Your Scene Is Cashed
Feb 21 2013
Chris Richards of the Washington Post just put out this jolly little arts piece about how Washington, DC’s musicians have a habit of emigrating to other more biz-centric cities. I know because Jessica Hopper tweeted it and said the same thing is happening in Chicago. And then I clicked on it. So now I know about it.
I mention all of this because it’s mildly telling that everything in the preceding paragraph happened in a matter of seconds. Even though Chris Richards, a human person who’s done a lifetime of things in order to become a Washington Post writer, researched and interviewed the article over the course of probably a few days if not weeks, and Jessica Hopper paid her dues over the course of years to be a trusted enough source of content to land on my twitter feed even though I’ve never met her, and I’m here writing this and I’m just some asshole with whatever background I have (dues paid in grubby, unexpected places that are thankfully not too searchable) who writes for VICE, the exchange of information between us takes nanoseconds.
This is the way things happen nowadays. You can work for years and years to be good at something, which is always a process, and thanks to the internet, the entire world (or at least the portion of it that might ever care) gets little updates on your progress every single time you do anything. Stagnate too long, or too publicly, or struggle to advance past a creative obstacle, and you’re likely to be “the person who can only do this much” in the public eye.
As, maybe, you should be. That is the penalty for sending out too many similar updates. You become human spam, doomed to spend the rest of your life promoting yourself to any climber lower than your current plateau on the slope of achievement, anybody who might listen to your sage advice simply because they haven’t heard it yet. It seems like a fate worse than death, but the reward is that after decades spent repeating yourself and staying where you are, you eventually become venerable. That’s if you don’t just shrug it all off and go straight, which is a lot easier. All this work and striving and grief is background to a “thing on the internet that rifled around the world and was forgotten forever in a matter of hours,” which is EVERYTHING FROM NOW ON.
The way a “scene” works from a creative standpoint is a group of talented creative people coalesce, challenge, compete, and collaborate with each other, in a way that encourages and demands and rewards growth. Then less talented, less creative people see that emergence and want to associate themselves with it, and so they ingrain themselves in the social structure, and they cajole and insist and ingratiate, and then once entrenched they set up aesthetic rules by which their mediocrity is rewarded, a.k.a., “most truly punk,” which turns off the most creative and talented individuals, who depending on the benefits either reinvest and help the better of the new arrivals separate themselves from empty hype or else split for greener pastures such as isolation, removal, and/or giving up.
If a scene suffers from a leadership vacuum (DC and Chicago qualify), it eventually collapses into self-referential growth-free posturing until a group of talented creative people crops up and does something fresh in opposition (DC and Chicago likely qualify even as we attend their funerals). It’s a very natural cycle, with peaks and valleys that are only recognizable to outsiders when the highs are abnormally high or the lows are desperately low. Economic and social factors drive the engine, and the region shapes the creative outcome, but that’s about what a “scene” is.
Scenes are how dues get paid. They’re the sausage grinder. And the way we process information these days makes that process invisible. You might be able to keep the recipe a secret, but you can’t really experiment all that much because the output is being Yelped about to high heaven, and Yelp is for life.
Of course there are ways around it. The same people can form, disband, and reform bands until they get something that works. The new method of instantly available output allows more opportunity for smokescreens. The Tumblr era allows and even requires a prolificacy that is a tacit admission of experimentation, offhandedness, and goofs. All great results that have traditionally reflected a regional scene’s vibrancy, but in the Nows these results are being driven by internet distribution more than, “Oh shit, I gotta step up my game because look at what my neighbor is doing.” In a way, the internet is one big scene, and while participating in it, you might as well live wherever you’re most comfortable in your own skin.
Don’t get me wrong, you still have to collaborate with actual physical human beings, but there’s a little less urgency placed on the actual social interactions that come from people being in the same room; “going where the talent is” is more of a state of mind (and/or an airplane ride) than it used to be. Everything’s more transient. The scene-dom has gone digital. This is fine. It consolidates the benefits and disperses the potential difficulties. I read something like, “What’s going on in the DC music scene with the people leaving?” And I think, “The same thing that’s happening to the entire idea of a regional music scene.” It’s dying in order to protect itself.
But then again, I live in Chicago, and I rarely leave the house. What the hell would I know. Good article, you guys. Great tweets. Nice Tumblr. Stumble Upon me on Reddit. Google my Plus. Party at Matty’s house. Check in on Facebook.
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