The Inevitable Death of All Music Scenes

NYC's art-punk golden age, Chapel Hill's indie-rock community, and Memphis's Stax Records all declined in about the same way: The underdogs became the establishment.
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Who makes the art when no one can afford the rent?

This question has come up a lot lately, especially for New Yorkers, perhaps thanks to Bill de Blasio's "two New Yorks" mayoral campaign. After attending the Basilica Soundscape 13 recently held in Hudson, New York—a relatively affordable destination roughly two hours north of the city by train—New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote a blog post suggesting the following ingredients for art production: “When a city allows you to be poor enough to live without starving but not work all the time, you can find the time to find your voice, a cohort, and maybe even a building.” He’s got ‘70s and ‘80s NYC in mind, when punk, new wave, and hip-hop flourished, resulting in an exciting music scene. The piece concludes with a cautionary note (and an expensive dinner). “Hudson may price itself out of the Soundscape game," Frere-Jones writes. "The artists always bring in the people they most want to escape.”

On Sunday, David Byrne—the lead-singer of Talking Heads, a band that benefited immensely from being in New York in the ‘70s—published an editorial for Creative Time Reports and The Guardian, addressing the city’s supposed artistic demise. “[W]e come to New York for the possibility of interaction and inspiration,” Byrne writes. Since “[m]iddle-class people can barely afford to live here,” he says, “the resources [knowledge and creativity] that keep the city vibrant are being eliminated.” As a result, “[t]his city doesn’t make things anymore.” He largely blames the culture that surrounds banking. Byrne is careful to point out that he does not believe poverty is necessary for art, but “[t]he idea of making an ongoing creative life ... is difficult unless one gets a foothold on the ladder.” (The steady decline in the probability of being able to climb society’s “ladder” has been well-documented by scholars and journalists.) Byrne ends wondering, “where will I go? Join the expat hipsters upstate in Hudson?”

The trends described by Frere-Jones and Byrne are not part of an isolated pattern. As places develop into artistic hubs, they often end up destroying the very forces that brought about their transformation. This is demonstrated in two new books: Late Century Dream: Movements in the US Indie Music Underground (out November 5) and Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion (out November 12).

Late Century Dream collects stories from indie-music communities—small (Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Athens, Georgia) and large (Chicago)—in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Vanessa Hay, from the skittering, propulsive Athens band Pylon, echoes the language of Frere-Jones and Byrne: “Pylon toured sporadically ... but we were not into being a career band. ... I actually was able to survive on the money I brought home from touring.” Matt Gentling, in the band Archers of Loaf, believes Chapel Hill exploded as a music center because of “the availability of these sort of hand-to-mouth type jobs you can pick up quickly and put back down at a moment’s notice, then come back and find another one later ... and then having colleges all around, you get all these people who are curious about art.”

But creating interesting art draws other artists, groupies, hangers-on—crowds of people looking for Byrne’s “possibility of interaction and inspiration.” Of course, the market also swoops in, looking to quickly incorporate new creative energy. Pop is worth money, and wherever there's money to be made, companies will show up to make it, creating winners and losers.

When a number of indie-rock bands broke into wider success, a genre founded on outsider status had worked itself into the insider’s club, and it didn’t know what to do. This tension plays out in Late Century Dream. Paul Butchart, who played in the Athens band Side Effects, which disbanded in 1982, dismisses the artists—he contemptuously refers to them as “real musicians”—who came to Athens to “surf” on the success of others, including Matthew Sweet, whose career is still going. And the book’s introduction notes that the history of Seattle rock has been “reduced ... to the history of a single label,” Sub Pop. It proposes to fix this by “circumnavigating the populist Sub Pop hegemony to look at seminal fringe groups.”

Then again, the indie-rock scene of Late Century Dream wasn’t the most inclusive world, and it remains generally white (a fact that Frere-Jones noticed in Hudson). Respect Yourself portrays a more diverse community: a mixture of lower- and middle-class, men and women, black and white, who managed to create an essential body of music in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. 

Jim Stewart, a banker—back when banking was, as Paul Krugman likes to say, boring—started what would eventually become Stax as “an outlet ... to express myself musically.” He wasn’t the only person looking for an outlet on the side of service jobs like those described by Gentling. His sister Estelle Axton, who lent her name and keen ear to Stax (STewart AXton), also worked as a bank clerk. The songwriter David Porter doubled as an insurance salesman and grocery bagger, and his musical partner Isaac Hayes put in hours at a meatpacking plant. The famous rhythm guitarist Steve Cropper bagged groceries too.

Stax moved into an old theater around 1960, setting up a studio in the back and a record store in front. The store played music onto the sidewalk and “lured the kids,” many of whom went on to become famous and crucial parts of the Stax sound, like Booker T. Jones. “The kids dancing would attract potential buyers,” said William Bell, and Estelle, who ran the shop, used these buyers to gather data. As “the research and development division,” she tested freshly cut records to see how people responded to them, putting on hits, seeing what got people dancing, telling the musicians in the back what to shoot for. Stax was a small, self-contained, community-oriented operation that slowly developed an unstoppable sound.

Gordon writes about the importance of “[s]mall independent labels,” which functioned in the ‘60s like “farm teams” in baseball, “min[ing] talent in their neighborhoods, cities, and regions.” But they often went out of business. “The way up and out for the indie was through allying with an established national label.” Specialize and trade. Stax connected with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic records.

This connection “was formalized as a contract” in 1965; although Stax created valuable music for years after their official jump into the majors, this changed the way things worked. As Ericka Danois wrote in an article about the label for the magazine Waxpoetics, “[w]ith increasing success, Stax started operating like a big business and less like a family.” This change is not unique to the label; it can be found in any society that reorganizes itself around the market. In his work Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian, the scholar Michael Paul Rogin described how the same shift in relationships occurred when America first underwent an economic revolution in the 1800s, and market-based interactions replaced the family as society’s dominant organizational structure. The U.S. was large and diverse enough to survive this transition, but for small and specialized Stax, it would prove harder.

Stax's new orientation led to a series of difficulties. Some, like Otis Redding's untimely death in a plane crash, were unpredictable. But others, such as disputes with Atlantic over the ownership of music, should not have come as a surprise. (When Stax paired up with CBS in the ‘70s, more problems cropped up.) And the new focus on national marketability damaged creativity. Some key musicians, like Booker T. Jones, left Memphis. By the early '70s, Stax was no longer at the leading edge of R&B; without that prominent position, it couldn’t land the hits it needed to stay in business. Mired in lawsuits, Stax went bankrupt in 1975.

From Memphis to New York to various hotbeds for indie-rock, similar factors lead to the development of exciting scenes. As Frere-Jones and Byrne mention, low cost of living is key, allowing musicians to survive on the flexible service jobs that Gentling points to. Stax illustrates the value of an integrated community and a close-knit group willing—and able—to experiment, aware of their love for music but also conscious of the economy, which does not allow most people to make a living doing what they love. Cities or college towns provide youthful energy.

Just like market bubbles, scenes burst. Great art is made, and the market consistently produces conditions that work to stifle subsequent creation: shorter timelines, greater expectations, new methods of promotion, national audiences that you can’t canvass outside your record store. Hangers-on and scene-surfers increase the cost of living. Rents go up, pricing out those who haven’t made it. The focus switches from sound to money, and no small scene or label can survive that for long.

De Blasio will probably become mayor, and maybe he will introduce measures to actively mitigate inequality. But disparity in America has been increasing for decades, with few attempts to stem the rise. It’s more likely that art will have to persist, despite the factors that work against it. 

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Elias Leight writes about music and books for Paste and Popmatters.

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