Modern Sounds of Modern Massachusetts: The Politics of a Stagnating Scene
by Henry Claudy on Friday, March 31st, 2017
By Henry Claudy ’17
By looking at the curb outside of the Boston House of Blues, you wouldn’t be able to tell that Boston’s biggest music night of the year is about to commence. The line I am waiting in is not the long winding line that is often found when a major national act comes to town, but a short stubby queue with, at most, twenty people. Those in line shiver as they wait for the bouncers to open the doors. House of Blues employees check the IDs of the audience members, bestowing a bright orange bracelet on those with a valid drinking age ID, and marking myself, one of the few minors in attendance, with harsh black x’s written on their hands in Sharpie. Black cars pull up to the curb, dropping off local stars who strut into the venue as though it was the Staples Center on the night of the Grammys.
The doors open promptly at 6 o’clock, and after a brief security check, I enter the Boston Music Awards. The BMAs have been a constant in the scene since 1987. In the past 29 years, the event has notably honored Aerosmith, New Kids on the Block, Gang Starr, and John Mayer. The ceremony runs on a people’s choice format, starting with an anonymous committee assembling a list of nominees, and then opening up voting to the public on their website. The 2016 BMAs mark a shift in the history of the awards; the ceremony has a new owner, a new venue, and a new mission to show the wide diversity of local Boston music culture. With such a wide range of musicians, the BMAs are a perfect place to get a taste of the many sounds of Boston.
The first thing I see as I enter the House of Blues is a “black carpet” with a small handful of photographers who swarm any nominee, no matter their level of fame. The press had already begun to take photos of Kyle Bent, a young Randolph rapper nominated for best music video. An over-enthusiastic radio show host plays Hollywood red carpet, “interviewing” artists and taking photos with almost everyone. I’m not camera ready in my jeans and sweatshirt, so I slip by the local paparazzi, but others take full advantage of the warm welcome of a photo shoot. The attendants of the ceremony were dressed in a variety of outfits, from trendy streetwear to cocktail attire; I even spot one nominee channeling his inner Bjork by wearing a stuffed swan around his neck.
Past the frenzy of the black carpet and behind heavy doors I find the main chamber of the House of Blues. The room is mostly empty so soon after opening; a DJ plays slight remixes of Top 40 hits on the stage, but no one is really into it. A couple of booths on the second floor are handing out merchandise branded with local music organizations, and a couple dozen fans hang out by the bar. Even though attendees continue to trickle in for the rest of the night, the venue never reaches its full capacity.
The diverse selection of performers, such as girl-rock group Lady Pills, everyman-rapper Michael Christmas, and freak-folk band Walter Sickert & The Army of Broken Toys, electrified the House of Blues and should have brought in fans across all genres. Despite a long history and a lineup reflecting all of the genres and tastes of the area, the BMA’s weren’t able to draw a huge crowd.
As the night went on, Lamont Price, a local Dorchester comedian and the host of the BMAs, takes the stage and starts his opening monologue. I had seen Lamont the previous year at the Boston Calling comedy stage, and he focuses his content mostly on local topics: being a person of color in the Boston area, growing up in Dorchester, and cracking jokes about Boston sports. Lamont eventually winds his way back to talking about the awards. He jokes about previous nominees, such as the Dropkick Murphys winning for the previous 10 years, but he gets the most laughs when poking fun at the Boston Music Awards by mentioning the award given to Aerosmith back in the 90s. His punchline? “Aerosmith wins, but they couldn’t be here because they’ve never fucking heard of it.”
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Filling venues is not solely an issue of the Boston Music Awards; the majority of Boston venues have trouble selling tickets to local artist’s shows. Despite Bostonians selling out shows of nationally recognized acts, not many Bostonians are interested in, or are even aware of the existence of, local acts. Even with the issues of filling seats, the local scene still breathes, even if the general population doesn’t realize it.
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Eva Westphal is one of these musicians who is trying to make it big in Boston. Eva, a 16-year-old student at Milton Academy, has been performing her acoustic pop for over a year, and has appeared at music festivals like Outside the Box Boston, has sung the National Anthem at Red Sox games, and has been featured on MIX 104.1’s 15 Seconds of Fame radio show. Her primary avenue for making connections for these gigs was social media.
Eva’s music on Don’t Forget, her three track demo, in the vein of indie-pop acts like Birdy or Passenger. The first song on her demo, “Tie The Bow,” is a stripped down acoustic track lamenting a crumbling relationship. The gentle guitar lingers in the background, letting the lyrics take center stage. Halfway through the song she heart-wrenchingly exclaims, “Running in the city lights with no direction/Help me,” with a desperation that draws the listener deeply into her narrative.
I am sitting near the window on the first floor of Cox Library while I wait for Eva. I arrive a few minutes early to finalize my questions, while students can be seen out the window, filing out of their last period classes. She arrives as I am writing in my notebook, and sits down in the chair across from me. The demands of a full Monday schedule have not phased her, and she is more than ready for our conversation. She punctuates our early conversation with laughs, and speaks humbly about her accomplishments.
I start off by asking if Boston is a music city. She confidently answers, “Definitely. I didn’t think it was a music city before last year.” She explains to me that before she started gigging in Boston, she wanted to move to Los Angeles or New York City after graduating from high school, but after experience in the city, she has come to love it. The main producer of her upcoming EP is actually a BMA nominee. “I’m keeping it simple and that reflects Boston,” she says. “Berklee makes it a lot easier to find other musicians that are more approachable because they are young.”
A large part of Eva’s success in the local scene stems from her social media presence. “I wouldn’t be gigging at all in Boston without social media,” Eva says. “If there weren’t Instagram I don’t know what I would be doing.” It was difficult for her to score billings without a website to make her look legitimate. Instagram has played a crucial part in her career, as she has been able to make many connections through the social media platform. Not only has Eva been able to show venues her music through the app, but also contact collaborators. Some of the producers on her upcoming EP were contacted through Instagram, a process that would have been a much greater effort without the ease of social media. Access to social media platforms has even allowed Eva to find her booking agent, Alyssa Spector.
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Alyssa Spector is the owner and manager of Lysten Boston, a local booking and promotion company. Alyssa has been booking shows in Boston for three years and was even nominated for the Best Promoter category in the 2016 BMAs. The front page of the website states, “I’ve created Lysten Boston to bring together talented musicians and the great city of Boston. There are so many great venues and bands in Boston, and I want this city to be exposed to that talent and share my passion. My goal is to make Lysten Boston the go-to resource for musicians, fans, and venues, by booking and promoting local shows.” Her website also lists three permanent artists on her roster, but if you look at her upcoming shows, Alyssa has quite a diverse spread of musicians she has booked shows for, including Eva Westphal. The same past shows page on her website is also a testament to her work ethic; Alyssa books two to three shows a week.
After a back-and-forth email correspondence, Alyssa and I are able to set a time for a phone conversation. I am sitting at my desk on a chilly Saturday afternoon when I call Alyssa. She picks up immediately and, after formally introducing myself and my topic, she begins answering questions. For the beginning of our conversation she never gets too excited; she starts her sentences with a drawn out “um,” or, when detailing her job as a booking agent, recites her duties as though she’s reading a to-do list.
“I will reach out to bands to try to put together a bill, find a venue that’s fitting for those bands, and I will put the show together and connect everyone, and make promotional material,” she says rather unenthusiastically. Alyssa’s experience in the scene has resulted in changing the way she finds her artists. Where once she would have to actively scout for talent, now many bands and artists directly contact Alyssa. This allows booking agents to find a much greater range of talent and genre than if they were just going to their local haunts.
The internet has also heavily changed the way that bands market themselves and promote their shows. “The internet is really the main way bands promote shows,” Alyssa says, with noticeable irritation. The obvious plus of bands promoting shows online is the reach of message. It is much easier for a band to write a short Facebook post than it is to print posters and hang them around town, and it is much easier for people to see an event on their Facebook feed than it is to look around Boston. Having an active web presence can result in a much more active fan base, resulting in a much better turnout. Alyssa says, “Artists have successful projects when they are properly reaching out to their fanbase.” But this feeds into the detracting factor of online marketing, and the source of Alyssa’s frustration with the network: empty invitations. Accepting an invitation to an event or concert is as easy as ever with a quick click, but those who do accept do not always go to the show and wind up just staying home and watching Netflix.
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These empty invitations are not the only force that is driving away audience members from Boston shows. A major issue with Boston shows are the restrictions on attendees based off of the sale of alcohol. “I definitely would love to see a lot of all-ages venues,” Alyssa says. “It leaves out a whole group of people who would enjoy going to shows, and would help bands build their fan base.” Even with this grasp of the issue, she still has understands the argument from the venue perspective. Alyssa is also the booking agent for the Cambridge restaurant and bar Plough & Stars, and from her experiences booking for the venue, as well as from her normal gig of booking venues for artists, she recognizes that the venues depend on the income provided by alcohol sales to survive. This choice, of opening venues to all ages versus selling alcohol to make a profit, is a reason why the scene is staying in stagnation.
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The scene is currently in a state of crisis: many venues are closing their doors, and those who are still open are struggling to fill their pits. This isn’t the first time this has happened; the Boston’s rock scene faced a predicament that mirrors the one musicians face today; venues that acted as the cornerstone of Boston rock, like Streets, Inn-Square Men’s Bar, and Jack’s, were shutting down and Boston wasn’t churning out the best selling bands that the rest of the country was expecting. These issues are detailed in a 1988 WBCN documentary Where Have All The Good Times Gone?, a time capsule of subculture of Boston that does not exist anymore. Venues that have closed their doors and been replaced by condos are housing bands that have faded into obscurity. Many blamed the attempted gentrification of Cambridge and the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which raised the drinking age from 18 to 21, but some believed that the scene would survive through the “conservative” 80s and prosper again in the future.
Boston never fully recovered from the venue closures of the 1980s. Even though the scene has survived for more than 30 years since then, it has never reached the heights of Aerosmith’s Boston. In March of 2016, an assembly titled “The State of Live Music In Boston Forum” met to discuss the future of Boston’s scene. The forum focused on a variety of issues, with topics ranging from reasons why local clubs and venues are closing their doors to the need for greater gender diversity on stages, but everyone could agree that the most prevalent issues facing the Boston music scene are the half-full venues that are struggling to draw in audiences. Everyone seems agree that the solution to these issues lies in the untapped audiences that are barred entry from many venues.
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Matt McArthur is one of these outspoken individuals leading the charge for Boston’s music. He is the executive producer at The Record Co, a Boston nonprofit recording studio. The group has been aiming to provide an affordable recording studio to Boston artists for the past six years. Rentals of the spaces are offered at below market prices, allowing freelance producers and engineers to bring their own clients.
I had the pleasure of meeting Matt earlier that month at the BMAs, where he was supervising a booth selling his group’s latest release. I bumped into him at the event while trying to get quotes from audience members, and after explaining my feature he offered an interview and gave me his business card. Matt and I have our conversation a few weeks later on a cold Friday afternoon. I had been a bit too eager with our correspondence and called before he was ready, but he quickly called back and began our conversation.
Matt started right off the bat with a prepared statement, “For a sustainable music scene you need people, infrastructure, and you need reputation. People are artists, fans etc. Infrastructure is recording studios, venues, music related businesses like management companies, and the reputation piece is that people within and outside of the city need to recognize that the talent is good. Boston has the people but it lacks the reputation and the infrastructure.”
One of The Record Co.’s major rallying points to build a “sustainable creative community” for Boston is the issue of 21+ venues. When I ask Matt about the issue that arises with 21+ venues, he speaks with a frustration that contrasts with the composure of his earlier answers. “Age restriction is the number one social/cultural issue that we have when it comes to music in Boston,” he exclaims. The main source of income for many venues does not come from ticket revenue, but from alcohol sold at shows. Many venues and music clubs in the Boston area, especially those that showcase local acts, only allow attendees over the age of 21, excluding a hefty amount of potential underage fans from engaging in the scene. When placing a ban on underage attendees, venues are placing more value in the short term income of sold alcohol than the long term benefits of a thriving scene.
In Matt’s words, “It is a social and cultural imperative for people at a young age to be indoctrinated into a music scene, and in Boston you can’t do that, guess what happens: you don’t develop a relationship with music, you’re not a patron of music over time.”
The exclusion of young people from participating ultimately hurts the growth of the scene and cultivates an atmosphere in many venues that values beverages sold more than the artists playing at the shows. With 35 colleges in the Greater Boston Area, a good number of Boston youth are only in town for four years, and, with the current club rules, are only able to experience the entirety of the local scene for less than two years of their undergraduate career. These laws also distance the entirety of Boston’s high school students, a group that is especially important in maintaining a city’s music scene. According to Matt, studies show that alienating young people from a scene will drive them away forever, not even until they come of age.
The reason for these exclusions are not legal; according to Matt, there is no state law prohibiting minors from being in a music venue where alcohol is served. The 21+ requirements in Boston music venues are purely policy to ensure easier sale of alcohol. Matt also pointed out that these 21+-only venues are mostly a Boston issue. This alienation does not exist in many other parts of New England, and he specifically pointed out the local scene in Providence. Many Providence venues, such as AS220, provide all-ages shows for the area because they maintain an atmosphere where young people do not drink. The youth at these venues understand that if they are caught under the influence while underage they could lose access to the shows of the local scene.
The policy that I experienced at the House of Blues for the BMAs, the marking of an x on my hand to signify my age, is a pretty liberal concept when compared with what other locations are doing, but it’s not enough for Matt. Matt suggests that the main way to reinvigorate the scene, and include Boston youth at the same time, is to cultivate this same atmosphere that can be found in these Providence music clubs. Matt proposes, “It’s not so much about physically keeping young people from drinking as it is about creating an environment where it’s just not the cool thing to do. Above all teenagers don’t want to be uncool. So you need to make an environment where it’s not cool to be drunk and underage.”
The Record Co’s efforts are not only directed at 21+ venues but also on a variety of other projects to draw attention to the local scene. The most recent effort is aimed at building Boston’s reputation as a music city. The group released the Beast Compilation this past year, the first in a series of volumes aiming at spreading the good word of Boston’s diverse music selection. The compilation exhibits thirteen local acts, spanning from hip-hop to hard rock to folk. Boston is no longer the rock-n-roll city it used to be when it boasted acts like The Cars and Modern Lovers; there are numerous scenes for Bostonians to enjoy, and the Beast Compilation aims to introduce both locals and listeners outside of Boston to the many flavors of the scene.
Matt goes on to explain, “If you’re an artist in Nashville or Austin or LA or NYC or Atlanta, any of these other cities that are accepted as musical hubs, it’s a point of pride to say, ‘I’m an electronic artist from Atlanta’ or ‘I’m a country artist from Nashville.’ Nobody does that here. Nobody says, ‘I’m proud to be a musician from Boston because Boston doesn’t really have that reputation.”
The Record Co. is making an admirable effort building infrastructure for independent Boston artists by providing a cheap recording space, as well as using their pull in the community to promote some of the best of Boston’s acts with The Beast compilation. Building Boston’s reputation through these complication releases is nothing, however, if the groundwork to publicize these acts is nonexistent. As the 21st century has rolled around, the importance of music blogs has increased significantly. Instead of artists needing to make music for radio play or appealing to mainstream music magazines, careers can be created when a website like pitchfork.com praises a single song. Music blogs are equally important on the local level; since a blog can gain international reach, but only has to cover local acts, it has the luxury to focus entirely on a single scene instead of having to pay attention to country-wide movements.
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Enter Sound of Boston, an online music publication that aims to spread the good word of the local scene. The website was founded by Knar Bedian and Jonah Ollman in 2013 while they were studying at Tufts University, and has taken off from then It centers on a wide array of scenes, from the classic Boston rock-n-roll and the twee indie rock that seems to be springing up in every college city, to a newly rising hip-hop scene found in Dorchester, to the hard rock found in the basements of Allston. The publication is one of many “Sound of” websites, starting with Sound of Aarhus, and expanding to San Diego as well.
Articles on the website cover a wide variety of topics, from breaking news in the scene and artist features to album reviews and concert reporting. All of the articles focus on a Boston perspective, and the publication only writes on national acts when they come to Boston. Looking at Sound of Boston’s Albums of the Year article reveals how deep their commitment goes; where Rolling Stone had Radiohead or Car Seat Headrest on their list, Sound of Boston has Bearstronaut and Lady Pills.
I was able to score an interview with Knar Bedian, the founder and current Editor-in-Chief of Sound of Boston. After a battle with rush hour traffic and the parking issues that spring in any major city, I run across a muddy field to reach the American Twine building on a rainy November night. I step out of the rain and into the building, ride the elevator to the fourth floor, and enter Intrepid Pursuit’s Cambridge office. Intrepid Pursuits is a digital design and development firm where Knar is a Marketing Manager. “By day I’m a developer for a mobile app company,” Knar says with a smile, “and by night I do Sound of Boston.” The workplace takes up the entirety of the fourth floor, and it is a shining example of a space that has fully embraced the modern office environment; the dull cubicles that used to cluster the offices of the twentieth century are now replaced by an inviting floor plan, fit for collaboration. The office boasts the laid back atmosphere that tech companies like Google have curated, where workers can come and go at their pleasure; workers are free to sit a variety of long tables that remind me of a twenty-first century Hogwarts, many are in the cafe section chatting with others, and some can be found in the corner playing Super Smash Bros Melee. Those who are working sit at the long tables that dominate the room, reminiscent of a medieval dining hall. The room is lit by the warehouse lighting of the converted office, and less so by the soft glow of Apple laptop logos.
As I walk past a vacant reception desk, I spot Knar sitting at the closest of the tables. After the initial pleasantries we walk to nearby “meeting pod.” The pod is the size of a large closet, with room for two chairs and a table. Once we made ourselves comfortable, we start to discuss her experience covering artists and events in Boston. Knar has fully immersed herself in the Boston scene; as we speak she references bands and venues that I have never heard of.
“I wouldn’t say there is one specific sound,” Knar says, “I think today a lot of people do think of Speedy Ortiz-style of punk rock.” Speedy Ortiz is a Northampton pop/punk band that has gained national attention recently. We are living in a time when music critics want to be able to classify a city as owning a certain sound, something that Boston fights against with its very diverse set of genres. Say what you would like about Boston’s racial diversity, it has diversity in spades in its music.
Knar believes that the online aspect of Sound of Boston is beneficial to the scene. “It’s easier for people who are not in Boston to find out about Boston acts,” Knar says, “and for Boston acts to submit their stuff to larger music sites.” This web presence has allowed some artists to break out to the national stage. A good amount of Boston musicians are making headway outside of the local scene such as Michael Christmas, Pile, and Speedy Ortiz. The issue is that when some of these bands leave, they never come back.
“Berklee and New England Conservatory are good ways to get bands into the city,” Knar states. “It’s just a matter of keeping the bands here.” Many bands that start up in Boston realize you can only have so many shows when compared with much larger metropolitan areas like New York City or Los Angeles, resulting in bands moving to different cities. Sound of Boston is trying to bring those who scour message boards and music blogs into the Boston scene, the issue is that these scourers are actively looking for the scene.
Knar says, “If people want to find the scene they’ll find it.” I don’t agree with this totally. Yes, the Sound of Boston is available for anyone with an internet browser and Wi-Fi, but that does not mean that it will bring those who are unaware of the scene in. A couple years ago, my basic knowledge of Boston’s scene mostly consisted of Aerosmith and the Dropkick Murphys. I was introduced to the presence of the scene through the pop music festival Boston Calling. The festival first started in 2013 and has since grown to be the event for music in the city. Even though it brings in many nationally recognized acts for performances, it also knows how important it is to introduce many of its participants in the local scene. Without Boston Calling I would have never heard of local acts like Michael Christmas, The Ballroom Thieves, or Palehound. Perhaps this is where the scene needs to focus. Many of the ideas to reinvigorate the scene are important, but none of it matters if venues cannot bring in new blood.
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When I was at the BMAs this December I asked a couple of people why they came. One young audience member said, “I came to support one artist, and once I got into it I realized there were many more artists that I didn’t know.” This discovery of a full world that this young man wasn’t aware of is really issue at hand with Boston Music. The future of any scene is the youth, and without its support, or even its knowledge that the scene exists, Boston’s music culture will not flourish into a powerhouse of interesting music. As the BMAs went on that night, I saw performance from many acts that showed how much talent is in the scene. Kyle Bent, who I was a foot away from at the beginning of the night, put on a show that pumped up the audience. The unique vocals and bizarre performance of Walter Sickert & The Army of Broken Toys was an experience that I will never forget. Everyone was happily singing along to Air Traffic Controller’s song “The House.”
Boston has the talent become a musical powerhouse once again, but our city still has a ways to go before it is thought of as a serious music city with the likes of NYC or LA. Bostonians need to come together as a city and support an aspect of their culture that many are not even aware of, and if the city supports its own music scene, then maybe we can share our talent with the rest of the country.
Short URL: http://miltonmeasure.org/?p=8717