Your Turn | ‘LISTEN LOCAL: My Local Music Manifesto’

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essay by Doc Rich

[Note: Your Turn is The Devil Strip’s sounding board for passionate, informed locals so they have some place to share what’s on their minds. Doc, who guitars for The Beyonderers now and did for Houseguest, wrote this for our March 31, 2015 issue. Sorry it’s taken so long to post. – Chris H.]

For those of us living in a city like Akron—a city trying to find the identity that it will run with for the next 30 years—art and music are immensely important in that search for identity.

Photo of the essayist as a young dad. (Taken from a post on The Beyonderers' Facebook page about recording their new album.)
Photo of the essayist as a young dad. (Taken from a post on The Beyonderers’ Facebook page about recording their new album.)

If you listen to people like David Byrne from the Talking Heads, the Internet didn’t just cause the sky to fall on the music industry, it’s killing creativity and art at the same time. All forms of artistic expression have been cheapened because now every poor schmuck with a computer can make an album and pollute the Internet with it. How will true artists continue to be found, let alone make a living from their art when just ANYONE has the ability to create and upload music? All these talentless kids and uncles who have stupid garage bands as hobbies are taking attention away from the true artiste, the musician who has been given the trust of a corporate monolith like Interscope or Geffen, and were nurtured into creating true, world-changing, IMPORTANT, legitimate art. If David Byrne had his way, every amateur painter would keep their crappy homemade watercolors in the attic, where they belong, and leave the real art to the professionals.

Who are the professionals? Well, artists and musicians who were told by powerful people at record labels that they were good, I suppose. If you aren’t lucky to be plucked from obscurity by an A&R man, your homemade record just isn’t legit enough for David Byrne. Unless someone is willing to roll out a yearlong marketing campaign around your album, why even bother making it?

Make no mistake: the digital revolution, the MP3, file-sharing and streaming services killed the music industry as we knew it.

So… what does that mean for local and regional music?

Digital technology may have killed the music industry, but it did not kill art and the sense of community provided by those that support it and provide it. If the music business is so bad, how has Akron’s independent record shop Square Records continued to increase its business over the past 10 years? If no one buys records anymore, how is that place still open and thriving? And why are there still recording studios in Akron if the advent of home recording studios are so cheap and easy to build?

The reason: the culture that created the major label system became corrupt, and the public turned against it. At the same time, the culture that surrounds the production and distribution of art (and music) is as important as it ever has been. Art has survived, music has survived, and the creative community has survived because these are things that have no inherent monetary value but are priceless nonetheless. True music lovers/buyers often want to be a part of a community made up of other music lovers and creators—and where do you find those people? You find them working at or hanging out in music stores, show venues, recording studios, festivals, live performances. For a local band, streaming audio is not a financial decision; it is one more link in the chain of building and strengthening a community of arts creators and supporters.

As the national record industry continues to nosedive, the importance of regional musicians and bands as well as their supporters only increases. Now is the time for local bands to stake their claim on their city, embrace their regional-ness, and be an important part of the conversation as Akron tries to find its next storyline.

Now before I start getting angry emails, I would never revel in anyone losing their job. I am not happy that stores went out of business, or that people at record labels are out of work. I will also never advocate for the stealing of someone else’s hard work. I don’t believe in illegal file sharing, and I don’t like the fact that YouTube allows people to upload full albums of music they have no rights to. For some bands, streaming services like Spotify legitimately cut into their finances, because they sell a lot of records. That’s a good reason to abstain from them, but it’s a reason that most musicians will never have to worry about.

The Beyonderers themselves.
The Beyonderers themselves.

For the rest of us toiling in local band obscurity, writing songs for small audiences and playing shows within a 50-mile radius, the digital revolution has been the best thing that has ever happened to the creation, production, and release of music. The importance of a vibrant nightlife in this city can only be helped by easy access to the online presence of new and established regional bands and musicians. With local bands’ greater potential for visibility and infinitely greater access to their recorded output, the power of local performers have also have a greater responsibility to help build and represent their communities. In my opinion, that’s all anyone who plays music should be concerned about in the first place—expressing themselves creatively while making their community a better place for it. After all, most of us musicians never have to worry about the business side, because there is rarely any business to actually worry about (of course, if someone wants to pay your for it, even better).

I would argue that technology has made locally-created music more important and vital right now than it has ever been in my lifetime. For those of us living in a city like Akron, a city trying to find the identity that it will run with for the next 30 years, art and music are immensely important in that search for identity.

What the music industry has wanted music buyers to believe for the past 60 years is that they know better than we do when it comes to who deserves to make it to the “big time.” They find the real talent out there, hidden among the hobbyists and crummy bar bands. In their version, they help the cream “rise to the top.” As a local musician, I can tell you that line of thinking is, was, and has always been a myth. For every band sanctioned by a major record label to be the next “big thing,” there have been uncountable numbers of bands and musicians from Cleveland, Canton, Akron, Kent, and other places in Northeast Ohio and beyond who are or were every bit as good as bands 10 times more famous than them. I’ve seen bands play blistering sets to no one. I’ve seen solo artists pour their hearts out in the Annabel’s basement for no reason other than for catharsis and connection with other people. I’ve seen strangers play jazz together at the old Northside on a Wednesday night, their only reason being to get out there and explore the creation of music with other people.

In 2015, a kid in Akron can write a song at 9 pm, record it simply at their home with one or two tracks, and upload it to YouTube for the entire world to hear by 11 pm. This is a great thing. In my mind, that 14-year-old’s acoustic song is EVERY BIT as important as a Talking Heads song, or a Black Keys song, or a Beatles song. You may have just yelled out loud “The Beatles?! How can some kid in Akron write a song as good as the Beatles?” Do you know how old the Beatles were when they started? Hint: they were kind of young. Kind of really young.

Blurry screenshot from a video of Chrissie Hynde, Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and Mark Mothersbaugh all on stage together at the Civic. (Video by Rachel Roberts, click the photo to watch it)
Blurry screenshot from a video of Chrissie Hynde, Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and Mark Mothersbaugh all on stage together at the Civic. (Video by Rachel Roberts, click the photo to watch it)

I am intensely proud that our city is represented on a national level by Chrissie Hynde, Devo and The Black Keys, among others. The things those bands have achieved are phenomenal, but also incredibly rare. The local bands we have in our city, though maybe 1/100,000th as financially successful, are every bit as important to this city. Local bands help keep this place interesting and vibrant. “Local” and “regional” are buzzwords used in everything from food to furniture making to theatres to small businesses—let’s focus on trying to “listen local” as well. I truly believe it can be every bit as good for you as eating and shopping locally.

A healthy city NEEDS a healthy arts culture, and a healthy arts culture NEEDS a healthy music scene.

One of the things I’m supposed to address in this piece is the question “What would help the Akron music scene?” Honestly, I don’t know that we need anything. People are working hard all over to make this music scene something to be proud of. From the people who book local shows at Musica and Annabell’s to the plethora of supportive open mic nights throughout the week and the Porch Rokr fest in Highland Square, important things are happening to distill a creative and fertile music scene. As records from national artists become harder to find at Best Buy and Target, and as FM radio increasingly plays less and less new music, that opens up so much room in a casual music listener’s time and budget to investigate local bands.

Right now, from the warmth of your home or office, you can, right this second, take to the internet and stream music by current local musicians like Maid Myriad, Shivering Timbers, Gabe Schray, Trouble Books, Time Cat, Rachel Roberts, Megachurch, Half Cleveland, Herzog, (ahem) The Beyonderers, If These Trees Could Talk…and on and on and on. Their “localness” does not imply a lack of quality; in fact, I think it denotes possession of legitimacy. I think this city, with its rich musical heritage, gives local bands a much higher bar to live up to. And for the most part, they do.

If you want to experience music that speaks to you about our city, our neighborhoods, and our shared experiences, listen local.

10 recommended
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