For the sake of argument, let’s accept as fact that our music scene is like any other ecosystem you may have read about in high school biology. Formed by the interaction of interconnected elements within the community and the environment that surrounds them, this system seeks to strike a natural balance that will allow it to organically develop and prosper. As such, every piece of this precarious puzzle — from the artists, promoters, and fans to the venues, rehearsal spaces, and recording studios — all have a crucial role to play in the survival of the system. Without the continued input of everyone and everything involved, certain functions would begin to shut down, adversely affecting the health of the whole. For the most part, it’s a self-integrating, self-sustaining, self-perpetuating system, and it’s up to the community to keep it vibrant and evolving.
But if 2014 taught us anything, it’s that mitigating factors and outside influences can have catastrophic effects on a closed system, and not even a beloved cultural institution like WRAS is safe from the corruptive forces of greed and corporate politics.
To make matters worse, as the year headed to a close, word began to spread that Thunderbox Rehearsal Studios, which had served as a base of operations for countless musicians over it’s nearly decade-long history, was in the process of being sold, a looming casualty of gentrification and skyrocketing property prices along the Beltline’s Eastside Trail. Much like the shuttering of Lenny’s Bar in 2013, it wasn’t so much a shock as it was a sign: Atlanta was transforming quickly, and the threat of artists being pushed out in favor of moneyed suburbanites looking to capitalize on the city’s rising cultural cachet was real.
Which leads us to this story’s overarching theme…
Development drove the narrative in 2015
This is not the place to debate the merits of gentrification or the effects of pauperization, but when your gentrifying rate is one of the most rapid in the nation, it goes without saying that the consequences, both constructive and detrimental, are going to be widespread. Couple that with the worst income equality in the country and the persistence of concentrated pockets of poverty, and you have the makings of a major city undergoing a highly volatile, potentially disastrous evolution. Forget about the artist class for a moment; the truly vulnerable are lower-income families who, without increased access to affordable housing, will be displaced at much higher rates, in consequence changing the fabric of entire neighborhoods and large swaths of the city.
Accordingly, Atlanta has spent much of the last year in self-examination, attempting to sort out exactly what kind of city it wants to be. There have been a plethora of op-eds and think pieces, and the debate has raged on internet forums and in city planning meetings. People have chosen sides and to some extent battle lines have been drawn. After years of scattered skirmishes and impromptu dust-ups, the culture wars have arrived in force.
Although it wouldn’t appear on stands until June, Creative Loafing’s annual music issue was the first comprehensive attempt to investigate the interrelationship between Atlanta music and the precipitous rise of development within the city. What had typically in the past been an examination of new or breaking artists and trends, was this time a look at how the rising cost of living and the changing face of the city was affecting musicians and shaping the future of the scene. For music editor Chad Radford it was a risky move, and it took considerable effort to convince higher-ups at the publication to move forward with his ideas on the issue. The end result was both a labor of love and a prescient warning of what was to come. Says Radford:
“I was aware that a culture war was at hand as far back as 2013 when Emory University’s President James Wagner gutted the school’s journalism program, and talked about compromise having long been an American value — and then illustrated his point by referencing The Three-fifths Compromise. We lost WRAS. Then we saw how spitefully and conniving the folks running the show at GPB and GSU behaved when reality sank in. We lost Full Moon Records. We lost Thunderbox and Avatar Studios … One by one the city’s musical institutions were being bulldozed to make room for a yuppie invasion summoned forth by the Beltline and film industry tax incentives. Hideous construction was happing on seemingly every block. The destruction of both former Lenny’s locations was symbolically heavy for me, especially when I saw what went up in their places. At the same time, nearly everyone I know — everyone involved with music in some way — was affected by the wave of live/work/play ‘development’ sweeping the city. Rents skyrocketed. No one had anywhere to practice. When it came time to talk about what a great and intricate music scene we have, I was haunted by what was unfolding around me. I went into the music issue’s planning with a really positive slant, making lists of bands and trends. But the more I tried to put an outline together I felt like it would be a disservice to not address how I saw what I love most about this city facing so much opposition.”
The issue explored the theme from several angles and painted the portrait of city in the early stages of a fight for its historical and cultural soul. There were stories of loss and the damage inflicted by rampant development, but there were also examinations of innovation and how artists were banding together to create new spaces and start new legacies in parts of the city that had been neglected or overlooked. For all the fear, uncertainty, and gnashing of teeth, there was also considerable hope and a show of forward-thinking fearlessness that pointed to the the resiliency of the artist class.
Still, the issue left no doubt the local music scene had many steep challenges to overcome, starting first and foremost with…
The closing of Thunderbox and Avatar Studios
On May 10th, 2015, Thunderbox Rehearsal Studios closed its doors ending its decade long run as Atlanta’s foremost proprietor of rehearsal spaces. Located on Ralph McGill Boulevard in the Old Fourth Ward, Thunderbox served as home base for some of the city’s most storied acts, including metal giants Mastodon and Torche, punk darlings the Coathangers, and a litany of other local favorites, such as HAWKS, Whores., Big Jesus, and many others. With dozens of rooms spread out across the warehouse-like complex, the studios provided hundreds — if not thousands — of artists the space needed to not only store their equipment, but to practice and develop, to experiment and collaborate, to focus and mature. It’s sister space, Avatar, followed soon after, creating even more havoc. With few alternatives available, much of the Atlanta music scene was thrown into turmoil. As bands scrambled to find new accommodations, many were forced to go into temporary hiatus and the longtime artistic ties and community building, forged over time, close proximity, and 24/7 access to studio space, were forever severed.
“Thunderbox closing definitely threw a wrench in our process,” says Big Jesus bassist and frontman Spencer Ussery. “There must have been well over a hundred Atlanta bands displaced by its closing. I do think the music scene here has been affected negatively, that seemed inevitable. It’s hard, however, to tell at this point the scale of severity. How many bands just stopped existing because of Thunderbox closing?”
Christian Lembach of Whores. echoes Ussery’s sentiment: “Thunderbox closing really screwed a ton of Atlanta bands, and we’re certainly no exception. I know this same kind of thing happens in most major cities, but that doesn’t make it any easier logistically to operate our band. When we were told that the place was closing, we were on the eve of signing our deal and beginning the process of writing the new record. Now we practice in a storage space about an hour from my apartment … We’re lucky to have a place at all. It’s far from ideal, though. I’ve gone to look a few other spaces in Atlanta, but they were both pretty dicey, and one of them is all but closed already.”
It should go without saying that without a permanent space for musicians to experiment and hone their craft, to write, practice, and demo new material, the scene is at increased risk of becoming less vital and interesting, or worse, stagnant. Yes, the music will persevere and bands will find a way to keep the scene alive and moving forward, but this isn’t how art communities thrive. This isn’t how communities expand and evolve.
There aren’t any silver linings here, at least not yet, but if you’re searching for something positive that has arisen from the shuttering of Thunderbox and Avatar, maybe it’s that it’s made more artists aware of just how good they had it. “Don’t know what you got until it’s gone” may be a desperately tired cliché and an even worse ’80s power ballad, but it’s a sentiment shared by many former tenants.
“On the upside, it’s made me appreciate how easy we had it for so long,” says Lembach. “We’ve been writing and practicing like crazy in the last few months, and I don’t know if we would be doing that if I could still walk to the space from my apartment. It’s made me really focus and spend our time together in the room more wisely.”
For his part, Ussery agrees.
“I’m willing to bet most people feel as we do, that we took Thunderbox for granted. It was so centrally located. It was always just there for us. The loading ramp, the utility carts. The secret bathroom. We miss you Thunderbox.”
I suppose one could make the argument that this is the natural state of things. That sometimes something has to die off in order to make way for something newer, better, stronger. That this is how healthy ecosystems work. As we’ll come to see, there’s plenty of evidence that chaos and conflict often spur risk-taking and breed innovation. But this wasn’t a case of a system regulating itself; the system was being squeezed from without by factors and influences beyond its control. And as it turned out, the damage wasn’t yet done, because just two short months later…
Smith’s Olde Bar and the Masquerade threatened to close
In late July, barely a month after Creative Loafing’s music issue had raised the specter of rampant development as a threat to the creative class, it was announced that SWH Residential Partners had purchased the century old DuPre Excelsior Mill building housing the Masquerade, throwing the future of one Atlanta’s oldest and most diverse music venues into a black cloud of doubt. Already, the Masquerade’s adjacent music park was slated to be bulldozed to make way for mixed-use development featuring a restaurant, parking deck, and apartments, and word was spreading that the the mill buildings facing North Avenue would also be gutted to make way for a 24,000-square-foot adaptive reuse project.
Days later calamity struck again when Smith’s Olde Bar, an Atlanta music institution since 1993, received a 60-day notice to vacate after property owner Beverly Anne Taylor passed away at age 97. The family trust that inherited the retail strip decided to sell the property at auction and issued the notice after demanding more rent and increased insurance coverage for the space. In turn, club owner Dan Nolen filed suit against the trust and the two parties spent almost six months fighting in Fulton County Superior Court before agreeing to a temporary lease extension.
Although Smith’s Bar remains in operation while Nolen attempts to negotiate a long-term lease and the Masquerade will continue to host shows through 2016 before likely relocating, the possibility of their closing set off fears of a music scene under seige. If two well-established and profitable institutions with over 50 years of combined service to the music community could be bought, sold, and torn down, then everything was vulnerable. Suddenly, Facebook, Reddit, and the comments section of every related article was filled with cries of frustration and dismay at what Atlanta was becoming along with sad nostalgia remembrances of shows past and glory days gone by.
In the meantime, former Creative Loafing editor Tony Paris, writing for Arts ATL, made a case for the necessity of the two clubs as mid-level stepping stones for bands on the rise, arguing that the possibility of their closing “…drives a deep wedge into an already splintered scene — and takes away the two venues local bands ‘making it big’ could hope to play in order to cement larger followings, and get the hell outta town and on the road.” Although the article’s understanding of the current state of Atlanta music and pining for the “good ole’ days” of the scene seemed a bit out of touch, it’s charge that the loss of the venues would send ripple waves through the rest of the city was almost certainly true.
“It would have made the other venue calendars a lot busier, and probably harder for local bands to get shows,” says promoter Brannon Boyle of Speakeasy Promotions. “There are definitely some genres that won’t get booked anywhere except the Masquerade, and they might have been in trouble.”
Still, not everyone was mourning the impending loss of the Masquerade. For years, the club’s controversial pay-to-play policy had drawn the ire of many in the scene who accused the venue of preying on the hope and good will of young bands trying to get their start. Additionally, there have been those who have called out the Masquerade’s business practices and promotional tactics as less than professional, if not downright crooked and inept.
“No other club in town requires local bands to ‘sell tickets’ to their own show,” wrote HAWKS frontman Michael Keenan Jr. in a stinging Facebook post celebrating the looming end of the venue. “So let me get this straight: you want a band to play a show for you? To help promote a show that you booked and agreed to be responsible for? Then you want the local bands to sell your tickets for you, and then also pay for production for that show? And this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how that place is run. Haphazardly combining shows without anyone knowing it, no promotion, no knowledge about just what the fuck is going on … Any fucking club that follows a pay to play model deserves to be crushed into oblivion. I will agreed that I’ve seen a fair share of shows, that, yeah, history is important and that it’s true that it might not have been run that way in the past. But if that is case, they’ve done a pretty good job of taking a shit on their own legacy.”
Still, whatever your stance on the subject, there’s little denying the Masquerade’s role as a fixture on the local scene. With the possible exception of the much smaller 529, no other club serves as many varying types of music, and certainly no other venue outside of Smith’s can match the Masquerade’s Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory structure in terms of flexibility and scalability for artists. And as Paris and Boyle have already mentioned, the closing of these spaces would almost certainly lead to less opportunity for local bands, as well as less musical diversity in the scene overall. Whether or not these benefits are worth supporting the Masquerade’s shady business practices, however, is a question up for debate. Certainly we want venues to nurture and support the scene and not use aspiring artists as free and disposable marketing tools for their own profit.
Fortunately, a new crop of venues have begun sprouting in the city focused on ushering in new ideologies and a different way of doing business. Because while the old guard faced an uncertain future…
The Mammal Gallery, the Cleaners, and PUNK BLACK sparked Atlanta’s DIY spirit
As I wrote earlier, conflict often breeds innovation. And over the past couple years, several groups of artists and entrepreneurs have come together to create new performance spaces, ones much less focused on profits and much more concerned with addressing the needs of artists, initiating creative collaboration, and serving the communities that surround them.
Started in 2014, the Mammal Gallery is a combination music venue and collaborative performance and art space located in a once blighted area of South Broad Street in Downtown Atlanta. Since opening their doors, Mammal, along with longtime artists’ collective Eyedrum, has ushered in a wave of revitalization spurred by the Goat Farm Art Center’s BEACONS program. This has led to an influx of new arts-based tenants including DIY media facilitators Murmur, performance and gallery space Broad Street Visitors Center, and performance-based community center Downtown Players Club, establishing the early anchors for what could viably become a new arts district in the city.
Inspired by Mammal Gallery’s success and vision, the Cleaners setup shop in the southeast Atlanta neighborhood of Lakewood Heights and spent much of 2015 establishing themselves as a progressive space where artists, poets, and musicians can come together to experiment, perform, and share ideas. Described in the music issue as “…a blueprint for a community-driven artistic renewal, a model for sustainable development, and a realistic alternative to gentrification,” the Cleaners quickly emerged as a favorite destination among Atlanta’s arts and DIY communities for their welcoming atmosphere, collaborative culture, and adventurous lineups. As a result, the venue was named 2015’s Best New DIY Music Space by the critics at Creative Loafing.
Suddenly, for those of us paying close attention, things didn’t seem quite as gloomy. While most of the media coverage centered around the potential shuttering of Atlanta landmarks in favor of yet more mixed-use, live/work/play development, here were two groups of creative idealists successfully operating unique, independent art venues on their own terms for the long-term betterment of their communities and, presumably, the local scene at large. Certainly there were improvements to be made, but it wasn’t hard to recognize what made these new spaces so critical.
“I believe that venues like Mammal and the Cleaners are important to the music scene in Atlanta as places for musicians to interact and learn from one another,” says Mammal Gallery co-founder Chris Yonker, who also sings and plays guitar in local psych-pop collective, Hello Ocho. “There’s no right or wrong way to play music, there is only different approaches. The more approaches our musicians expose themselves to, the more diverse our music community becomes.”
Meanwhile, rapper and producer Jack Preston contends that these venues’ lack of traditional business ideologies and emphasis on challenging and subverting the expectations of their supporters, make them a necessary counter to the typical bar show format that most showgoers have grown accustomed to.
“For every major venue in Atlanta,” he argues, “there needs to be event spaces that help cultivate raw creativity, experimentation, and new ideas. These spaces represent a type of creative petri dish for Atlanta, which support the notion of cultivation with their non-discriminatory approach to offering platforms for artists. What I love most is that there is no mold for what these spaces are supposed to be. This factor has allowed for unique characteristics and culture within each space.”
In other words, venues like Mammal Gallery and the Cleaners are crucial in part because they offer artists the freedom to experiment and explore while also offering audiences a far more intimate and authentic connection to the venue and community at large. Popular corporate venues like the Masquerade may be more accessible, but rarely do they offer the feeling of belonging and solidarity that arrives when artists and audiences alike seek something beyond the mere ephemerality of a performance. More than anything else, people want to be inspired. They want to feel like they’re part of something greater, something more urgent and powerful, and that’s far more likely to happen at a community-supported club or house show than at some corporate-sponsored cement box.
“The welcoming aspect of DIY is very attractive right now,” says Matt Howe, booking manager for the longtime DIY arts staple WonderRoot. “I think the Cleaners is fantastic. Atlanta is constantly developing great new spaces and that’s wonderful. It doesn’t surprise me that DIY spaces and house shows are rapidly developing exceptionally faster than corporate venues, because the artist community is way more attracted and supportive of places that have this mutual respect for bands. It’s artists helping artists — pure support. I also think house venues, such as Parts Unknown, are incredible. WonderRoot, in my opinion, is positively affected by the development of other DIY spaces and community-supported venues because it builds popularity and the idea that these places are happening and could inspire whatever next great thing to happen that maybe wouldn’t fit well with ‘Walmart venues.'”
Furthermore, as Von Phoenix of upstart local promoters PUNK BLACK notes, DIY shows also help to address an often practical reality, especially with young bands trying to find their footing.
“Most venues don’t want to take a chance on booking a few local bands with a small fan base, so artists get together, combine fan bases, and throw their own shows,” he says, adding that booking performances can be a tremendous challenge for fledgling artists.
Launched in 2014, the mission of PUNK BLACK is to nurture, promote, and encourage the presence of people of color in the rock and art community by increasing their media representation and coordinating DIY events from house shows to local festivals. In December, the organization hosted their 7th overall showcase at Eyedrum, marking the first time that PUNK BLACK had partnered with an established venue for an event. Although the group remains in its relative infancy, there are already plans for expansion with satellite organizations expected to sprout in both California and Florida early next year. On the local level, the group fills a vital need, bridging existing gaps between race and culture while simultaneously exposing audiences to overlooked artists operating on the fringes of the scene. As the organization grows and expands their reach, one can only hope that even more disparate artists from varying backgrounds and differing schools of thought will be brought together because once again…
Hip-hop ruled (duh) while Atlanta music remained as splintered as ever
Look, I get it. Hip-hop dominates everything. It casts a suffocating shadow that marginalizes and obscures everything below it. But that is bound to happen when you’re universally acknowledged as the so-called mecca of hip-hop, the center of the ever-expanding trap culture universe. Future, Gucci Mane, Killer Mike, 2 Chainz, Young Thug, Migos, Metro Boomin, Mike WiLL Made-It, Two-9, Scotty ATL, Awful Records. Atlanta doesn’t just define the hip-hop zeitgeist; it is the zeitgeist. That’s why we can move $2 million dollars worth of dabbing Santa sweaters, help launch freakishly infectious dance crazes, or turn a seemingly inane phrase like “Gucci flip flops” into an internet obsession. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Atlanta calls the shots. Worldwide. And if you can’t find something to celebrate in that, well then, stay thirsty, my friends.
Meanwhile, despite our best efforts, the rest of Atlanta music continues to be fractured and parceled off into varying pockets or niches or sub-genres or whatever you want to call them. Metal fans, hardcore-punk fans, folk fans, experimental and psychedelic fans — you get the picture — all scattered into different sections of the city with little or no common thread to unite them. Yes, there have been attempts at cross-pollination, and there are many artists and music supporters who do their best to work across the lines and immerse themselves in different sounds and cultures, but there’s a reason I’ve heard this scene described as cliquey more times than I care to count. And let’s face it, a lot of the time these divisions are broken down along racial and cultural lines, furthering the feelings of isolation and separateness.
“I believe it stems from societal stereotypes and cultural norms,” says Jack Preston. “Many people are still subscribing to boxes of what they should be, instead of exploring all that they could be. I also think that many tend to gravitate towards that which is comfortable and familiar. There are a select few who feel comfortable outside of their comfort zone. This can breed a culture of sameness and separation. Not to mention that we are still in the South, and the subconscious culture of segregation still impacts us to this day. Once we get out of these comfort zones, the diversity will naturally occur.”
“I think the more ‘rock’ oriented, usually white community needs to be more welcoming and connected with black and other minority artists in the city,” argues Carter Sutherland of rising indie-punk newcomers Sea Ghost. “We need to open up the spaces that typically only house the white, more rock-oriented stuff to a different sphere of artists. Few people who write about DIY ever put rap in the conversation, but rap music is truly one of the most DIY forms of music that has ever existed. Georgia is about 28% black, and Atlanta is higher, so there is really no excuse for why we aren’t more inclusive of black artists in the traditionally punk/DIY spaces that exist in Atlanta … I know that it’s very nuanced and complicated but I think we can make strides in that direction.”
But not everyone agrees that Atlanta’s house divided status is detrimental to the development of the scene. Shepherds frontman Jonathan Merenivitch, whose resume includes ongoing stints with Janelle Monáe and art pop outfit Del Venicci, doesn’t necessarily see rifts or divides, just the natural reality of people pursuing what interests them.
“It’s all about what you listen to or who you hang out with,” Merenivitch contends. “Which is not a bad thing, per se. The scene in this town is divided into all kinds of subsets … I don’t expect someone who goes to a hardcore show at WonderRoot to also attend a noise/free jazz/gamelan music concert at the Cleaners. I might do that, but I’m a little weird. Some people will enjoy what you do, some will not. As long as you can find some kind of support in the city I don’t think it matters to have any kind of ‘rah rah, unite the kids!’ kind of scenario.”
Speaking from a promoter’s perspective, Lauryn Christy of A. Rippin’ Production makes the case that fractures within the scene and the homogeneous lineups that often result are largely the product of audience expectations and demand.
“Many promoters in town have been around for a while and established their niche, and showgoers pay attention to that,” she says. “They’ve come to expect a certain type of show experience, and often they will go to various venues to experience it. It seems that venue choice has much to do with niche-targeting, turnout expectations, and availability than any great divide.”
And here’s where things get a little tricky. If everyone involved in the scene somehow came to the consensus that mending the gaps between sub-scenes and creating more opportunities for underserved communities and marginalized voices were critical to the future success and evolution of Atlanta music, who would be in charge of that transformation? Would it be a matter of disparate artists banding together, supporting one another, and issuing a call for unity? Would it be a question of venues and promoters taking the initiative and added risk of booking more divergent, more challenging, more inclusive lineups? Or would we leave it in the hands of fans and supporters to demand change and, in turn, modify their expectations?
These are all important questions for debate, but they’ll remain purely speculative until Atlanta settles the more pressing issue of whether or not an overarching, interconnected identity for the local music scene is desirable or necessary. Simply put: does this elaborate, ever-shifting ecosystem we all participate in need a face, a name, or a common purpose to be successful? It’s a conversation we’ve been having for a few years now, although in fits and spurts, and never as overtly as we should. Which is a little odd and disconcerting, especially in light of what our neighbors to the east have been accomplishing as of late. Because while Atlanta wrestled with existential questions of purpose and identity…
Athens rediscovered its taste for loud, complex, uncompromising music
I’ll be the first to say that we don’t cover the Athens music scene as well as we should. It’s difficult when you can’t experience it firsthand and most of your impressions arrive via isolated experiences or second-hand communication. As a scene, it’s always felt more insular, like an epic extended family with all the love, support, and occasional bickering that entails. Is that an incredibly oversimplified analysis? Probably. But so far I haven’t found many Athens musicians willing to convince me otherwise.
“Atlanta has always felt very sectionalized to me. Cliquey, even,” says Frank Keith, bassist for Americana rocker Tedo Stone. “There’s so many sub-scenes happening there, each with its own brand of awesome, but they seem to clash more often than they coexist. Athens has always had a much more family-driven vibe to me. Everyone wants to see everyone succeed, and we all help each other out, whether that means sharing band members, making cameos on records and on stage, or booking shows together. The buddy culture here is real.”
If this “buddy culture” is so, then what characteristics define it? Loyalty, I would guess. Perhaps some sense of selflessness. An altruistic compulsion to contribute and share. A predilection for collaboration and open-mindedness. A feeling of resolute purpose. A set of shared values and beliefs. I’m just spitballing here, but I think you get the point. It’s a mutual admiration society. In such a welcoming and familial atmosphere, it would seem impossible for artists not to inspire and influence one another and for different aesthetics and musical viewpoints to combine, blend, and morph into something more compelling and dynamic. If you need proof, just take a look at what Athens music offered us this year – a steady stream of loud, complex, uncompromising music.
I’ll grant you the city’s always had an underbelly full of heavy, forward-thinking artists. The Martians, Jucifer, Bambara, Cinemechanica, Manray, Lazer/Wulf, Incendiaries. Harvey Milk are legends, for fuck’s sake. But over the years, many of these artists have been overlooked and taken for granted leading some to disband and others to relocate in order to pursue their careers. For a while, things quieted down significantly. Still, as always, some bands forged on and new ones were born, in the process generating a new crop of fans. Now, after a couple of years spent making ripples in the Athens underground, the wave finally broke through in 2015.
“It felt like all the loud bands broke up, moved away, or went into a cocoon at the same time,” says Erika Rickson, drummer for emerging noise-rock trio, Motherfucker. “All of those people changed trajectories and a whole new group of bands emerged. Out of the ashes came the Powder Room, Motherfucker, and Double Ferrari while some of the young guns coming up started new loud bands like Muuy Bien, Waitress, and Shade. We’ve also had some new blood move to town like Art Contest and Gláss, who I can’t wait to see. Cinemechanica and Vincas have new material ready for 2016. Mothers and Pinecones are bottle rocketing to space, which is crazy to see when you live here. One day Mothers was Kristine Leschper by herself and then I saw her band on Stereogum. The scene didn’t ever die. It was like a Hot Wheels penny racer that was being pulled back as far as it could go. This year it was released and did a sweet jump over some legos.”
The fact that a minimalist singer-songwriter like Leschper would embrace a more aggressive and mathematically inclined sound was only further proof of how far the sphere of influence was extending. As Flagpole wrote in one of its year-end features: “With more bands pushing the boundaries of structure and exploring similarly unique, purposeful approaches, guitar-based music experienced a revitalization unseen in recent years.”
“Granted, there has always been a great punk scene here, but I’ve always felt it was rooted more in being punk than sounding punk,” Keith opines. “There’s a beauty in that scene — it’s all about spirit … Recently I think there has been a real effort in the opposite direction. The people playing the louder/heavier music are also focusing heavily on songcraft and melody instead of just rocking out. Look at Grand Vapids and Mothers. Both darker-leaning sounds, but with layers of texture and a focus on dynamics … No one is doing what Manray was doing a few years ago, and I think it’s an interesting time of transition. Everything has pop leanings now while maintaining a rock edge.”
Still, why now? Why after so many years of being relegated to the sidelines are louder, more complex artists finally getting their due in Athens? The Powder Room guitarist and frontman Gene Woolfolk believes he has the answer.
“Athens noise rock is getting attention now because bands like Vincas, Motherfucker, and ourselves are going out of town and playing shows,” Woolfolk says. “The Internet is largely responsible for this attention. Noise rock has always been here. It’s never been a long time coming for it’s attention. Nor has it ever surged. It just exists and now folks are paying attention to what our community is offering right now.”
Before you jump all over me and accuse me of declaring Athens music superior to Atlanta or some stupid shit, let me assure you that’s not the case. Although we share some traits and considerable territory, these are two significantly different ecosystems responding to a separate set of internal conditions and external pressures. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was damn impressed by what Athens accomplished this year. Sure, it may have lacked the diversity that Atlanta brought to the table this year, but so much of what broke in 2015 was smart, challenging, and intricate while also maintaining a uniformity of vision and purpose that only Athens could inspire. There’s a real deep beauty in that.
But fret not, Atlanta peeps. Because you know what?
Despite major challenges, local music continues to flourish
Let’s not kid ourselves. Gentrification, development, pauperization — they aren’t going to go away. But the more landmarks that get torn down to make way for sterile, culture-crushing parking lots, the easier it will become to accept this as the norm, to write it all off as part of the dynamic that growth creates. We can’t continue to pull the affordability and cultural footprint out neighborhoods and expect them to retain the vibrancy that attracted new development in the first place. It’s a losing cycle.
Six months after the release of the music issue, we asked Chad Radford to comment on the ongoing threat and effects of development. Unfortunately, not much has changed.
“Of course ‘development’ is still a problem,” Radford says. “It’s a bigger problem now that people have accepted and pandered to it. Just this week I edited a story about how Quad and Spring4th have to move south of I-20 because the building they’ve occupied for a decade is being razed. No one seems to be upset about it — even in the EDM and hip-hop world it served. In New York, anyone with a soul was forced out of Manhattan because the cost of living there is so prohibitive. In the Bay Area the cost of living in San Francisco forced the creative class out into Oakland and beyond. The same thing is happening here. Creative types move to the West End, College Park, and Lakewood Heights. Of course this gives way to an entirely new cycle of cultural colonialism, which drives me crazy to even think about. It doesn’t need to be this way. The Beltline is a cool thing, although it would have been an even better train line, not just a playground for the leisure class.”
In a city obsessed with rebirth we need to accept that development is inevitable. But urban renewal doesn’t always have to mean luxury condos and mixed-use developments. For every Smith’s Olde Bar and Masquerade casting a cloud of fear and dismay, there’s an Aisle 5 or Terminal West or even Venkman’s settling into the fabric of their surrounding neighborhood and having a meaningful impact on the local scene. These venues are introducing new methods and ideologies which are helping to shift the paradigm that has kept some segments of the scene from evolving. But it’s not nearly enough.
“A great example of innovation within the venue and concert scene is Terminal West,” says MC and producer Emman Twe, a.k.a. Small Eyez. The co-founder of the tech-based podcast Digital Good Times keeps a watchful eye on the local scene and so far he’s been impressed with what the club has accomplished. “They consistently bring diverse talent from across genres that bring the music scene communities together. 529 and the Basement are other examples that do pretty good jobs with variety as well. But we need way more venues.”
More venues means greater access to much-needed exposure for unestablished artists or those lurking on the fringes of the scene. With developments leading to rising property costs, increased rents will naturally force clubs to make difficult decisions and take less risks in order to maintain their bottom lines. This means increasingly less opportunities for local bands, which means less voices participating in the scene. It’s a no-win situation for everyone involved.
“The Atlanta music scene is in for some challenges this year,” says Von Phoenix. “Some venues are closing up shop, and the others are going through changes in management to fit the changing music scene. Venues can’t afford to take chances on smaller acts, and not every band has the resources to host their own shows somewhere else. We have a lot of really talented bands [and] artists in the Atlanta scene, but its difficult to move up the industry ladder without help or guidance. Unfortunately today’s industry focuses more on duplication than development.”
Historically, the house show scene and DIY venues like WonderRoot have served as both training grounds for artists just getting their start and the backbone for an underground scene that is either unwilling or unable to participate in traditional club culture. And as previously discussed, these spaces have taken on increased importance and gained wider popularity while some longtime, name brand venues have found themselves staring at an uncertain future. But with Atlanta trapped in a cycle of renewal without thought for culture or history, how long before some or many of the house show venues meet the same fate as the Yellow House and are swallowed up by ‘progress’ and new development? And what will happen with WonderRoot’s music venue when the nonprofit makes its much-anticipated move into the Center for Arts and Social Change? We can hope and wish all we want that things improve or at least remain the same, but Atlanta is changing rapidly and so much of what makes the music scene vibrant feels like it’s in transition or on shaky ground.
This includes, of course, musicians and artists themselves. While many have been migrating to more affordable corners of the city, that solution is merely temporary. With an influx of new people and a more affluent tax base, neighborhood taxes will inevitably rise and the cost of living will increase. Rather than focusing on their craft, aspiring artists will have to spend more time working just to cover their expenses. It’s an old gripe, but one that’s intensified considerably over the past few years.
“It’s becoming painfully obvious that gentrification is happening in Atlanta faster than it’s happened in a long time,” says Steve LaBate, co-founder of the Atlanta-based music publicity and media service agency Baby Robot Media. “People are having a hard time finding a place to practice or an affordable place to live. 10-15 years ago people could find places in Atlanta where you could probably work 2-3 days a week and pay your rent. Then you could spend the rest of your time writing music, practicing, touring, and playing shows. It gets harder when you have to work more and more hours just to cover your rent.”
It’s simple math. Higher rents equals more time working and less time doing all the necessary things its takes for a band or artist to be successful. That means less time spent writing. Less time spent practicing. Less time experimenting and exploring the curiosity that leads to innovation and creative breakthroughs. And perhaps most importantly for artists seeking to make the jump to the next level, it means less time spent on the road building connections and expanding your fan base.
“You can’t break in a meaningful way if your band is not on tour regularly,” LaBate argues. “It happens, but it’s the exception and not the rule.”
I write this not as some melodramatic plea for the “poor, starving artist.” I understand there are people all over the city who work hard and struggle every day just to get by. My point isn’t to set the artist class above the working class or to argue for their preferential treatment. I’m merely pointing out the reality of what is happening right now and how it will affect how music is made, produced, and supported in this city. But far more important than the “how” is the “who” because the longer these conditions are continue, the more they will exacerbate what has always been the uncomfortable reality of the music business, which is, well … it’s really fucking expensive. While the barriers of entry have been largely stripped down due to greater accessibility to the means of recording and online streaming services like SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and Spotify, the barriers to success remain very much intact.
“That’s really an unfortunate dirty secret,” LaBate admits. “People who can afford to assemble the kind of team around them to break an artist are people who come from money. That’s not to say you can’t work hard and play in an amazing band and break through, but it’s rare. Everyone always downplays it because nobody wants people to know they’re coming from money and that’s how they can afford to hire radio promotion, publicity, [and] pay a retainer for a booking agent and manager until they can afford to work on a percentage. All of this is massively expensive. Bands don’t break out of nowhere, usually. There’s stuff that’s viral and stuff that catches on, but mostly it’s a huge budget and a promotional team pushing forward on all fronts.”
But what a minute, you’re saying. This is some depressing shit right here. I thought you said the local scene is flourishing. What gives?
I’m going to go ahead and say that 2015 was an exceptional year for local music, partially because it was so unpredictable and there seemed to be so many new and pleasant surprises lurking around every corner. Outside of hip-hop, there were few national releases this year, which meant less noise for emerging artists to compete against. In fact, I can’t remember a time when so many new voices emerged at once and made such an impact on the scene (here’s a handy list if you’re looking for the best of what’s next). This didn’t just manifest itself in the way of new bands and music, but also in the form of an emerging crop of new promoters, labels, and artist collectives looking to engage with the community and have their say on how the local music community conducts business. The result was more enthusiasm and a greater show of support than I’ve seen in quite some time.
But don’t just take it from me.
“There’s so much new blood in the scene in terms of musicians, supporters, and promoters,” says Lauryn Christy. “There’s at least half a dozen great shows happening on any given night. On a larger scale, we’ve noticed fewer big tours passing us over in 2015. We’ve seen a lot of great local releases this year, and we’ve recognized a larger audience coming out for all local lineups.”
Whether or not this growth and fervor for local music happened across the board for all genres is impossible for me to say. Certainly the metal scene continued it’s run of strong support and hardcore punk more than maintained the upward trajectory it’s been traveling on for the past couple of years. That’s why I was particularly happy to read Josh Feigert’s enthusiastic assessment of the Atlanta punk scene in Creative Loafing this week. Beyond being a member of two of Atlanta’s finest punk outfits in Wymyns Prysyn and Uniform, Feigert also runs local DIY label State Laughter. You can take his opinion with a grain of salt if you’d like, but I believe that if he’s this excited about the state of the local punk scene, something magical is definitely happening.
Here’s Feigert’s quote in full:
“Punk is at its most interesting point in Atlanta since … well, maybe ever. I mean no disrespect towards any of our predecessors, but this is now. Atlanta’s punk scene is a keen amalgamation of folks from all over the country that have moved here. I feel like one of the few natives, but I’m OK with that, nodding back to a place without boundaries. We’ve toured extensively over the last few years, especially the Midwest, and it’s paid off: people are coming here to play. They see that there are, beyond great bands, great people here, and I want to thank everyone that has helped pave the way. I hope you all take what you do seriously and continue to build things up for ourselves.”
Again, if you can’t find something to celebrate in that, there’s not a whole lot more that I can say. Maybe punk or hip-hop isn’t your thing, and that’s okay. Just understand that these trends don’t happen in a vacuum. They happen because groups of passionate people see the potential in something and collectively make the decision that they want to be part of its growth and development. Do we need greater overlap, collaboration, and cooperation between varying sub-scenes? Absolutely. But that doesn’t alter the fact that when one part of the scene is elevated and draws positive attention to Atlanta, it can have a favorable effect on the rest. The more we think in niches and box ourselves into corners, the less we’re able to see the big picture and work towards the common good.
For a long time it’s felt like too many local music supporters were waiting on another resurgence, another wave of bands to break through in the same manner that Mastodon, Deerhunter, the Black Lips, and Manchester Orchestra exploded onto the national radar in the mid-to-late aughts. At the same time, many people continue to feel threatened or marginalized by the preponderance of rap and hip-hop in the city. But losing oneself to the mists of a scene that no longer exists is no more productive than banging your head against the one that’s currently here. For all the nostalgia drones, drama shit-stirrers, and naysayers, it’s time to contribute or get the fuck out of the way. This our ecosystem, subject to the fickleness of nature and the unfaltering arch of life. Simply put: some elements die, others struggle to live, while still others prosper and thrive. Which one do you want to be?