Scene not herd, new music and the move to local

The Magic Gang 2
The Magic Gang take a ride on Sulky Boy’s shoulders, Dan Kendall

‘My story begins, like everything else, on the beach’

Wright Morris, writing in 1977, probably didn’t have the state of England’s music scene in mind when he penned those lines but, like all minor truths, his words have a wide application. Falmouth and Brighton, two beach towns from which the new face of English music comes creeping.  Cultish circles of mates which seep out and smother the new music columns under the weight of their freak talent. Pebble-dashed coastal-communitys, washed clean of holiday-home vistas, seen instead through the eyes of 20-something year olds wielding guitars, computers and the rest of the paraphenalia you need to make it big from your bedroom in 2015.

The Magic Gang are the offspring of social media. Having lassoed a bit of early hype with their barely-released first track Bruises , they stumbled into being a ‘proper’ band. Before this they were a group of mates who posted occasional solo-tracks on a communal soundcloud called Echochamp. Now, with The Magic Gang clocking 10k play counts in a week, the account has been reborn as a ‘Brighton based collective’ with a teal banner and four new songs by Paeris, Gus, Sulky Boy and the Abbatoir Blues guitarist George Boorman. While it might not seem like much of ‘giant step for mankind’, Echochamp is indicative of the new ways in which bands are marketing themselves and moving the weight of British music, and guitar music particularly, towards the peripheraries of the scene.

Part of the reason for the second coming of ‘collective’, or more simply local, scenes, is the loss of credibility indie labels have suffered in recent years. Signing to a label used to be a pop the cork and cry a little moment. Today it seems the start of a long career of commerical soundtracks and brief cameos on Made In Chelsea. Creating a local ‘scene’ provides a way of gaining some of the more ephemeral benefits of a label (A platform, group approval etc) without having to move away from the comforts and culture of your particular, regional music scene. In England particularly this means not moving towards London. To understand what this move from central to local means one can compare the ‘B-town’ moment to the current ‘Falmouth scene’.

When Peace and Swim Deep blew up, and Jaws came through in their wake, there was a move – which came from blogs as much as it did from A&R – to foster the idea of a ‘B-town scene’. When Peace slunk off to London it became clear that what had been marketed as a regional movement had become little more than a convenient shorthand for ‘cool’.  ‘The Falmouth Scene’ on the other hand (the loose collective of bands that includes The Black Tambourines, Holiday Ghosts, The Red Cords and others) has suceeded because it draws from shared institutions, both cultural and physical. When magazines talk of ‘The Falmouth Scene’ (or ‘Kernow Wave’), as NME did in a double spread last October, they’re doing more than providing a channel up which every one of that cities 100’s of small bands will try to swim. They’re describing – not hallucinating – a community of bands, designers, venues and promoters which have made Falmouth a success.

The Black Tambourines
‘Kernow Wave’ – The Black Tambourines at the Wax Music Birthday Bash, 2014

The success of the ‘local scene’ is also tied to the decentralisation of music journalism. The rapidly decreasing circulation of NME, the digitalisation of Clash and others, and the proliferation of new media models such as So Young magaizine, has created a ‘tastemaker’ vaccuum at the heart of British music. The old self-fulfilling prophets are collapsing and are being replaced by smaller, more flexible, outlets. DIY magazine has become the most succesful of these new ‘authorities’ by putting its machinery into the hands of the bands it profiles. Its use of social media, particularly Instagram, has turned it from a pedestal into something almost resembling a community, and has succeeded in making bands think of themselves, and present themselves, as more than the sum of a handful of singles and a decent publicity shot. Although its trajectory has been shockingly steep in the last few years its still far from weilding the sort of influence NME once did. Bands can no longer look toward one ‘kingmaker’ outlet, instead they’re being forced – by the proliferation of smaller media channels – to create their own momentum.

There’s a tension here between the ‘loss’ of these ‘kingmaker’ media outlets – a trend which is tied so closesly to the proliferation of local scenes – and the attention the local scenes have recieved from these publications. Indeed, many of these outlets  are actively exploiting the momentum of local scenes as a life-saver on which to float free of their old, bloated formats. NME particularly has run extensive features on the emergence of local senes and has remodelled its ‘new music’ sections to represent the current, bottom-heavy shape of British music. Indeed, Paeris Giles, of Echochamp decided to brand the ‘collective’ on the back of how they were being written up by NME: I think that while it was already evident there was an alliance between all the different projects, when people like NME clubbed that together as being Echochamp, I thought it was the right time to create an aesthetic / ethos which people would hopefully buy into and generally want to support.’

The question of whether NME is giving momentum to local scenes, or vice versa, is still at a tipping point. What seems clear, however, is that it is the local scenes which are accelerating fastest.

One distinctive feature of the new ‘local’ movement has been the drift from thinking of ‘local’ as a purely geograpical distinction towards a more flexible definition. While B-town was a geographical movement – to be dubbed part of the movement you only had to be a) in a band and b) from Birminhgam – The Falmouth Scene is, first and foremost, a group of mates. As is Echochamp. Self sufficiency, for Paeris, is crucial, giving themthe scope within the group to make pretty diverse releases and even to make new projects if we feel that way inclined’. In this sense, Paeris sees the coverage NME has given of the ‘local’ movement as stilted. ‘I still think that NME’s focus on local scenes is misplaced. Because the NME still appeals to a younger demographic, whenever these scenes are mentioned the general focus is on someone huge.’ – It’s this attitude which has seen bands like Royal Blood crowned as the kings of the Brighton Scene when, on the ground level, much of the motion is coming from self-contained units like Echochamp which take their identity from amongst themseves, not from the city or town in which they happen to find themselves.

The Black Tambourines‘ Sam Stacpoole feels the same about the scene which, increasingly, his band are seen as the head of: ‘We definitely do feed off each other. We practice in the same room and produce each others records so its hard not to. For instance in the Golden Dregs, Ben brought in members from almost all of those bands [The Black Tambourines, The Red Cords, Lost Dawn, Gorgeous Bully, The Isabelles, The Spankees, Goddam Nobody] to use on different tracks… In terms of geography , Falmouth is such a small place I don’t think it matters where you are. If there’s a gig on chances are there isn’t another gig on so everyone goes. We’re all just really good friends.’ Scenes, as the So Young boys point out, are based around people’, not cities or counties. When NME try to tie together these disparate projects on the basis of their geographical proximity, they are missing the point of the new ‘local’ movement almost entirely.

The biggest hurdle these DIY scenes are now facing is the question of how to sell something that takes its credibility from its percieved rejection of the commercial mindset of the current music industry. Part of the solution to this – or at least the best indication that the DIY scene is at a turning point – is the proliferation of physical media, the success of local venues and the new importance of graphic design. So Young manages to balance the ethos of DIY with the neccesity of having some sort of turnover by selling limited run, screen printed t-shirts alongside the free magazine. ‘DIY’ puts on showcase events and has partnered with established brands such as Latitude in a curatory role, while bands like The Black Tambourines have built up a community through a series of shared institutions (including the near-cult Art is Hard records) to build a market for their records and shirts.

so young
So Young’s Issue Six bundle and shirt.

Sam and Josh, of So Young, a young brand built off the creation of a specific physical community, understand the new model particularly well. The magazine,’ they expalin, ‘survives solely from the community we have created. Friends purchase T Shirts, then another, then another. This has now filtered into our readers buying T Shirts too and it really means a lot to us… Supplementing that we also have some advertising space which we have fortunately been able to grant to venues, apps, promoters and labels that we really believe in… There is only a certain level of independent you can be before just being broke and extinct. But we need everyone else in order to survive. There’s no company or big money  behind us, it’s just a few people who wanted to make it happen, a lot of friends and a lot of T Shirts. This model, of putting out free content while recouperating costs through physical sales (whilst not rejecting external capital where it appears) is one that is typical of many small bands and represents a confluence with how new bands and the publications that cover them are covering costs. Remaining flexible enough to put out their music in a way, and on a timescale, that suits them.

‘There is only a certain level of independent you can be before just being broke and extinct…’ – So Young

While The Black Tambourines and ‘the Falmouth scene’ are a tight unit, what has been most important for them in the last year has been the development (using existing and new institutions) of a local scene around them.  Wax Music, venues such as Beerwolf and artists like Fruschian Void make what would otherwise be a useful bit of journalistic shorthand (F-town, say) into something that feels like, and is becoming, a specifically local scene. The appearance of ‘Mono‘ – a dedicated venue space in Falmouth – the opening weekend of which features The Black Tambourines, The Red Cords and Lost Dawn – is perhaps the last step in this ladder. ‘I think that Mono is gonna be great’, says Stacpoole, ‘It’s gonna be nice to put on a gig in Falmouth and not have to bring our own PA system and sort absolutely everything out. Plus hopefully it will add Falmouth as a leg on most touring bands map. Thats always been a real problem, you have to travel 4 hours to see most touring bands. It should be awesome.’ If there’s anything that diagnoses the Falmouth scene as healthy its this. The fact that a bussiness has put hard cash into bricks and mortar on the back of a couple of mates and the scene they’ve spawned.

While the move to ‘local’ is percieved to be a move away from the ‘overbranding’ and ‘monetisation’ of emerging talent, it doesn’t have to represent a complete rejection of hard, cold, commercial principles. Paeris, of  Echochamp, argues that the opposite is true. ‘There is a lot of significance in the way things are layed out and promoted, I think the main difference with Echochamp is actually that there is a clear aesthetic behind it, there is almost a brand behind it. I don’t consider that to be a negative thing what so ever. It just acts as a common denominator.’ Indeed, what has been most distinctive about the new crop of local scenes is the focus on ‘branding’ either through informal means (Such as the shared use of paticular graphic designers / Soundcloud tags) or the more formal Echochamp ‘collective’ model. Local isn’t a shorthand for amateur nor should it strictly be understood as a rejection of commercialisation in ‘the music industry’. Instead, the move to local is a move towards the creation of particular aesthetics which – regardless of subsequent investment – maintain their core principles.

The change is an aesthetic one but it is not superficial. While most bands still have managers and PR teams, and branding (and thus selling) remains central, the overall motion in British guitar music is for the proliferation of fauna at  the lowest level of the ecosystem. The most vibrant and exciting strata in which British music operates is the local one. Small venues are hosting nights put on by local sites which feature local bands, wearing shirts designed by their mates, singing along to each other’s songs. ‘Local’ is becoming something other than a journalistic shorthand. Its the primordal ooze in which a lot of the best new bands in the country are lurking.

A scene is the things that are left behind. Birmingham was a city from which three decent bands happened to slip at once. Echochamp and The Falmouth Scene, Brighton, Falmouth and the diasporas they’ve spawned, are the net-sum of a pile of cassettes, groups of mates, live gigs, local institutions, specific branding and screen-printed shirts. The So Young boys might just put it best. ‘Everything is available online and that can be a great thing, we need the internet, but why make something like music and art even more disposable than it already is?’ The move to Local is a move away from the slow bleeding of new music, towards a foundation that remains potent whether or not NME run a two page article on its leading lights. Its a towering wave of small-scale industry that’s made us all look pretty stupid.

Rob Knaggs, @shinyshinynew

Sam Stacpoole interview, Henry Young, @henryoung

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3 thoughts on “Scene not herd, new music and the move to local

  1. ‘The Cambridge Scene’ is also really taking off. I attended a Green Party fundraiser earlier this year where a vast array of musical talent was showcased, and a real sense of community amongst the musicians was clear.

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