[Diatribe] On The Atlanta Music Scene 2012

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.

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10 Responses to “[Diatribe] On The Atlanta Music Scene 2012”
  1. Matticakes Says: July 13th, 2012 at 9:36 am

    Good piece Davy! You’re summary of the various ATL media outlets “interests” was insightful, and spot on. I also agree with your assesment that the fragmented music scene is an overall positive thing. Keep up the good work!

  2. Rube Ambler Says: July 13th, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Outstanding post Davy. Maybe the best piece of music commentary I have seen come out of Atlanta, ever.

  3. Clay Duda Says: July 13th, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    (the) fucking A.

  4. Nadia Says: July 13th, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    I love the honesty here. Very compelling, Davy. In regards to leaving Atlanta, I don’t know if Brooklyn, LA, Nashville, Seattle or anywhere else can do as much as the worldwide web can do for an artist, though as you state, that’s what causes the imbalance in supply and demand that results in the financial discontent. But, even in the right city, aren’t they looking for the same things musicians do in any city – internet presence, drive, albums, write-ups, reviews, touring, festivals, the whole shebang – before that city will give you a real shot? Just musing along with you…great piece. And I agree, the fragmented nature of Atlanta’s scene is it’s power source. Sincerely, Nadia

  5. Mikey Says: July 14th, 2012 at 5:30 am

    I despise the term “Hate City” in every fucking way possible.

  6. Drew Says: July 16th, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    Great points in this article! Atlanta is certainly a scene comprised of many micro scenes.

    I will say in response to both this and the Hate City article, it’s very interesting how rarely the most commercially (and perhaps artistically) successful band from Atlanta in the 2000s is include in these discussions. Mastodon has fostered an organic success in Atlants and definitely become a tent pole in our local metal and rock scene.

    I’m not really they define ATL (both articles make the point that would be next to impossible), but they’ve achieved great benchmarks few other contemporary bands in this town have, it’s something the press should be mindful of and we as a scene should be proud of.

    Cheers to well thought out criticism, keep on keeping on!

  7. Taylor Northern Says: July 18th, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    “But, even in the right city, aren’t they looking for the same things musicians do in any city – internet presence, drive, albums, write-ups, reviews, touring, festivals, the whole shebang – before that city will give you a real shot?”

    I agree with Nadia, nowadays with the Internet, you’ve got an equal playing field in most any major city. Maybe NYC and Nashville have more entertainment professionals and that’s a BIG benefit, nonetheless, you still need to be out there networking and building some kinds of connections in order to manifest any tangible benefits in the entertainment industry. You’re going to have to put in work no matter what city you’re in.

  8. Taylor Northern Says: July 21st, 2012 at 6:59 pm

    I was interviewed for the same thing, here are my responses:

    1. How would you describe the Atlanta music community to an outsider in just one sentence?

    I would describe the Atlanta music scene as a long dirty trench full of enthusiastic and spirited people who are sprinting from vicious predators and leeches who stand above and shoot poisonous arrows at them

    2. Who are the major tastemakers as you see them? (Blogs, press, promoters, etc.) Together, do they represent the majority voice of the community?

    The major “tastemakers” as I see them are Ohm Park, Creative Loafing, but mainly promoters like Tight Bros and Speakeasy. I feel they represent the age demographics of 18-30 year olds living within the perimeter who may attend GA State, Emory or work fulltime…but they do not represent the majority of GA’s music scene

    3. Does cliquishness within certain scenes prevent more deserving bands/artists from reaching a bigger audience? (Can you give examples?)
    Is there a disparity between the reality of the music community and the community as it’s portrayed by the local media establishment? (If so, what is it?)

    Yes, cliqueishness within scenes definitely does put a damper on the Atlanta music scene. I’ve seen many “artist collectives” which are simply a bunch of musicians who happen to be elitists and join together with other elitists, so they attend each others’ shows and stick up their noses at everyone else. However, I do not foresee these kinds of individuals making it onto the national radar so their cliqueish behavior is ultimately immature and will never be rewarded. Some of the bloggers also have a clique set up, but overall I don’t feel they make much of a difference – they’re forced to write about what’s popular because if not they won’t have a readership lol. Overall, I feel no artist is deserving and nothing is given to you on a silver platter, some folks may have familial connections within the industry and that helps them bypass certain obstacles, but the truly talented and sincere artists who work hard and believe in themselves, their art and their fans – those people always have a fair chance regardless of external oppression.

    4. Is there a disparity between the reality of the music community and the community as it’s portrayed by the local media establishment? (If so, what is it?)

    I don’t feel there’s a disparity between the reality of the music scene and how it’s portrayed by the local media, I feel there’s a disparity between what is considered a part of the Atlanta music scene and what represents GA’s overall arts and humanities “scene”/community and initiatives. Often times, when we read about a local artist gaining popularity within Atlanta, that’s within the perimeter and 75% or more of GA residents live OTP. So really we’re discussing an individual that appeals to one demographic of people who are essentially a minority within their own state. The “hip” and “cool” bands OTP are far different and the lifestyle is a bit more dissimilar, nonetheless, the Atlanta music scene remains the definitive scene in GA despite major cultural differences. I feel Atlanta acts like this mini-vortex that sucks everything 50 miles around it into its gravitational field, the rest of GA floats freely and unaware.

    5. Are there certain genres or scenes that tend to get overlooked by local media?

    The hardcore scene is largely un-noticed, I feel that most local media writers will cover what’s popular in Pitchfork or Gorilla Vs Bear – chillwave, backpack rap, garage rock, most of those genres receive lots of buzz.

    6. How would you like to see the music community improved?

    I don’t feel much needs to improve within Atlanta’s music community aside from improving the actual arts infrastructure. Atlanta has the High museum and it’s nice, but it’s not great compared to other major metro cities museums and big arts attractions. I would give the High a 77 out of 100 on a good day – we’ve got a TON of music venues, too many to list and they feature all kinds of music. There are fifty million bands roaming the streets and performing on any given night, but there are few free/cheap music festivals put on by the city to showcase these artists to people outside of the hipster 18-30 age bracket.
    Let’s be honest the Atlanta music scene remains within a bubble, even the 9-5ers who live and party in neighborhoods like Midtown probably could not name five local bands if you asked them. They have no clue of “who’s who” within the local music scene and you really can’t blame them because there’s no general or mainstream platform for which these people can be recognized. What could inspire these people to move outside of their regular routine and see the 10,000 acts performing in tiny East Atl music venues? You have to bring it to them – we need more music festivals that feature good local music and public transit and parking that can accommodate the heavy traffic and visitors. Tourists don’t even have an incentive to see a local band play because it’s such a bitch to drive everywhere, they can’t take the train to any convenient location aside from L5P so Star Bar, 5 Spot and Variety Playhouse suck up most of the out of town and curious bystanders. But what if there was an option to take a train to Piedmont Park and it stopped near Smiths Olde Bar?

    In general, nothing is going to uplift the Atlanta music community aside from the business owners who profit from it. I don’t predict any of the bands doing something that’s not self-oriented, it’s going to have to be record store owners, music shop owners and employees, music teachers and directors, these are people who directly profit from the music scene and their pocketbooks are tied to how receptive people are to discovering and learning about music. These are the people who can both voice and inspire change.

  9. Rusty Says: March 7th, 2013 at 11:54 pm

    “going into music to make money is like having an investment strategy that is comprised of only scratch-off lottery tickets” Holy wow! What a brilliant way to put that. It’s always been that way but you used to have to pony up some serious cash just for a ticket to ride. Today, you distribute music with a decent laptop. The odds were better because the barrier to entry was significant. The odds have diminished exponentially. On the other side, however, is this explosion of not inspiring music. Then there’s stuff like Skrillex , Bon Iver and Blind Pilot. So where are those bands in Atlanta? How does someone find something amazing happening near bye? Where are all the people who used to enjoy this search? Open mic, 10 years ago in Atlanta, had some serious talent represented. Case in point: the person who ran the CJ’s Landing open Mic is now a founding member of the Zac Brown Band. Regardless of whether that’s your cup of tea, that scene was packed on a Wednesday. Packed! The deck was open mic and we closed it down at 4am. The back room was local bands: reggae, metal, whatever. Atlanta needs to bring back the interest and excitement and reason not to go to bed rather than check out some interesting new band. I think musicians need to take ownership of it and approach club owners with ideas that will make them money. Asking a club to pay you for your talent and spend on advertising when they know they can fill the room with Trivia or Texas Hold Em is just irrational. Places like Terminal West are doing what this city needs, creating a scene. If local matters to you, put some effort into it.

  10. Rusty Says: March 7th, 2013 at 11:57 pm

    p.s. Totally following you on twitter so use that #%^&
    awesome article and thanks

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