The State of the Music Scene: An Inside Look at Being a Musician In The Midwest

This piece requires a bit of pre-exposition before the actual exposition:

I’ve been working this entire semester on a project for one of my classes (and my portfolio) and well, here it is.  Many of you have helped me get this done in some way, shape or form.  There are many aspects of it that I deem incomplete, so consider this a preview to the eventual final project.  WordPress is making me make it public so that I can send the link to my professor.

Although this is what I will have turned in for a grade, I plan to clean up a few things, and possibly add a few more, before it’s official.  If you’re interested in being a part of it, PLEASE don’t hesitate to email me at jake.smith1630@gmail.com.

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Justin Hieb of Weathered 12/3/15

Music is a powerful thing.  It can motivate you to do a whole plethora of tasks, get you through your work day, your workout, or just speak for you when you can’t find the words.  For most of us, music is a huge part of our life.

For some, however, it IS their life.

Your favorite artist was, at one time, just a local nobody, playing a bar or a friend’s basement, trying to make a name for themselves.

After countless hours, emails, shows and interviews later, this is the best I could come up with to show the world that the scene is not dead, it is, in fact full of talent. You just have to know where to look.

This is a story of your future favorite artists.  This is a story of the local musicians that are out there, constantly grinding, trying to make it to the next step.

Lets start out with a survey.

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The above infographic shows a breakdown of my survey results.  I asked musicians and fans alike to tell me what they found to be the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the current state of the scene.  Most of the respondents, as you can see, were musicians, and most of them were from Minnesota.  Through this article, we will explore a few of the topics covered in this survey.

Independent Venues

If you’re a part of the Minnesota local scene, you know that the house show scene is thriving, for a lack of a better term, and not necessarily for the right reasons.  There has been a problem in the Twin Cities as of late.  Many of the all-ages venues have been shutting down, and for a roughly 6 month period, the largest all-ages venue, The Garage (located in Burnsville, MN) was undergoing renovations, as well as some management changes, and MN natives Household closed their house doors earlier that year, after signing with Blood and Ink Records and relocating to St. Louis.

Due to the lack of venues willing to host all-age shows, many of the members of the scene took it upon themselves to bring the music to the people.  A variety of DIY house show venues started to pop up and host a few shows here and there, however many of them ended up closing their doors.  The stress of running a show in your basement or living room plus the stress of having to fix the inevitable damages that happen from 50+ kids in your house becomes a heavy burden.

However, many people will still open their doors to the patrons of the music scene, even after the reopening of The Garage during the summer of 2015, and they are still very appealing to a wide variety of musicians and fans alike.

“I think there’s something special about watching a band that you know is going places in a house,” said Isaac Luedtke, guitarist of Unturned.  “It feels more intimate and it’s more fun. Even in between bands when everyone goes outside or upstairs and we’re all just hanging out, it feels like the best family I’ve ever been apart of and I can’t describe how much that means to me.”

The intimacy factor seems to be the major redeeming quality of house shows, at least among the Minnesota scene.

On the flip-side, many artists prefer the “real” venues to houses.  With The Garage reopening it’s doors, artists now have their original stomping ground to go back to, although some of the venues that have thrived in it’s absence seem to be here to stay.

“I actually prefer venues mainly because it sounds more balanced and it’s a more consistent experience for everyone,” says Aaron Reed of Charlie Siren. “House shows are more fun as a performer a lot of times but even with 30 people in a house people in the back may miss out on a lot of it.”

Apart from the consistent experience, many people say that the superior sound systems also keeps both artists and fans coming back.

“I have a slight preference towards real venues because the sound is almost always better,” said Ben Drake of Insomniac.

The Struggles of Being An Independent Musician

As a local musician (I play bass in Pets With People Names, HOLLA AT YA BOY) I understand the struggles all too well.  There is always something that seems to be delaying progress.  From money, to schedule conflicts, show attendance to networking, there is always something giving you a headache.

“Staying relevant,” is the blunt response to what Pets With People Names’ Anthony Hagan thinks is the hardest part of being in a band.  “We have to drive to another state for almost every show because we don’t actually have a “local” scene.  Thankfully, Minnesota has been very accepting of us.”

Not only is travel an issue that many musicians struggle with, but it’s also the money.  Being a musician is a large investment, from gear upkeep, to buying a van, insuring it and filling up the gas tank, you see a lot of money go out without a lot of money coming in.

Part of that is because attendance isn’t always guaranteed, especially when you’re just starting out.  A lot of promoters and venues only give you a guarantee if you sell a certain amount of tickets, or if they bring in a certain amount of money.  There seems to be a lack of promotion happening, or people only come to see their friends play.

The low show attendance gets to be an issue when trying to keep venues afloat.  If a venue isn’t drawing in enough people, they can’t book the larger shows that guarantee them a good draw, so as a musician, you are spending a lot of time pushing ticket sales and trying to get people in the door.

When asked about the hardest part of being in a band, here is what Isaiah Campbell of Telepathist and The Enmity had to say:

“The grind, man. Selling tickets to your shows, promotion the shows, proving to people you’re worthy of getting booked for those shows. Buying and creating merch that people actually want to buy. Promoting your band’s page and music might be the hardest of all, since so many other local bands are trying to do the same exact thing to the same market, so usually bringing it up turns people off immediately. Getting your name out there is not an easy task at all.”

Isaiah put it as gracefully as possible.  Being in a band is almost a full time job, even at the local level.

The grind is worth it, though, at least according to Minnesota’s Unturned.  I had a chance to speak with these young fellows, and below is what they had to say about the local scene.

The Next Level

So you’re in a local band, you gain a decent following, tour a bit, and are actually making it work for you.  What’s the next step?

If you’re one of the lucky ones, you move out of the regional phase and go onto the national stage.  All of your hard work starts to pay off: your tours start bringing in more kids, and you start getting the attention of labels.

At least this was the story of Ty Brooks and his band, Conveyer, based out of a hybrid of Eau Claire, WI and Minneapolis, MN.  I had the chance to chat with him over a few brews while he had a few off weeks in Eau Claire.

“You know, humbling is pretty good word for it,” reflects Ty on his band’s first tour after their Victory Records debut, When Given Time To Grow.  “I mean, our record release show for instance, there were I think 380 kids there, and then the next night in Grand Rapids, MI, which is one of my favorite places to play, there were like, 50 kids there.”

“I think our first week of shows on this last tour was incredible.  But the next week was sort of “dud shows,” and it was still super fun the entire time.  Humbling is definitely a good word for it.”

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Ty Brooks, Conveyer. Photo by: JDM Photography

Ty is a good example of a success story, but it didn’t come easily.

“In order to get signed, you have to tour,” he stated bluntly.  “You have to put in the miles.  You have to grind, and that’s the best word for it.  No labels that are worth mentioning will sign you if you don’t grind.”

He said that before you can even be successful, you have to write what makes you happy.  Essentially, the idea is that if you aren’t happy with your music, how do you expect others to?

“I think one mistake a lot of bands are making lately is that they try to tour too quickly.  I don’t think bands these days realize that you have to play regionally first and develop a following before you go across the country.”

Conveyer started out playing as many shows as they could, strictly in the Midwest for the better part of their first few years.  This helped them build a regional following, which later helped them get press coverage by alternative music magazines such as HM or Alternative Press.

Again, none of this came easily.

“You have to work hard, and you have to make things happen for yourself.  You can’t expect to land support tours or huge shows if you don’t have anything to bring to the table.”

After all of this hard work pays off and you get signed to a label, what exactly does that entail?

“We’re extremely fortunate to have the label backing that we do,” Ty explains, talking of everyone’s favorite label to hate, Victory Records.  “They have second-to-none marketing, and are really open to new ideas.”

“What they do for us is first, they help set up press coverage; they get us interviews and reviews… all of that stuff.”  Brooks further explains, “Second they distribute all over the world. We’ve had friends who were touring or just touring in Japan or Australia or the UK, and they found our record which was crazy.”

“Their recording budget is incredible.  Not having to be financially responsible (for studio costs) is a huge weight off of our shoulders.  From 2011 until we signed with Victory, we were 100% self funded, and to see that someone believes in us enough to back our future endeavors is crazy.”

Is It Worth It?

So far, we’ve talked about a lot of the struggles that Midwest musicians face.  You may ask, “If it’s all this big of a headache, is it worth it?”

I think Alex Wells of Fargo/Minnesota hybrid Atrocities put it the most eloquently:

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Alex Wells, Atrocities/Sibir. Photo by: Trevor Sweeney Media

“No matter what happens, being. In a band is 100% worth it to me. We’ve played shows where 1 kid showed up, and we’ve played shows where 50+ people showed up. Regardless, I still had the feeling of “Holy shit, I’m playing music with my best friends right now.”

I’ve been blessed to have been able to tour the country three separate times, one of those being while I was still in high school. The day after I graduated high school, I left for a tour with my (now ex) band In Favor. Three days in, our van broke down and we were stuck in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin. We ended up having to drop 3 shows, and my parents drove from Minnesota to Rockford, IL to rescue us. As discouraging as that was, I wanted more.

Because of being in a band and touring, I’ve made friends from around the country, in states I never thought I’d get to go to, let alone play music in. As of now, I’ve played shows in nearly 15 different states, and I’m barely 18 years old. I never want to stop doing this. Being in a band will always be worth it to me. I just want to play music, whether people like it or not.”

Alex Wells of Atrocities and Sibir

For most of us, the rewards outweigh the stress.

The Midwest music scene is not dead. It is alive and well, you just have to look for it.

Being able to get on stage and jam out for 30 minutes with your best friends is the best feeling in the world.  We will play music until the day we die, and we will enjoy it.

 

 


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