The Place of Music Scenes

I’ve been spending a lot of my recent ‘free-thinking’ time on the subject of music scenes, specifically about how they form and what effect they end up having on music as a whole. When a music scene has developed it means that there’s suddenly a new type of sound which is starting to get more attention and exposure for artists playing it, with that sound also occasionally being tracked to a specific location or region as well. For some examples, there was the Grunge movement in the Northwest in the late 1980s, a new definition of Alternative Rock emerged in the mid-90’s with bands such as Pavement, Dinosaur Jr., Archers of Loaf, Guided By Voices and The Pixies gaining popularity, and recently there was a defined new-wave rock scene in New York City which spawned artists like The Strokes and Interpol. So how do these scenes actually start? Theoretically I can think of a few ways, but they all share some common points.

  • A new artist emerges and plays a sound which sounds so different from anything else that is currently being played, and so it inspires imitation and new methods of thinking. (Example: Bob Dylan)
  • An artist with an already established following and influence has a sudden drastic sound shift which worked incredibly well for them. (Example: Radiohead)
  • Multiple artists get inspired from the same source, bringing extra attention to an artist who’s music left a significant impact and is just now being remembered. (Example: The Velvet Underground)
  • An awesome local music scene emerges to draw a crowd, and somebody from that local scene emerges into the national spotlight. (Example: Neutral Milk Hotel)

There have to be other scenarios as well, but you’re probably starting to understand what I believe has to be present for a successful music scene to form. The sound has to be new and unique to the other options out there, and somebody within the scene has to grow in popularity enough so that they can spread the word around about it. It’s an interesting dynamic to think about, but that theorization is only the beginning point to this article.

Smaller music scenes get defined constantly and the study of these is basically what it means today to be current with modern music, and the people who get to define what these smaller scenes are work for the music media. Their job is to try and define these different music scenes and report what’s happening within them from a specific mindset, and this effects their opinion on who deserves to be recognized and how releases should be rated. This approach makes some sense from their perspective because if you’re covering music on a day-to-day basis then I imagine you wouldn’t be very keen on viewing every new release as a blank slate, but it’s a flawed approach towards rating music.

That’s because while music scenes are real and potentially valuable, they can also be a mirage which only displays the sounds which share common qualities with each other. Where’s the space for creativity and new ideas within this mindset, and what solutions get missed if you’re stuck looking for the answer in the same place repeatedly?

When it comes to new music, I think it’s best to just compare it to the total product rather than how it fits into the modern music scenes because of this. How well does the band or release stand alongside the successful sounds which have come before it, and how likely is it to inspire the sounds which will follow? That’s the ultimate question right there, and with all of the different genres and stylistic differences which have made an impact in music history I would think it’s safe to say that there’s never going to be a sure-fire answers to those questions. It’s just something that time decides, but keeping an open mind towards what could leave an imprint is an important step.

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