Saturday, March 12, 2011

Do It Together Boston :: 2010 Review, Part I

The internet was the best thing to ever happen to music, especially illegal downloading. It was a mutiny of sorts against the vending machine of “talent” constructed by corporate labels, publicists, booking agents, and magazines, gaining suffrage for working class music. With advancing technology bands could record, distribute and notify the world all from the same laptop. It made do-it-yourself a hell of a lot easier. Before, if a band wanted to go the indie route, they had to pray for the support of the smallest bankrupt indie label, tour like crazy, and rely on fliers and buttons as the soul means of exposure.

The benefits of the digital uprising are apparent in places like Boston. Bands there don’t save up money or blow their lifesavings making ear-friendly records in a professional studio. They use whatever means they have available to them and package things by hand, which adds another personal layer of individuality to the music. From writing through mastering, it is an unfiltered product of the same creative minds, which almost makes it more focused and complete. Low fidelity becomes more than just an aesthetic, it becomes an identity; part of the setting that documents what is happening to these people in this place. This kind of thing is happening with armies of coffee shop workers all over the country. What makes the underground Boston unique isn’t just the talent of the bands but also the forward thinking, open, welcoming mentality of things like the Yes Wave that all the bands share, as well as the network it has helped them begin to create.

Some of the most interesting activity of 2010 revolved around The Whitehaus Family Record, Breakfast of Champs Records, Bodies of Water Arts and Crafts, Grinding Tapes, Mama Bird Recording Company, and many other do-it-yourselfers already amounting to what must be more than a hundred releases. The bands are incredibly active and are constantly setting up concerts across Greater Boston, trekking to Jamaica Plain, Allston, Cambridge, Somerville, and Chinatown. The shows take place in venues that double as bars or restaurants, but also in emerging spaces, art galleries, basements, living rooms, rooftops, and just about anywhere they can get away with it. Bands even manage to get their physical records into stores like Rhythm & Muse in Jamaica Plain and Weirdo Records in Cambridge. Last year also saw the best of several annual festivals including the all day Whitehaus’ Blastfest, the anything goes Weirdstock, Bodies of Water’s Homegrown fest, and Campout Fest at a summer camp in the middle of the state. Everything is researched, booked, paid for, organized, and set up by the individuals and friends.

The collective is young, but that’s what makes it exciting. Yet, Boston musicians face many obstacles. Boston’a legal system is constantly posing problems. The list includes making it impossible to post flyers for fear of fines, the law that forces places to be 21+ only, and even the early hours for the train. Cops will occasionally break up basement or living room gatherings, mistaking what is a huge difference between people gathered to enjoy music and underage teens trying to drink to excess and have a wild party. Then there are the permit difficulties that non-established venues face. For example, The Temple is a new venue in Jamaica Plain that opened up in 2010. It was the type of space that gave many bands their only opportunity to step out of the basement, without having to claw their way into The Middle East. It also hosted a lot of that year’s festivals and kept Jamaica Plainers from having to lug mountains of equipment to the Cambridge YMCA. Plenty of places like this exist in New York City, but Boston has a real need for them. The Temple was shut down partway through the year for lack of the appropriate licenses to run a venue. You can find out more information on this issue in a well written piece by Liz Pelly here. For a city populated by a plethora of artists and college students, they don’t have much of a voice.

Despite the problems, bands have begun to come together through shows and are bringing new friends into their circles. Another area Boston needs help in is promotions. Dan Shea of The Needy Visions is working hard getting people to shows with Bodies of Water, which has an in depth website that collects nearly every show in the city. Last year also saw the birth of The Boston Counter Cultural Compass with help from Needy Visions bassist Sam Potrykus. They are brightly colored fliers that contain highlights of the month´s events and are strewn across the city in bars, stores, coffee shops, and anywhere place of which you could think.

The music could also benefit greatly from other systems of underground distribution and exposure. I’ve had plenty of awkward conversations with friends in college who have never heard of any of the bands I mention. I’ve also brought plenty of friends to shows who, like me, felt like they found the alternative Friday night they’d been looking for in a world they didn’t even know existed. For a musician, getting people to come to shows can be a trick as well. A lot of bands can only publicize the abstract name of a house on their social media of choice; an address only those from the circle would know. Even if people could find it, it takes a lot of courage for some to wander into a stranger’s living room. Sometimes the only way to get there is to have an in by knowing someone and that makes it unintentionally exclusive.

So, it becomes a place where a lot of the records and shows are music made for musicians by people that are compelled to make art, and many of those in attendance are just that. Label owner and manager for Mission of Burma, Rick Harte, said in a quote lifted from Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could be Your Life, "A band should think only national.Selling records to a local market is a hobby, like making records for your friends. It doesn't justify the cost and effort." Although it is great to have records that have an intrinsic artistic value, bands are working like dogs with little result.

Boston has DIY mastered. They create beautiful, handmade or locally pressed records and distribute everything themselves. They plan successful shows and festivals. The environment of places like the Whitehaus are what I image late nineties Athens, Georgia would’ve been like. It’s exactly the kind of self-contained, inspired incubator that could produce a world renowned work of art. Great things are in store for 2011, and I'm sure even greater obstacles. The area is just the type of location that could become an alternative democratic music organism focused on art rather than commercialism. Instead of a scene, it could be a movement. The digital revolution has corporate labels still scrambling for a way to monetize the distribution "wave of the future" that will replace compact discs and overthrow online streaming services. Underground micro-communities strewn across the country are a much favorable system to usurp them. Seeing such potential in Boston, its hard not to hope for. Maybe the city will get that push when they get their In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. For now, what Boston needs is a term that I borrowed from an article written by Amy Klien of Titus Andronicus and a book called “In Every Town: An All Ages Manifesto” by Shannon Stewart. Boston, and every other underground community strewn across the country, should try to do-it-together. 

Read Part II
(and listen to Boston)