Monday, March 08, 2010

Making a Scene

Ladies and gentlemen, dogs and cats, interlopers and cybermen: meet Michael.

Michael is a graduate student at Buffalo, where he studies people. Specifically, he studies migration, cities, geography, satellites, and (I believe) the history of lasers. I'm not sure. He's also the Blother (blog-author) of the Urban Complex, where he discusses how our cities work, how they don't work, how they might change to meet 21st century demands, and what lasers have to do with all of this (again, I might be making the lasers up). He's a smart fellow. In fact, he's a Fellow fellow, which I think involves a scholarship, high academic honors, and powdered wigs.

But I know Michael a different way: he was the guitarist and songwriter of my first band (we had many names, but my favorite was "Styrofoam Giraffe"). Back in high school, Michael and I formed a band and gigged around the Memphis suburbs like Hanson with buzzcuts. I would never tell him this now, except indirectly and with a modicum of ridicule, but Mike set the bar for every guitarist I've worked with since, as a musician, bandmate, and friend. I've always suffered the "artistic type" badly, because Mike's living proof that talented people don't need to be difficult people. I learned that from him early, and have carried it with me since. He's a great guy.

So, when he recently asked me to write "something" about New York and/or Nashville for the Urban Complex, I agreed. Of course, I know nothing about city development, human migration patterns, and/or lasers. I know the shortest route to ice cream wherever I am--that's the extent of my urban expertise. Still, I thought "I'm (fairly) urban and (potentially) complex. I can do this!"

And then a Mailbag question gave me my topic, like an email from the heavens (angels use Yahoo, by the way): "Hey Chris, what's the difference between a show in New York and a show somewhere else, say Nashville?"


Of course, the differences (and the reasons for those differences) are many and varied. But perhaps the biggest difference is also the most relevant to the Urban Complex: New York's layout affects its music scene in a unique and (I believe) positive way.

The first thing I noticed going to shows in New York (and playing my own) was how crowded all the rooms were. Every noteworthy venue was full most nights, rain or shine, early or late, seemingly regardless of the bill. Even open mics were well-attended by seemingly non-partisan crowds. This wasn't happening because New York crowds love music more than anywhere else (although they are great, active, engaged fans). Established venues in town have a built-in audience--regulars that come to have some drinks, hear music, and generally "check it out" on a nightly basis. Elsewhere (e.g., Nashville), artists have a crowd, but the room doesn't; your audience is generally whomever you bring.

There are many explanations for this, but I'll give three:

1) Population/density. The more people are in a city, the more crowded its places will be. Also, the sun is hot and puppies are cute.

2) Driving culture. This is the big one. Though New York has every mode of transportation in abundance (excepting rickshaws), it's primarily a walking culture. Rather than drive five minutes to Kroger, you walk five seconds to the bodega. Rather than drive to your favorite strip of restaurants/bars in town, you walk to your favorite block and hop around. While living in the city encourages real exploration, day-to-day life is about walking around the autonomous micro-city that is your neighborhood. Of course, you should leave your neighborhood; but (depending on where you work) you might not have to.

So, walking three minutes to your favorite restaurant/bar could double as a trip to hear some free music. If you live in the Lower East Side (and seemingly nine billion people do), you're likely a stone's throw from Rockwood, the Living Room, Mercury Lounge, Arlene's, and Pianos, to name a very few. If you live just a few blocks north, add in the Bowery, Webster Hall, Joe's Pub, Bitter End, Kenny's, and dozens more. In total, I'm talking about a 20-block radius. I personally live in the East Village (slightly further) and can easily walk to all of these venues. It's one of the reasons I picked this neighborhood--quick accessibility to a lot of music.

In other words, you don't have to "make a night" of seeing a concert at a destination across town; you can just swing by and check it out. And a ton of people do this.

Now, this isn't unique to New York--art districts in other cities make it easy for some locals to walk to venues. This typically happens only in our most populous (and most densely populated) cities, like Chicago and San Francisco. But it is different from cities like Nashville and Memphis, which have a smaller population, a sprawling city plan, and dominant driving culture. Which leads me to...

3) Really, an offshoot of #2: college-kid accessibility. Young people are obviously the lifeblood of any local music scene, specifically anyone from 16-30. In a small town without a local college, venues are geared toward high school students. In some bigger towns without a nearby college, venues target the twenty-something crowd. But for college-towns and college-heavy cities like Nashville and New York, undergrads are a huge percentage of the concert-going public. They're also the ideal audience: they're more open and independent in their tastes than high school kids, generally have disposable income, and have more free nights (and less responsibilities) than the post-grad crowd. Hence, collegians are vital to the activity and success of their local music scene.

But Nashville's music venues aren't readily available to its many colleges (Vanderbilt, Belmont, Lipscomb, Fisk, TSU, and MTSU in Murfreesboro). Sure, fans go to concerts in town--Nashville's a great city for music and the fans there are active. But, again, the issue is accessibility. If I went to NYU, I could walk to the Bitter End in the same time that a trip to the library took at Vanderbilt. What's more, Nashville's venues are staunchly 21+, whereas NYC rooms seem slightly--cough, cough--more lax. They know their location, and they know their audience.

So, while both cities have amazing fans, it's simply easier for those fans to find music in New York. That's been the greatest difference for me, gigging as a nascent artist in the city: the crowd's not just who I bring. Anyone can impulsively decide to walk five minutes, drop by the right open mic at the right room at the right time, play two songs, and potentially walk away with forty new fans. It's endlessly fun and rewarding from the artist's perspective.

Still, I'd sell a leg right now for a week on I-40 with Ruby.

So, you know, pros and cons.

But what do you think? Is this changing as more cities become less driving-dominant? Is your city developing more autonomous walking neighborhoods (Nashville, for example, has experimented with this over the last decade with mixed results)? Is your favorite venue in town within walking distance? And, if it is, would you actually walk there?

Hit up the Urban Complex and be sure to leave some comments, love, and/or lasers.

(And big props to Mike. Stay tuned for the Styrofoam Giraffe reunion tour.)

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