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Music Scenes: The Benefit of Focusing at the Local Level

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Guest post by Richard Pulvino (@rpulvino) for sidewinder.fm, a music and tech think tank. 

From the late 90's to early 2000's, I immersed myself in the local hardcore music scene in Rochester, NY. I wasn't in any of the bands, but attended shows regularly and would go support friends of mine who were in bands that ranged from first acts to local headliners. 

Music scenes like this were usually pretty incestuous with bands often sharing members. It wasn't uncommon to see people in two to four bands, with fliers naming the bands as Band X, featuring members of Band A, Band B, and Band C. That way, you knew that this new act was relatable and well worth a listen.

In the end, it was about people from a community coming together in support of music, friends, and the do-it-yourself mentality. From the familiar faces at the shows to the weekly chatter on the message boards, the scene was a hive of people full of passion that also served as an outlet for expression.

Today, however, it seems like bands are losing touch with their local communities, or neglecting them altogether. Before the days of Napster and iTunes, bands achieved success by growing from the ground up. It was very rare to see a band break in one or two years' time, but that's a common occurrence these days; new bands hastily sending their singles and EPs to every music blog imaginable in hopes that the track will spread throughout the online networks.

The music streaming services provide practicality for bands that focuses on the allure of an instant global audience and the ability to build that audience fast. The services attempt to drastically inflate the “Likes" on bands' Facebook pages, promote new tracks or EPs to hundreds of music blogs, and churn out social media status updates — connect, connect, connect and network, network, network. It's a new model for success and it works — from time to time.

The biggest problem with this approach is that bands are thinking too broadly when starting. It's not a problem of being overambitious — ambition, after all, is key to survival —but by thinking how songs will spread online before exploring other vital promotional avenues.

For example, local newspapers are often eager to promote local artists. This opportunity can not only result in promotion, but can also serve as the point of introduction from band to art community — a resource of other bands, painters, graphic designers, artisans, and creatives who are as eager to speak with like-minded peers as they are to listen to local music.

Neglecting this offline, real-life community can have an unforeseen backlash. By not speaking with others in the arts and music scene, you miss out on meeting key local players — venue owners, promoters, studio owners, etc. — who can play an integral part in the life of an up and coming band.

The bands that are on a mission to build a large audience in a short amount of time possess two major flaws: 1) It most likely saw another band(s) see success this way and now strives to replicate it, resulting in unoriginality; and 2) there in an inherent lack of patience to hone a craft and organically build loyalty. Locality can often lead to loyalty. People don't just “shop local" and “buy local," but they will listen to and support local music. The advantages of attracting a loyal, though small, fan base early is that these will be the people who preach your gospel — be it online or via word of mouth.

The bands that start local are the ones with the solid foundations. They play the coffee shops, bars, and dives multiple times per month. Most importantly, the bands meet the other local artists. That's how the community begins, grows, and flourishes. The ability to help one another, sharing of resources, promotion, and nourishing and feeding off the creativity of others — that's what builds into lasting stability, so long as the egos and drama are left at the door.

Once the person and/or band puts themselves ahead of the community, that may push them up the next step to success, but they'll be ostracized. If success falters, what will they return to?

The importance of establishing a relationship with one's local community can create stronger social ties than online communities. Online networks have the potential to turn from weak ties into strong ones, but that's a process that takes longer because there are barriers to break through, mostly relating to trust. Interpersonal relationships breed trust and acceptance.

The ability to give back to others at the local level is vital, and is harder to do online. A community is not self-sufficient. Members must work together. This happens in the form of setting up shows, signing up other local bands to join a lineup, promoting other artists, and communicating with others about upcoming opportunities and how people can contribute. The willingness to be enthusiastically involved in this process is what fosters the strong bonds that create community and allow a band to become a fixture. Without these acts of selflessness, bands are destined to turn to the digital channels for a lone form of promotion.

The contributions made to these local communities eventually lead to an extension into regional communities. Thinking back to the local hardcore scenes in Western New York, bands often started off by playing around the neighboring towns. After a solid six months to two years of doing this — depending on the level of acceptance from the community — these shows eventually branched out to neighboring cities within a one to three-hour drive of each other. It was the traditional tree diagram that displayed the relationships between local bands and how those bands eventually reached out to neighboring communities, and extended even further beyond.

A great example of this type of thinking is a band in my hometown — Joywave. Near-monthly shows at local venues, being involved in the community by helping other local bands and organizations, and going as far as to create an exceptionally unique live experience with one of the cities most abstract venues — the planetarium. This is exactly the kind of effort and dedication that needs to come out from bands and musicians within their hometowns. It strengthens the bond between the artist and the community and inspires others. Slow, steady, and smart growth without losing any of the drive or hustle.

In the end, what will truly be the most beneficial for bands is to exist in both worlds. Don't build a digital presence and ignore your local community, and vice versa. Too many seem to be focusing on digital realms because it presents the largest potential audience in the shortest amount of time. But what rewards does that yield? Quality over quantity, right? Ten fans purchasing your album at a show, and an invitation to play another show, is much more meaningful than a couple hundred inactive fans on Facebook or Twitter.

In an ideal world, the offline audience would be built and transferred to online channels to stay up to date about band news. Those are the audiences that are typically the most engaged, as opposed to those who find you online first. Not to say that an online audience isn't worthwhile, but don't ignore the real world. The tangible world. The world where your sound and your work actually exists within. That's the world that matters the most, no matter what direction technology tries to push us in.


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This story appears courtesy of HypeBot.
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