I’ve been content to simply share music and keep my commentary minimal on this blog these days because I really haven’t had much to say. I’ve preferred for the music, and not myself, to be the focus on this blog. But now I have a little something I want to talk about, so brace yourself for a long read.
Gabe Vodicka over at Creative Loafing was nice enough to interview me for a piece in their annual music issue titled “The heart of Hate City: In search of Atlanta’s enigmatic underground.” Vodicka talks to various people around the city’s scene, and there are a few quotes from myself included in the article. While I totally understand that there was limited space to include what I said (I’m impressed I got as much inclusion in the piece as I did), I wanted to use a blog post to clarify and expound upon what I was saying, since this is my own platform to do just that.
The main thrust of the interview was a discussion of the fragmentary nature of the Atlanta music scene, and right after I was interviewed and I thought about the subject a little more, I sent a followup email, from which many of my quotes were taken. Here’s the full email I wrote:
Really, I think the fragmentary nature of the local music scene is a good thing overall. I think of it more as vibrance, diversity, and depth. There’s so much going on that one narrative can’t capture it. And that should be the narrative, that we have it all. We’re the music mecca for a budget; we’re the poor man’s Brooklyn. That should be the narrative because it’s a lot more compelling to sell this city as a place where everyone came from some place else to make it here, to sell us as a place where anyone can come and find a niche in the scene, rather than trying to say we are one sort of thing, one style, one moment in history, one regional attitude that will be irrelevant a fad later. It should also be the narrative because it’s actually the truth. We’re not just a hip-hop town. We’re not just the place where Deerhunter and the Black Lips are from. We’re not just some random redneck city in the south. But that’s what people outside this city think of us as. To me, the problems with our scene aren’t internal, they’re external. The problem isn’t that our scene is fragmented, the problem is that no one outside our city knows that. If that’s even really that big a problem at all.
Anyway, Vodicka’s piece was an earnest attempt to look into the city and make sense of it. After interviewing various people in different orbits around Atlanta’s music universe, Vodicka comes to the following conclusions:
There will likely always be fierce competition and widespread incoherency between the sects that make up the city’s musical fiber. It’s what fans the flames of creativity. For the ever-contradictory city of Atlanta, the term “Hate City” is a way of admitting ownership of its faults while it also categorically rejects them. People — like the filmmaker Place — wear the name as a badge while they vehemently deny its truth. Perhaps it ultimately should be taken, like much of what this mystifying metropolis does and says, with a grain of salt.
Still, the search for our creative core yields one takeaway: Atlanta is passionate as hell…In the end, Hate City misconstrues, misbehaves, even disagrees for the very same reason it creates.
For the most part, I agree. While I don’t feel the term “Hate City” quite captures Atlanta’s essence, it was a cute theme. I won’t hate on that.
Instead, I thought I’d write my own piece digging into the “enigmas” of this “mystifying metropolis.”
Something that was evident from Vodicka’s piece is that everyone has a different opinion about the ATL scene. It’s hard to get at what the scene actually is with only value judgements and wishes. So instead, I want to start off with some empirical data. I’ve come to believe that demographic shifts unique to Atlanta play a major role in how the city’s local music scene has evolved.
Atlanta had the third largest population growth of any US city through the ‘00s.
According to the US Census, Atlanta was one of only three US cities that grew by over a million people from 2000 to 2010, the others being Dallas and Houston. Thus, Atlanta has had a huge influx of people from other places. And what’s even more interesting about Atlanta’s large intake of outsiders is that, of the top 14 fastest growing US cities over the last decade, Atlanta was the only one that had a net loss in employment numbers over that time period. That suggestions something is attracting people to Atlanta, and it’s not just about economics.
Atlanta is one of the most wired cities in the US.
Atlanta consistently ranks at or near the top of Forbes’ annual Most Wired Cities list. Atlanta was #1 in 2007 and 2008, and #2 in 2009 and 2010. So, in addition to our city being influenced by outsiders coming here to live, we are also influenced by the Internet more than almost any US city.
This demographic combination makes Atlanta a city that is at the mercy of national and global trends more so than anywhere else. And in addition to our city being more susceptible to outside forces, Atlanta also has less of an identity than almost any other US city, which exacerbates that susceptibility. This city’s early history was literally burned to the ground. We went from “the city too busy to hate” to “hate city” in the blink of an eye. Other cities with large population increases, such as Dallas and Houston, they already have hardened identities that make them less malleable to outside influences. Thus…
Atlanta is the city that best reflects global trends and shifts.
And that conclusion can also be backed up by objective data. Just recently, there was a study released showing that Atlanta adopted musical trends faster than any other city. Even beyond the sphere of music, Atlanta is ever on the edge of national and global demographic shifts. From gentrification to black flight to white flight, our city reflects trends more than almost anywhere.
What makes Atlanta unique, then, is not simply a single adjective. What makes Atlanta unique is the aggregate of various different factors. Our identity isn’t static, it’s dynamic. And that’s what makes us a truly unique city. Atlanta is the perfect conduit for global culture, and right now that culture is an Internet of factions and fractures. If you really want to know Atlanta’s identity, it’s this:
Atlanta is the paradigm of a globalizing world.
For better or for worse.
As we become more connected through technology, the world is fundamentally changing. Instead of being limited to interacting with only our local communities, we can now interact with people based on common interests instead, no matter where we live. This has created a fragmentation of small enclaves based around mutual interests. And that is exactly what has been happening in Atlanta’s music scene. We’re more concerned with exploring our individuality than interacting with a community formed around a single, local identity. Everyone in this scene has widely different aesthetics from one another, and so our identity has become one of a kaleidoscope.
One thing I took away from CL’s entire music issue is there sure seems to be a lot of discontent from people involved in the local scene. And I don’t think that that discontent is a misrepresentation. There is discontent. I hear complaints from locals all the time. But, I don’t think this stems from some uniquely Atlantan identity of hate. I think it stems from something rooted far beyond the perimeter.
With respect to art, and, more specifically, music, one global trend that has resulted from technological advances is that the barriers to entry in creating and distributing art have fallen away. Anyone can be an artist, and almost everyone is trying to be. And, due to the factors I discussed above, this trend toward a participatory culture has been magnified here in Atlanta. There are about a hundred thousand kids roaming East Atlanta, every one trying out to be a rich and famous rock star. And, obviously, most of those kids are going to be disappointed. I wish every musician in the city could be a billionaire celebrity, but it’s not realistically possible. It’s simple economics. There is too much supply and not enough demand.
What’s wholly at the root of the discontent is money.
The problem of making money as a musician is not one limited to Atlanta, but again, the problem becomes hyperactive here. And this is where I feel I have to parse another issue: is money falling away from art necessarily a bad thing?
I’ve been reading all of these recent articles about how piracy is so detrimental and how digital is killing music, and what’s stood out to me is how all of it is framed in terms of economics. Statistics about record sales are tossed around, and there are calculations about whether touring or vinyl or streaming services or commercials or exposure or whatever can bridge the monetary gap between what a musician is losing in sales by piracy. But is making money really the most important thing about music?
There is so much discontent among professionals, but if you look at how all these global trends affect people who simply want to enjoy listening to music, things have never been better. Any night of the week, I can find a great concert to go to. Any record I want is only a click away. There are so many local bands I enjoy that I don’t even have enough time to blog about all of them. From my own perspective, this time period in music and this place here in this city are amazingly awesome.
And it’s not only positive purely from the audience’s perspective. It’s also positive for the innovation of art itself. Technological advances have given musical artists mind blowing tools. There are infinitely more possibilities today in how you can create music than only a couple decades ago. There’s so much sound to explore right now, and there’s no shortage of explorers. And with a much larger pool of artists making music, you are of course going to have way more bad art, but also, the quality of the cream of the crop is much higher than when you draw from a small pool. More people are experimenting with music and stumbling across more innovations than any time in history. And a lot of that innovation is taking place right here in Atlanta.
If you look at what’s happening, it’s all pretty great… as long as you don’t take money into account.
That’s not to say that I don’t want musicians to make lots of money. I do. That would be wonderful. But throughout history, the music industry has never been fair and just. Unless you have a rich daddy or know the right people, you’re up against terrible odds. Before musicians were obscured by too much information, they were hidden away with no access at all to share their music beyond their location. Now, a resourceful artist has as much chance as anyone to reach a wide audience, which is to say, very little chance at all.
So, here’s my message to those musicians in this town who are complaining and are most concerned with making money. Number one, going into music to make money is like having an investment strategy that is comprised of only scratch-off lottery tickets. And number two, you’re living in the wrong city if you expect your location to benefit you in making money from music. If all you want is to be a rich and famous rockstar, move out of Atlanta.
And I don’t mean that in a “love it or leave it” sort of way. I don’t fault people for leaving. Almost none of us are from here, so why do we have to all end up here? If we’re the embodiment of globalization, why would we want to stay in one place forever? The fact is, no one outside of Atlanta cares about our local independent scene, and there is no institution within it that can pluck you from obscurity and propel you to stardom. The audience here has too diverse a tastes to all get hypnotized by one band. And the various major media outlets around here really have no interest in helping out an artist that isn’t already popular or on the rise. The AJC has never and will never support the underground. Stomp and Stammer is just a cornucopia of asshole bullshit. Paste (formerly a) Magazine will only get behind you if you’re particularly folksy, dad-rockish, or radio friendly. And then Creative Loafing, the most influential local institution, is just trying to find the strongest wind to put their sails behind. That’s why they twice put Justin Beiber on the cover and tried to pass him off as an Atlanta musician. That’s why they followed up their music issue by putting the Zac Brown Band on the cover. They’re just trying to attract interest, and I don’t blame them. In another industry that is having trouble making money right now, they’re getting passed around to different parent corporations. They’re just trying to keep getting paid. But the reality is, if you aren’t already successful, CL isn’t going to get behind you in a meaningful way unless you give them a more compelling reason than their own job security. And really, as wonderful as it is to get mentioned in a paper that’s in front of every bar in the city, an endorsement from them doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. Over the course of 2011, as far as I can tell, they only bestowed one cover story to a local independent band, and that band doesn’t even exist any more. Conversely, the most recent meteoric rise from a Georgia musician came from Washed Out, who did so without any help from a local scene or institution. I was listening to his first record for months before I even knew he was from Georgia.
Even if we had some major media outlet so perfect that no one could criticize it, or if we had a large local population that would all just mindlessly like one local style of music, no one outside of Atlanta would care about it anyway. Local factors have become mostly irrelevant in achieving success in the music business these days. Where you’re from really doesn’t matter anymore. There are exceptions. If you’re making obnoxiously simplistic pop rap, local institutions in Atlanta might help you make money. Being in Brooklyn might help you get a Pitchfork review. Being in LA or Nashville might help you book a gig as a hired gun if you’re good enough. Maybe if you go to some really obscure, foreign location and make music for a while you can use that as a story to generate interest in you. But if you’re looking for something in this town, or just about any other town for that matter, to help you beyond what you can do for yourself, you’re going to be disappointed and discontent.
On the other hand, If you’re looking for a place where you can explore art, where you can find an audience that is receptive to anything done well, where there’s a deep pool of other artists to collaborate with and learn from and be challenged by, where there’s tons of passion about music and art, there might not be a better place than 2012 in Atlanta.
This place here in this city, and this time period in the history of music, it may not necessarily benefit your own personal agenda and finances, and it may not be exactly what you want it to be, but it’s still pretty fucking cool.
- Posted by Davy Minor on July 13, 2012 at 4:48 am