The South Carolina Music Guide

Our Music Scene Sucks!

Of course it does. Suck, that is…our music scene is what I’m referring to. That amorphous concept that every university town or far flung burg has clung to since the days of Haight-Ashbury, or more recently, Athens, Georgia and Seattle, Washington. I hate to break it to you but even those towns’ scenes weren’t that great to begin with; there were bands who hated each other or at least didn’t care about anyone else in the ‘scene’ and there were bars ripping off the bands and an apathetic, anemic audience who only came out to drink cheap beer.

Back to our town, Columbia South Carolina in this instance (though you could probably plug in any medium sized city with a college presence and it would read the same). There are bands doing great things here, certainly. Some of them are better than the bands who get all the national press, attention in the ‘blogosphere’, etc., even. That doesn’t mean we have a great scene here, it just means that the odds are in favor of at least a few of you out there not sucking too badly.

We have some venues here putting on great shows, booking cool out of town bands and letting local bands open for them (for the exposure, or at least for a 12 pack of beer), and there are some pretty cool festival-style events throughout the year. That doesn’t make it a great scene here either, as almost any town with bands worth listening to has venues which allow them to play—it’s a supply and demand thing and bars know that music brings drinkers, even if it’s only the band’s friends.
We also have some cool people here who do all the things bands need to have done, from recording music to booking shows and tours, to writing nice things about bands in various papers and websites. Not much of that really matters (not even what you’re reading right now, to be perfectly honest) because there just aren’t that many people listening to what is produced or reading what is written about you.

Pissed off at me yet? Good, you need to be. Now let me explain.

You cannot create ‘a scene’ in the way that most people think of ‘a scene’ in the sense of a town with a great climate for creative musicians to develop. Scenes evolve mostly of their own volition, from fits and starts that come from various corners of the geographical area in question. Just as Brazil tried to create a capital city out of chopped-down rainforest land and came up with a soulless governmental entity, if we were to try to wholly create a music scene it wouldn’t be one anyone would want to be a part of.

Columbia has many of the elements for a great music scene already anyway. Bands from Sea Wolf Mutiny and The Restoration to Right to Fall, Burnt Books, Weaving the Fate, Say Brother, Ben G, the various Mat Cothran and Chris Bickel projects, it’s all coming out of Columbia and making waves well beyond the city limits. Folks like the Post-Echo gang and Stereofly are pooling resources and casting a wider net than ever before with multimedia offerings and SXSW showcases. There is a songwriting guild in town encouraging and educating young and burgeoning writers. The Jam Room is a magnet for groups to record and learn about recording, and other studios such as Archer Avenue are also making great strides. Free Times, SceneSC, Stereofly, and others are documenting the real successes and the new discoveries as they happen. Venues including New Brookland Tavern, Art Bar, Conundrum, the Unitarian Coffehouse series, and 5 Points Pub are booking more than just the regular crowd-pleasers and established acts.

Frankly, I haven’t seen this much going on at one time in Columbia music-wise before, ever, and that applies to a cross-genre application, from bluegrass to jazz, the philharmonic to rock, blues, folk, and more. There was a time I could stay home for a week and maybe miss one really good show; now you can miss two or three if you stay home one night.

So if all of this is in place, why are people still whining that there is not a good scene here? Probably because their idea of a good scene only includes what they like themselves and they don’t consider all of the other diverse offerings available.

Also, we’re missing a dependable audience—I’ve been to shows where the venue was packed but also to shows with only me, the bartender, and the sound guy there to stop the tumbleweeds from rolling across the dance floor. I know there are plenty of entertainment options and ways to get your music these days, but how do you reel back in the bar-going crowd and get them to support live music?

What’s wrong is that as long as all of the ‘little scenes’ in town stay just that, their own little scenes, the big picture never comes into focus. Big music cities like Nashville and Austin have some of the same ‘little scenes’ that we do, but local governments and non-governmental organizations lend a hand to any and all of them to tie things together and get things done. Here, we shut down parts or even all of a successful venture through shortsightedness, while those other places nurture events and help them grow.

So does Columbia need some sort of umbrella organization or government agency to foster cooperation and collaboration in the music community like the Film Commission does for movies and the Arts Commission does for dance, theater and classical? Maybe, maybe not. The recently inagurated Carolina Musicians United is an admirable attempt at such a dialogue on a statewide level, perhaps it can be useful locally as well.

I don’t have any answers here, really; I’m just trying to ask the right questions, at least, so our music scene can suck a little less. I’m actually pretty happy with where we are right now; there’s more to do, see, and hear than I have time for and even for someone with the wide-ranging taste I have, there are plenty of interesting options on a daily and weekly basis.

My advice to musicians? Make the best music you know how to make, don’t cater to current popular styles just to get popular yourselves because it rarely works, and all the social media savvy on the internet won’t make up for the fact your band is terrible.

My advice to venues? Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb occasionally—I know you have to make money to survive but if you nurture and develop the local talent their audience will grow along with them.

My advice to the local media? Write about the good stuff, don’t be afraid to call it crap if it is, but don’t overestimate your importance–in the age of social media most people listen to their friends more than even the hippest website. call it like you see it, express yourselves well, and be fair in your coverage. Don’t feel like you have to cover everything, but make sense of what you do choose to cover.

My advice to local music fans? Quit complaining so much about how much things suck in our music scene, get out and see a show, and do something about it if you don’t like what you’re hearing. Book a house concert, backyard party, or just convince all of your friends to show up at a particular gig for a band you think they’ll like. It’s amazing how much more fun a gig is for both the bands and the audience if it’s a full house; you have the power to make that happen just by showing up.

Kevin Oliver has been a freelance music writer and music journalist since 1990.  He has contributed to Billboard, NoDepression,, Columbia Free Times, Country Standard Time, Charleston’s Free Time, Lexington Life, The Lexington Chronicle & Dispatch, Palmetto Parent, Upstate Parent, Carolina Homes & Interiors, and more over the years.  You may find more of his musical musings over on his blog at Music That Matters.

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