11 October 2013

Minneapolis Music "Scene" In Crisis: The Fickle Ears Pocket Guide to Donning Your Adult Trousers

When I began to seriously explore my options for leaving Minneapolis, it was not just because I had lived there my whole life, because I felt I had outgrown it, because I had become frustrated with a number of my projects, because I saw little hope of ever earning a respectable living there as a musician, because I felt the need to continue my formal education, or because I got sick of not being able to drive my car because it was literally frozen to the street. There was also a certain amount of writing on the proverbial wall in the form of venues closing or ceasing to host music, and an unmistakable downward trajectory in the interest I felt was being shown in my work. What had once seemed like the bad old days of post-college aimlessness and lessons learned the hard way ca. 2006-08 now appeared as the high point: throughout the mid-to-late 2000s, I had several late-night gigs a year at the Dakota while that series still hosted serious local bands, my teaching studio was steadily expanding, I auditioned my way onto the MN Orch sub list, I landed a 25-hour a week day job with good pay, health benefits, iron-clad scheduling, and no weird hours, and there seemed to be room to grow with most everything I was involved in.

By the time I was sending off grad school applications in the fall of 2010, I had realized that things were not just stagnating but in fact deteriorating. Emails to my contact at the Dakota, an old college friend, started going unanswered; bandmates with ins at other venues had similar trouble; personal relationships, both involving me and not involving me, became strained in a number of my projects. It was time to get the hell off this sinking ship.

The more recent sinkings of the Minnesota Orchestra and the Artists' Quarter make a rather incongruous pairing, except by timing, as well as in some ways by my own relationship to each of them: transformative early listening experiences, close mentorship relationships with members of their respective inner circles, avid participation in all the standard-issue minor-league kiddie shows, courtship of real adult involvement following my graduation from college and emergence into the professional world, and ultimately, after six years of that last step, zero to show for it. How, then, could I of all people possibly squeeze out something despairing, or even matter-of-fact, about the direction of the Twin Cities music scene in the wake of these two dinosaur institutions falling on the hardest of times? I have been proclaiming here for years a sort of Darwinist outlook on such institutions, which have a tendency to divert attention, resources, and butts-in-seats from the more out-of-the-way places where the music of our own time is hammered out. In that sense, I have to say obstinately that had I anticipated the downward spiral progressing quite so quickly, I may not have been so quick to leave town. The kind of work I'm interested in doing needs space, both literally and figuratively. Minneapolis in my heyday there offered neither kind; the city was too small and its institutions too big. It's not farfetched to wonder if a complete wasteland would have presented more opportunities than I had. If that's the way things are headed, color me equanimous.

The problem with this kind of anarcho-utopianism regarding the current situation is, of course, that the core audiences for the institutions under discussion are largely blind (deaf?) to the rest of the scene. They're more likely to disappear altogether than to take the initiative to find out what else has been going on this whole time. They need to know exactly what they're going to get in both musical product and social prestige before they make an appearance at an unfamiliar location, and there are more than a few parts of town which are non-starters from the outset. If anyone reading this back home takes offense to that evaluation, you have exactly one way to prove I'm wrong, and that's to become a seeker rather than a finder of live music. And to bring a friend. I double-dog dare you.

The vitality of a music scene cannot be measured by how many musicians comprise it, what kinds of music they play, how many venues they have to play at, how they compare ability-wise to musicians in other cities, or by measuring any of this per-capita, as Minneapolitans have the blithely irritating tendency to do whether or not it is relevant or constructive. Rather, the audience, that other 50% of the musical transaction, is more like 100% of the indication of a scene's vitality. It matters not whether that audience is comprised of other professional musicians or of people who just wandered in, just that its presence is, in fact, palpable in the air that is to be moved, its impact tangible on the musicians' morale, its proverbial butts firmly planted in all of those would-be empty seats, and it's five dollar bills deposited in hats, jars, and buckets of all manner in large enough quantities to, if not pay the bills, then at least warrant reporting on a federal tax return. And that's why Minneapolis, for all of its musical and extra-musical strong points, just plain stinks for some of us. When horseshit variety bands get called back year after year for the same good paying gigs, drawing raves from the patrons, it doesn't matter who has more of these bands; you just stink. When the same people play the same music at the same venue for the same audience for decades at a time, that presents another instance of stuff starting to smell funny. When the personality cults are built around musicians whose personalities and music alike don't seem to justify it, a foul odor begins to emanate from the "scene."

What, me bitter? It can't be at the institutions themselves, and it's certainly not at anyone I know. Just about everyone I know even haphazardly or once-removed came to hear me, often several times over. It's the people I only ever met in certain venues in certain parts of town when certain musicians were involved; they are the ones who, for obvious reasons, confound me. An overreaction you say? Not quite, if you believe this guy:

“I cut my salary to where there’s nothing left, and I still can’t make the numbers work,” Horst said. “I still have great nights here, but one great night a week doesn’t cut it. People say, ‘The place was packed when I was there.’ The problem is everyone is there on the same night.”

That many of the musical organizations I most wanted to work with could not afford to involve me in their plans is ultimately on the audience, not the organizations. Those organizations are not stupid, nor are the individuals who comprise them. They can't swing and miss six nights a week, and to them, I'm just another forkball in the dirt. I could only hang so many posters, send so many emails, run so many Facebook events, place on so many jazz calendars, do so many interviews, and go to so many horseshit amateur jam sessions without seeing much of a light at the end of a the tunnel before I just had to give up and go somewhere else.

So, Minneapolis, are you going to sit there and cry in your hotdish like a big blonde baby, or is it maybe time to wake up to all the "other" music you've been missing, to take inventory, notice what's missing, and get the hell to work on making it happen? You're not just going to let me go all petty on you in some stupid Nick-Payton-esque blog rant, right? You can't just let a prematurely washed-up malcontent like me be sooooo happy to have left you in my wake, can you? Don't make me proud, make me sorry! I triple-dog dare all y'all to live up to your own regional hype! Starting now! For better or worse, you have more space to do it now than you've had for quite a long time.


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