the development and support of country music (nearly exclusively), but part of it also has to do with that broader issue of supporting local for local’s sake. I want to make something clear here, I’m as guilty of this as the next person (perhaps guiltier than the next, even) and I’m not trying to point fingers or make a mockery out of anyone, be it artist or media member. What I’m trying to do is suggest that there’s an alternative way of doing business that might be more valuable to everyone involved. Sean and I haven’t always seen eye to eye, but he’s a good guy and is leading the pack right now in terms of giving exposure to a largely overlooked faction of artist. And to be fair, I think he’s trying to confront this very same issue as he continues to push things in a positive direction.
In addition to various features which date back to long before I even moved to the city, Sean’s recently been compiling submissions from local MCs for weekly “Party & Bullshit” blog posts. We chatted about them a little bit online earlier this week and he addressed this need for better curation, “At the beginning P&B was mostly me with my fingers crossed hoping that I’d have a enough material to even write a blog post. Now it’s a question of whether or not I have time to listen to everything that comes my way and then wrestling with what I want to put in there. That there’s enough hip hop in Nashville these days to be really selective about what I cover.” I’m really glad he brought this up because what Sean’s saying here about the process of increased selectivity is as important to the ongoing development of any “scene” as it is for the growth of individual artists.
In a recent Huffington Post article, filmmaker Kevin Smith spoke to how unnecessary it is to degrade the work of creative-types, as on the flip side, “It costs nothing to encourage an artist, and the potential return is immeasurable. A song will cheer your mood. A movie will let you escape. A podcast will make you laugh. Nice dividends to a simple investment.” He continued, “Art can’t save the world, but it can make the world a lot easier to take. You tell a budding artist something good about their work, or share with them the things you’ve learned, or show them how to advocate for their art themselves? It costs you nothing but time. The potential upside? Maybe one day, they make your favorite movie. Or write the book you’ve read twenty times. Or record the most-played song on your iPod. Or rock the longest-running podcast in history. All because you said something kind.” He makes a great point, and I’m not here to argue that, but when these avenues of positive feedback are so widely open for access, and so readily lending encouragement it begins to water down the entire process of defining what’s actually good. C.S. Lewis has a funny quote that sort of applies here: “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” There’s probably no real use in telling an artist that their work is laughably terrible. But it might be more detrimental in the long-run to lead on like what they’re doing is great when in reality it’s only marginally better than being entirely forgettable. It’s a difficult line to walk, finding a balance between insult and embellishment, and unfortunately we’re usually left leaning closer to the latter.
My opinion, over time, has became fairly worthless in this online forum largely because it’s been so heavily tied to nonchalant blog posts about artists who I really didn’t care about (this isn’t specific to local artists though, more on that to come in a later blog post). Without setting a higher standard for who we place on a pedestal and offer our support to, we’ll be left with preaching about how an act like Mobb Mafia could be the key to the success of an entire city’s musical development (as MC Kool Daddy Fresh did in Jack’s article). But even if we do place our collective weight and support behind a talent that we feel is legitimate, I’d still argue against putting the weight of such our-scene-is-on-the-cusp-of-breaking-out articles on their shoulders. You don’t really have to look any further than Jack’s article to see what I mean, particularly focusing an MC that he pumped up pretty hard in his piece when he explained that “It’s almost unanimous among local rap insiders that All Star is the next big thing to break out of Cashville.”
Now performing under the name of Starlito, the MC might have had the potential to be that break-out star that a scene needs, but damned if he didn’t face some major hurdles along the way. Hitting big with the 2005 Yo Gotti & Young Jeezy collaboration “Grey Goose,” All $tar struck a deal with Cash Money, but even so, by February of 2008, when the New York Times’ Kelefah Senneh wrote a feature about him, he was still struggling to rise to the next level. “He calls himself All $tar, and he has what most rappers dream of: a devoted fan base, a strong regional reputation and a big-time record deal. His major-label debut, ‘Street Ball’ (Cash Money/Universal), is one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated Southern hip-hop albums. But all that was equally true last year. And in 2006. And in 2005 too. All $tar, who just turned 23, has been Nashville’s next big hip-hop thing for so long that the title has stopped seeming like a compliment.” Starlito’s local shine hasn’t really faded away in the years that followed — this past December he released the full-length album Starlito’s Way 3: Life Insurance, and he dropped the Ultimate Warrior mixtape earlier this month — but that next level never really materialized for the still-young MC. This isn’t to say that he’s not talented, that he didn’t hustle, or that a breakout down the road might not still happen, but simply that it’s just ridiculously hard to actually break out and taste mainstream success, let alone carry an entire city’s roster of MCs into the public eye with you. Perhaps nothing would have changed if such a burden of potential success wasn’t placed on his shoulders at such an early age, but it still makes me cringe a little to see the same thing happen in 2011 to a talented guy like Openmic who’s barely legal, himself. Artists need time to develop, and if they’re being illegitimately touted (again, as I’ve been guilty of countless times) there’s a chance that they begin to buy their own hype regardless of whether or not they actually have the talent to back it up. The really depressing thing is that this empty hyping isn’t even the worst thing that I’m guilty of in terms of pushing the whole local angle on the blog. The fact is that I was being dishonest without even really realizing it: I’d been going about things the wrong way for so long that I didn’t even realize that I was trying to make it more about me, and my “personal brand” or whatever, than about the music.
It’s disheartening to go back through the mental scrapbook and realize all the times that my intentions were put out there for personal gain while I was spouting off about building community. Certainly I believed in its importance, and I still do, but I guess I wasn’t ever really honest with myself about how much of what I was doing was a personal grab at some sort of notoriety. Sad as it might be, this blog has been one of the only things that ever really made me feel important in my adult life, which might be why I’ve always returned to it, but that realization hardly cleanses the bitter taste that all of this has left in my mouth.
The reason I’m bringing this up is because I feel that it’s the another one of the key issues that can get in the way of any local music scene developing: The music has to speak for itself and validate its own importance, not the importance of those who document it. There’s a documentary that I’d recommend people checking out called PressPausePlay that focuses on the democratization of art in the digital era. In it Pitchfork’s Amy Phillips touches on the idea that just because you can make music does not mean that you’re entitled to a fan base. The exact same thing is true of bloggers: just because we can figure out how to install WordPress and embed some YouTube clips doesn’t mean that we deserve to be seen. And just as they do with musicians, audiences have to assume motivation with bloggers. It just so happens to turn out that after all this time I had become largely misguided about what mine was. I feel like I’ve been deceptive and I really regret that.
Last week I asked Gotty, who continues to be nothing but a rock in this city, for some feedback about what he’s seen happen this year and he explained another problem facing Nashville artists, which could potentially be the most crippling. “The biggest challenge the city faces is much like any relationship: sustaining and finding a way to stay in love. Keeping the rap romance going requires continuing to spread the word and bring friends to shows, taking a gamble on shows where maybe you don’t know all of the artists on the bill but you know the show’s host and their ability to put together great bills or going out to a Wednesday night show because there will be newfound friends there, etc.” One doesn’t need to look any further than Jack’s article to see how short the lifespan of a regional talent can be, and I don’t know that many of the MCs and producers making music in the city right now will fare any better. But what seems apparent is that there continues to be a shift in the local culture. Sean added, “It used to be that I would know every show that was happening and every person that was going to be there and, well, that’s just not the case anymore. There are more club nights and shows and artists than I can even keep track of and there’s an audience that keeps showing up for all of ‘em, which is just mind blowing. I think Nashville hip hop has finally found itself.”
As far as whether or not there’s a legitimate chance that Nashville develops into a nationally-regarded scene for anything but country music is far beyond me. It’s still a strange city and I still have no idea about how it works. Take Nashville’s Dead for example: since I moved here it’s been one of the most influential blogs that I know of in terms of pumping local talent. The people who write the blog posts might be friends of the people they write about, or in the bands themselves, but it’s still a damn fine outlet to discover what’s going on in the city. Yet despite its consistency, or the work of my aforementioned Cloud friends, the Nashville Scene recently named itself the “Best Music Blog” for the second straight year, comically adding as its runners-up both a “music discovery platform” that recently (un-ironically, mind you) posted a Coldplay tribute, and a blog aimed at the sharing of “experiences in marketing music and managing artists” which most recently awarded Switchfoot as its “October Pick Of The Month.” (Yes it was a reader’s poll and yes Sean made room for a well-deserved special mention of Break on a Cloud, but that breakdown still concerns me.) Had I been paying better attention these past few months I’d probably be able to list a few more instances of goofy industry goings-on, but as such I haven’t.
Even if music-heads are able to avoid puffing up local talent that isn’t all that talented, even if those documenting the community don’t mistake their own importance for that of the subject their covering (essentially if you can do what I haven’t done), and even if MCs are allowed to develop slowly, with artists taking time to find their voices and grow into their music, this is still a tough industry city (maybe The Industry City), and from where I’m at the process of swimming upstream against the current here appears damn near impossible. Add to it that Nashville, by population alone, is a relatively small market, and thus has a smaller pool of talent to rely on. Interestingly enough though, I might be in the distinct minority here.
Sean closed our discussion by summing up his take on the future, “I’m thinking there are going to be a lot more high quality records from innovative artists. I also think that folks outside the city are going to start noticing what’s going on here.” He continued, “Basically, I’m thinking 2012 is going to make 2011 look like a quiet and unproductive year, which it definitely has not been…” Gotty reflected a similar feeling of optimism, “There’s no reason Nashville, as ‘Music City,’ should be continuously overlooked as a hub, either for tour stops and the music being created here. For years, the rap scene here has been overlooked and un-nurtured. Now, everybody’s working, taking shifts and adding their skills to the mix in order to make sure the garden’s growing.”
The whole purpose of this, other than it being helpful for me to figure myself out a little, is to say that I really didn’t go about things as I should have in Minneapolis, I was completely misguided in my lazy attempt to focus locally in Calgary, and to go on doing so in Nashville would be a disservice to not only those who are doing it with genuine intentions, but also the few artists who do deserve better. I take issue with the idea of a “scene” even needing to be built, when a strong community (there I go again…) is really what’s most important. If all that happens in the coming years is that MCs begin to really work together and fans continue to pack shows, the city will be immeasurably better for it. When it comes down to it I do want to see people succeed (even those who I don’t feel are all that good at what they do), but I don’t want to see this become another scenario where some blogger is pointing the finger six years from now saying we did things all wrong, questioning why there still isn’t any rap or hip hop scene in Nashville. Sorry if I’ve already let you down in working against that happening.
[This post was first published by Culture Bully.]