Big Music 2015:

Five lessons from a year of local listening

Last year, for the Big Music Issue, we had a big idea. We were going to detail the way that all of the scenes overlapped here by creating some great taxonomy of local music and pointing out the people who acted as nodes to connect them. It was an insanely complicated and daunting task and then Scroll, published by the Contemporary, put out a graphic that detailed various connections in the art scene, so we stepped back a bit from the graphic while maintaining a sense of inspiration from Will Hermes’ great book “Love Goes to Buildings on Fire,” which details the birth and flowering of various New York scenes in the 1970s.

But I also had another idea. I would only listen to local music for a year and then write about it next—this—Big Music Issue. Sure, it was a bit gimmicky—the year of living biblically or Socratically or whatever—but I was also sure to learn things about the role of music in my life and the role of economics in music. And that was really the point—to use an artificial constraint to make me more thoughtful. I wondered what life would be like if I couldn’t go to the seasonal favorites that I have fallen back on for years as the seasons change. What would I find to take the place of that old favorite?

Setting up those constraints took some work. I knew I couldn’t avoid actually listening to music made by people in other places—my wife would leave me and I wouldn’t be able to go to bars. So the deal was: I would only press play on music that was made by someone who was living in Baltimore (or was in Baltimore when it was made). I wanted the chance to be able to bump into the person whose song I’d been jamming on. But I could listen to music that my wife or a friend would play and I could also listen to local radio stations that have an actual local DJ playing the tunes—as long as the music is filtered through a Baltimore brain before it got to mine, it would be fine. And on the few occasions I went out of town, the experiment was off—it didn’t make sense to listen to only Baltimore music when I was not in Baltimore.

Now that year has ended and I have only outright cheated once (I put on a John Prine album to hear ‘The Late John Garfield Blues’ when I was really drunk—actually maybe twice; I think I might have put on Waylon Jennings while listening to old favorites with colleagues Brandon Soderberg, Rebekah Kirkman, and Maura Callahan), I’ve never been so happy for a story to be done before (and because the Big Music Issue came out a little earlier this year, I was let off the hook about a month early, making it actually more like 47 or 48 weeks of local listening).

Lesson 1: Solidarity

I really liked the idea of creating something like an “eat local” movement for music. I thought about it a little bit like the stock market. I’m against people putting retirement into this giant, abstract, placeless system. Instead, if we invest in our communities, we might create the kind of place we’d like to retire. It is the same with music. Instead of supporting the giant record companies and Apple and Spotify, if we all supported our local musicians, we would end up with the scene we want. People could take longer to record, work with better equipment or producers, and be more adventurous. I imagined everyone listening to everyone else and creating a truly Baltimore sound. I was sure there were dozens of really good bands that I’d never even heard of. I put out a call in my column. The first response, or one of the first, was from a band of young dudes called Trunkweed. The email (which we’ve written about before) was so sincere and so moving I knew this experiment was a great idea. I was curious about everyone’s music and would listen to any and everything. I loved you all.

Lesson 2: Music doesn’t equal money

There’s something weird about this, I realized pretty quickly—or rather weirdly natural. For almost all of human history people could only hear music made in physical proximity to them. It could be composed elsewhere, of course, but not performed. So it seemed like a restoration to only listen to local music (like farm-to-table again). But it was, instead, a kind of inversion, imposing the rules of live music onto recorded music. Because live, of course, I could only hear music performed in Baltimore, wherever the band may be from. Still, almost immediately, I learned that I cared a lot more about the monetary situation of musicians when I knew them or knew of them or saw how hard they worked at various restaurants, bars, or stores when they were not playing. I wanted to do a big story about how musicians survive in today’s world (and still do) and began to interview people. Jenn Wasner, from Wye Oak and Flock of Dimes, was extraordinarily generous with her time and exceedingly frank about her situation. Even when she traveled nearly 300 days a year at the height of Wye Oak’s popularity, she made something close to the abysmally low salary of a City Paper editorial employee. When not touring, she was working as a dog walker and had a story about waiting to get into a fancy building to pick up a dog and meeting a fan—also a dog walker—who thought Wasner lived in the posh building. She had to explain that the music business doesn’t work like that. One of the biggest names in Baltimore music (and only a two-piece, so you’re not splitting the money with that many people), and the only way to survive without another job is by living on the road.

As she was telling me this, M.C. Schmidt from Matmos came by. She told him what we were talking about and he confessed that Matmos had just received a check for all the Matmos songs—from 18 records— anyone anywhere had ever streamed from a legal site. The sum was in the low triple digits. Clearly, there is something wrong with the way that we consume music. But it actually seems to mirror the rest of the economy, where the super rich are richer than ever, the poor are poorer than ever, and there is no more middle class.

My colleague Brandon Soderberg turned me onto Young Moose just about the time I started this experiment and I’ve been listening to a lot of Moose’s music throughout it. Though he continues to be arrested, he seems, in many ways, to have a really smart take on the music business. Though he produces videos that get hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, he doesn’t have a website. Instead, he has a store, Out the Mud, over on East Monument Street where kids can stop by for a chance to see Moose, who is like Elvis in his neighborhood. Walking around with him, I saw two fathers (or older brothers) come up and ask if their kids could get a picture with Moose. He seems to be even more local in his distribution than I am in my listening: make it for a neighborhood, and everyone else may want to listen too. Of course, in Moose’s case, that has also meant that the police have a place to come and find you and arrest you, so there are trade-offs. But there’s something there.

Lesson 3: Listening local is a lot of work

It’s easy to buy some merch—a shirt or a record—when you see a band live and I started trying to do more of that. But it is still tough to seek out new bands and then figure out how to compensate them. I started going onto Soundcloud and Bandcamp and listening to as many things as possible. It was really exciting at first—but about halfway through this time, it grew really tedious. I kept listening to the same few things—20ooo, Trunkweed, Young Moose, Lor Scoota, Flock of Dimes, The Soft Pink Truth, Blacksage, Wing Dam, Caleb Stine, TT The Artist, Soul Cannon,Natural Velvet—and listened to it over and over again.

Eventually I became musically miserable. Because no matter how much I listened to these records and no matter how local they were or how much I loved them, I didn’t have the decades-long connection with them that I have with artists such as Bob Dylan or the New York Dolls or Run-DMC. Honestly, I’m really embarrassed at how much I missed Bob Dylan. I would hope that my tastes were more original—but I’d been listening to Bob for so much of my life that when I hear a record like “Blood on the Tracks” I’m actually connecting with many former versions of myself when I hear it. The idea of being able to bump into them on the street eliminated people like Billie Holiday, who, I could argue, is Baltimore music (I listened to the Schwarz mix of  the late Miss Tony’s songs, but that went through Schwarz’s mind and I do see him around), and so listening only to local music really meant I was listening only to contemporary music (I listened to Lungfish, but, I mean, in the scheme of things that is really recent) and listening only to contemporary music alienates you from your own past and the past of the world. I might bump into the musician on the street, but I felt like I wasn’t bumping into my former selves nearly as often.

I began to rely more heavily on my wife’s choice of music—a lot of Swamp Dogg, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, and Tammi Terrell—and songs that come on at the bar (Joey Smith at Mick O’Shea’s gave me my Dylan fix). I also found that, for work, it was useful to have the equivalent of a shabbos goy—someone who could hit play for me, at work especially, when I needed to hear a song. I began to wonder: What’s the fucking point?—not only of this experiment, but of music in general?

I finally reached the critical mass of musical fatigue where I essentially just quit listening to recorded music but tried to see live shows—in short bursts even, a song or two here another song there. I began to rely on the radio—92Q primarily, just so I wouldn’t have to think about it. It was too much.

Lesson 4: Local matters

Then the Uprising happened. J.M. Giordano, my reporting partner through it all, was not only the best driver in town but also the best DJ, rocking a perfect mix of old-school hip-hop, Zappa, and classical—and avoiding the goddamn Eagles, which he otherwise tortures me with. After it was over, I didn’t want to hear anything but Baltimore music. And the five days of curfew meant that people were stuck at home recording. We asked musicians to send us their songs from the curfew and we got a great selection, but some of the stuff, which was relevant, was also older and didn’t fit the immediate criteria. Still, I discovered a slew of great songs that got me through the next couple of months, especially Damond Blue’s ‘Oh Baltimore,’ Young Moose and Martina Lynch’s ‘No SunShine,’ James Nasty’s ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and Old Lines’ ‘Midnight in Baltimore.’ I loved the city and didn’t care about your music if it was not coming from Baltimore.

Of course, a lot of people tried to latch onto that. Washed-up G-Unit rapper Young Buck sampled the audio of me screaming “He’s a photographer! He’s a photographer! He’s press!” as the Baltimore police knocked down J.M. Giordano, trying to be cool and connect with Baltimore. It’s not a bad song, but I was disturbed by the refrain “Burn this bitch to the ground one more night,” which, you know, is fucked up if you’re not in Baltimore. Like, if you’re here and feel that, that’s one thing, but otherwise, fuck off.

Lesson 5: You’ll meet yourself again —remix and resolve

And now, that the rush of togetherness has worn off, near the end of my year of local listening, I was exhausted again, relying entirely on 92Q over the past couple of weeks—bombarded by the same song over and over again. And then, a couple of weeks ago, WTMD, whose aesthetic I usually hate, released a number of covers of SisQó’s ‘Thong Song,’ which is now 15 years old. To take this one song and blast it open in a dozen different directions is the perfect coda to my stupid experiment. But while I’m ecstatic that the experiment is over, and I might binge on my old standbys for a few days, I feel like I understand music, and myself, better. And next time I hear Natural Velvet’s song ‘Cathedral Street,’ for instance, I am sure I will bump into an older version of myself, the self that spent a year listening only to local music.

Copyright © 2017, Baltimore City Paper, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Privacy Policy
63°