Craigslist Is My Music Scene

When people with no shared history make music together, it's both exhilarating and awkward.

In his speech celebrating the E Street Band's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April, bandleader Bruce Springsteen said something striking: "Real bands are made primarily from the neighborhood. From a real time and real place that exists for a little while, then changes and is gone forever. They’re made from the same circumstances, the same needs, the same hungers, culture."

In 2014, Springsteen's comment sounds like an anachronism. The Internet has been widely blamed for killing local music scenes, and there's much discussion about how rising rent prices in cities like New York and San Francisco are driving artists away from once-thriving, creative neighborhoods. 

The E Street Band formed more than 40 years ago. And for every Bruce Springsteen in the world, there are countless not-famous musicians who start or join a band and then take on the difficult task of developing and maintaining it. Does this always happen organically, within a local music scene, among friends and acquaintances? No way.

I was lucky enough, in the ‘90s, to be at the center of a thriving local scene, where bands developed music naturally and haphazardly on a handful of local stages, nurtured by peers who were also in bands. Our local independent radio station gave as much airtime to our music as it did national and global acts. We rehearsed in living rooms, basements, garages, and warehouse spaces, and when we weren't performing, we attended one another's shows. Newspapers, magazines, and zines wrote stories about us. We signed with small record labels or started our own. We partied, danced, and helped each other get home at the end of the night, while wearing one another's band T-shirts. Through our shared times, we shared a common language and understanding.

But for those who continue to play music well into the 2010s and have moved to different places or live in places with no discernable music scene, that description I just gave no longer applies. For the past decade, I've joined half a dozen bands almost entirely through Craigslist and similar sites like Gumtree, Musolist, and others. As a result, I've performed and recorded lots of music with complete strangers. Some of those strangers have since become close friends and tour mates, some I've known only briefly, and some I've had arguments with and will probably never play music with or see again.

It starts out simple enough: I post an ad that says "Trumpet Player Available." Then the responses land in my inbox. Some get to the point quickly: "Can you play like Miles Davis?" "Nobody over 30." Others unload paragraphs of detail about their favorite albums, and share long-winded explanations of their musical ideology: "Jamming is the truest musical form." "I'm trying to open up to more of Joni Mitchell's later stuff." The Craigslist musician's section is a vast window into the aspirations, music snobbery, fellowship, and alienation of musicians who are not attached to a connected, local scene.

Through online classified ads, I've joined groups with as few as three people and as many as 11, and played music ranging from funky hip-hop to punk-soul, gypsy jazz, and Afrobeat. Through relationships forged online, I've busked, toured from Dublin to Istanbul, and opened for national acts. A long trail of EPs, CDs, YouTube videos, embeddable SoundCloud recordings, Dropbox files, band emails, and Facebook, MySpace, and ReverbNation profiles chronicles all of this.

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Gary Moskowitz writes about music and culture for The Economist and SF Weekly, and is a journalism instructor at San Francisco State University and California State University, East Bay. He has written for Time, The Village Voice, and The New York Times.

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