Music biz out to put locals on the map


For the cynical, all politics is local, and the local perspective is a recipe for disaster: ignorance, selfishness, isolationism, tribal and racial strife.

Yet popular culture, especially popular music, has a way of turning real-world troubles inside-out, and it is not pop's cynics but its idealists who have come to believe that all of the best music is local, made by hometown bands for hometown fans. It is pop's job to carry that music -- or at least its most accessible efforts -- from the periphery to the broader public.

Starting tomorrow, bands from all over the United States converge on New York City, hoping to be heard by taste makers and music moguls in town for the New Music Seminar.

It's a five-day suspension of the new rules in rock, which decree that a regional following is better than a glimmer of national attention. Lately, those music moguls have been spending much of their time racking up frequent-flier miles on the way to cities and towns that never expected to be on the rock-and-roll map.

Both listeners and entrepreneurs are seeking out music that hasn't yet gravitated to music-business centers in New York, Los Angeles and Nashville.

They're after music that still seems unspoiled but that just might catch on if more people hear it.

For the 1990s, they're looking to turn such places as Chapel Hill, N.C., or San Diego into the next Seattle, which was the fountainhead of grunge. If Seattle has already been "harvested," as one Washington recording executive put it, it's time to seek out another place where bands that started out playing for one another are coming up with music everyone will want to hear.

Regionalism in pop has become as trendy as microbrewery beer and narrowcasting cable channels, and for the same reasons. Surrounded by mass-produced products, people seek something more distinctive, more eccentric, more personalized -- something made for local tastes rather than pitched to an unseen general consumer.

The product might be peculiar, but perhaps it won't be bland; even if it isn't the newest thing, it still has the cachet of coming from a specific place rather than from a corporate distributor.

Of course, any significant local or regional success will bring corporate interest.

The formula for a thriving regional scene has never been exact. Along with individual creativity, a promising scene is likely to grow up in a big city or in a college town with a built-in audience; Seattle is both.

The starter kit includes team-spirited musicians whose competition is friendly rather than cutthroat, along with an infrastructure: clubs and stores, recording studios and media cheerleaders (perhaps local newspapers and college radio stations). Most important, the scene needs a dedicated audience that actively seeks out shows, builds reputations and keeps clubs in business.

It doesn't hurt, either, to have an independent label or two and some hustling entrepreneurs who see incipient profits as well as raw talent. Such local labels have virtually replaced the major recording companies in taking chances on debut recordings; the major labels are content to let the independents make the first cut. But the majors are trying to develop faster reflexes.

The music business has rediscovered a simple fact: Every band comes from somewhere. While the pre-rock pop music business was centralized in Tin Pan Alley and in Hollywood, the music that grew into rock -- blues, jazz, country, rhythm-and-blues, rockabilly -- came from outsiders in regional scenes; local roots are memorialized in historical categories, such as Chicago blues, Kansas City swing, Memphis soul.

To reach a mass market, bands often suppress their down-home side, changing their accents and their wardrobes, dropping the local street names in their songs.

But not always.

Periodically through rock history -- Memphis and New Orleans in the 1950s, Liverpool and Detroit and San Francisco in the 1960s, Minneapolis in the 1970s, Athens, Ga., and Manchester, England, in the 1980s, Seattle in the 1990s -- a local scene has connected with a broader public. There have been disasters, too; in the 1970s, recording companies tried to pitch Boston as a rock mecca, hyping a "Bosstown" sound that found few takers.

For most of the 1980s, regional efforts had a hard time reaching the wider world. It was the era of blockbusters and corporate mergers, of mass-appeal crossover and national music-video exposure, with Michael Jackson leading the way. By the end of the decade, the mass market was falling apart, replaced by large, nonintersecting groups of fans dedicated to a single genre: hip-hop or mope-rock or baby boomer songwriters.

With the fragmentation of the pop market, the music business is once again scouting small scenes and large ones.

Performers are finding that it's better to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. Music that has made some impact in a regional scene has already proved it can draw an audience; it has survived a local market test. Billboard magazine's "Heatseekers" chart, of albums new to the top 200, prints regional breakdowns of its results, the better to pinpoint local popularity.

Yet once a performer has found attention beyond the regional level, there has always been a disorderly interplay of local style and national (and international) commercial imperatives; every performer has to decide which local quirks are essential, which are excess baggage.

Still, they can worry about that when the major labels call. In the meantime, the business may be in New York, Los Angeles and Nashville, but the music is all over the place.

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