Revisionist cultural history is a curious thing. There’s a great deal of fixation on the concept of ‘generations’. Forget the Baby Boomers, these days it’s all about waxing nostalgic for Generation X, or displaying the proper amount of contemptuous head-shaking disdain for Generation Y. On one side of the chasm, you have the X’ers with their tried-and-true stereotypes of flannel, coffee-shops and northwest early-90s grunge, and on the other side, there’s the Y kids with all of the (perhaps unfair) accusations of gadget-obsession, apathy and malaise that come part-and-parcel with such distinction. These are touchstones of our current cultural tableaux.
We’re an incredibly backwards-looking culture, those of us who’ve come into being since roughly the Carter years. Whether you align yourself with X or Y (or neither), chances are you’re nostalgic to the very core if you fall into this wide demographic. One only has to consider prevailing fashion and music trends, and the ubiquitousness of those “I Love the 80s/90s’ themed VH1 shows, to see that this is a time of revisionist cultural history, indeed. With our immediate landscape media-saturated and violence-plagued, we find ourselves coloring in rosier times in our distant past where perhaps shades of gray existed in reality. Nothing is as uncomplicated as nostalgia, but reality itself tells a much different tale. Just as the fifties were an era of suspicion and repression later co-opted into hot-rod and malt-shop halcyon good-old-days by Golden Agers, so are the eighties and nineties getting the same treatment today. And the eighties and nineties weren’t always as fun as Back To The Future and pogs. Sometimes they were terrifying.
But what of those of us caught between Generations X and Y, born in the first half of the eighties and left adrift between two cultural paradigms? Old enough to remember Nirvana and spend summers watching giant six-hour chunks of videos in heavy rotation on MTV in some anonymous suburban rec room, but not yet so aged as to not identify as one of the great tweeting unwashed Y masses? Truth is, we’ve seen both sides of the coin, and if we’re really speaking plainly here, then that coin is the internet. The internet changed everything that came after it, and also shaded all that came before in an entirely different light.
This is strikingly obvious, almost alarmingly so, with the concept of the ‘local music scene’. As recently as the mid-nineties, Seattle was the avatar of choice for like-minded musicians populating the same city, working together in a positive community. Those days are largely passed into history. Sure, we’ll hear all sorts of soundbites about Williamsburg, about Portland, but the difference is there’s a lack of bands of similar sonic aesthetics identifying themselves as part of a ‘scene’.
This occurs for one reason above all others: the internet renders the entire concept of a city-based ‘scene’ obsolete. Whereas a young band used to have to work their town’s clubs to gain a local following enough to go out and tour, today’s gadget-based DIY culture enables a bedroom musician to control every facet of their musical identity without ever leaving the Macbook. You’re no longer hampered by having to work your way up through the caste system of your local scene; find your crowd online and go to them. Wide reach is just a Bandcamp account away. Not only has the ease of technology and the shrinking of the world the Internet has facilitated crowded the playing field with more musicians than ever before, it’s also enabled them to bypass traditional means of any pecking order. Tour booking used to mean shaking hands and making phone calls. Now, a few months of hardcore emailing and you’re ready to hit the road. A local following doesn’t much compare to the five tapes you’ve released around the country or planet with small DIY labels you met online. Hundreds of miles away, your reputation precedes you.
I grew up in a small North Carolina town and currently live in another small North Carolina town. After college, I had moved to the Chapel Hill area because I was enraptured by the idea of a ‘scene’. I then relocated to my current home when I realized that the kind of house I wanted to live in outweighed being in any sort of music ‘hotspot’, because I was freed from having to live in such often-obnoxious places by the internet. These days, it matters very little that I live in a musically dry climate. I’ve joined incredible and supportive online communities and released music all over the world. I never would’ve reached such a point without the internet. Frankly, without the web and its associated technologies, I never would’ve discovered the current genre of music I’m making to begin with.
So that’s the great part. But there’s a flip-side to all this benevolent world-shrinking, and that’s the long-distance separation you find when you have no local following but a significant following elsewhere (for example, virtually all of my band’s most devoted fans are in Europe, primarily the UK). While the internet has made making friends around the world easier (and made recording and tour booking easier accordingly), it’s also expanded those distances as much as its shrunk them. For every band that has a sizable cult in another country, or every small label that can’t afford to keep shipping products overseas due to outrageous U.S. postal rates, there’s that regrettable shadow of the wondrous technology of online ‘connection’.
Like any sea change in culture post technological innovation, there’s great pros and cons to be reckoned with here. But for better or worse, the days of city-based scenes seem largely done. It makes one wonder: how long before people decide that live music is unnecessary and they stop leaving their homes to go to shows altogether? What if our apathy deepens to the point where we consider YouTube, or streaming rehearsals from a band’s practice space on Pitchfork, ‘good enough’? The internet offers endless possibilities for connection, but also divides us and deepens the ravine between real-world interaction and artificial connection, hampering empathy and passion in the process, and maybe humanity itself.
Such is the nature of the beast. But considering the implications, where does that leave not just the concept of the local music scene, but the concept of music itself? Music has always meant community, throughout the ages, but is music as a communal art suitable for one of the most solitary, inward eras in history?