Music Scenes

Hosted by

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Have you ever wondered what makes a music scene thrive? Think back to Seattle during the grunge period, or the punk movement in New York's Lower East Side. Today, some of the hottest music scenes are in places like Brooklyn, New York, where Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors, Laura Cantrell, and TV on the Radio hail from. Or Portland, Oregon, where M. Ward, Menomena and The Decemberists come from. In fact in many cities around the country have pockets of amazing music scenes right now.

So what makes these places burst with creativity? The answer is based on unseen elements; factors that allow musicians, venues and promoters to stumble upon something great, attract like-minded people that nurture a movement as the momentum develops. Each music scene is unique, but there are definitely common threads that run between them all.

The first commonality is rent. History reveals that most artistic movements are started in low income parts of a city. Think about it.

In the late 70's, the Lower East Side was a violent, drug-addled neighborhood, but it was also an inexpensive place to get an apartment. Musicians are usually broke when they start out. Cheap rent gives them a roof over their head while they pursue their dreams.

In addition to cost of living factors, there must some kind of hipness factor. A great music scene instills a sense of cool to its audience, and makes them feel a part of something important. This energy has two effects: it continues to attract like-minded people and it unites them in a common experience. As the scene evolves, music lovers become more adventurous about their culture, which leads to the most important element of all – a loyal and nurturing community.

Loyalty is critical to a music scene, because it allows musicians to experiment and fail, while they work to perfect their art. A nurturing community is tolerant and takes risks along with the bands. If a new sound is introduced, it's the audience who must find the courage to embrace it. Without that, musical growth would be stunted and ultimately disappear.

The final element of a successful music scene has more to do with politics than music. Cities must be supportive of the scene itself, developing infrastructure to encourage local musicians.

Music scenes can be incredibly lucrative for a city - think of Nashville, New Orleans and Austin. Music attracts tourism, employing taxpayers and builds identity. The thread that music creates indelible links to the other cultural elements of the city – Nashville's outrageous cowboy outfits, New Orleans French Quarter and Austin's famous backyard BBQ's. Music is the soundtrack for these cities, and there's little separation between the sound and the cultural habits of the population. It is for this reason that nurturing a strong music scene should be at the top of the agenda for any city.

Los Angeles might take a page from the past. In the 70's, New York City encouraged an entire creative community by allowing fine artists to apply for reduced rent, if they would move to Soho, an area abandoned by manufacturers. Tens of thousands of artists moved there for the low rent, and SoHo once abandoned became a thriving part of New York City's cultural scene.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.