Sunday, May 6, 2012

Local Music Scene? (Part I) - There Are Two Scenes and You're Part of Neither

by Andy Poncherello

There are two distinct music scenes in the Berkshires.  One is comprised of cover bands and the other is comprised of bands playing original music.  One of these two factions has a thriving scene filled with supportive fans and supportive musicians while the other scene thinks they are doing everything right.  Sadly, they doing everything completely wrong and guess what?  The cover band scene is the thriving scene if this is any indication as to where this article is headed.  Oddly enough, the cover band scene has a large population of cheerleaders who are mistaken for true promoters and would lead you to believe that these performers are the next best thing to sliced bread.  This subject in particular will hopefully be the subject of a future article as it's a very interesting subject on it's own.

The original music scene that encompasses a selection of bands playing a wide variety of musical styles revolves around basically two clubs in Pittsfield who agree to book them.  Out of the two clubs, one is a restaurant during the day and the other is solely a club.  The club has two rooms, two sound systems, large dance floor, security/door people, a competent sound engineer and a ramp to load in and out, which is very convenient.  The restaurant has a marginal PA, a nice sized stage, small dance floor, stairs to climb and no one to run sound, security or collect the door.  Regardless of either venues' shortcomings, there are positives with each situation.  With the exception of these two outlets for original live music, the rest of the Pittsfield city limits and beyond is reserved for your run-of-the-mill cookie-cutter cover bands.

(There is a third venue that somehow skirted numerous permitting regulations with the City of Pittsfield.  The lobby of the Colonial Theater known as the Garage is where they manage to tout the brilliance of bands no one has ever heard of except for the most music listener.  The focus of this is about rock bands, not jazz fusion.  Because jazz fusion bands have a strong support system with fans, friends and other band members, they would fall into the cover band category based on support alone, not based on what they're actually playing.  Again, for the sake of argument, the jazz fusion crowd will be assigned to the cover band category.)

Out of the scenes previously mentioned, the cover band scene appeals to an older audience and the original bands generally appeal to a younger audience.  There will of course be exceptions, but that's not the point, the point is to actually finish this and make some sort of coherent observations.

Bands Support Other Bands in the Pittsfield/Berkshire County Music Scene

This statement is 100% true in the world of cover bands but barely 25% true in the world of bands playing original music.  How can this be?  Simple actually.  Fans of cover bands are generally older, have kids, a regular job and basically need to blow off steam when given the chance.  This chance seems to occur 52 weekends a year, yet, without making excuses, these fans support the bands who are also their friends or friends of friends.  They actually repost show announcements, bug their indecisive friends to come out instead of staying in and will do whatever it takes to make wherever they are, seem like the place to be.  Surprisingly, there is very little ego to be had (and really, when you're playing someone else's music and getting paid for it, how can you have an ego?   It is possible I suppose).

When dealing with bands playing original music however, none of the above is true.  Unlike the cover bands, some original bands won't even promote their own shows!  Band members won't even tell their friends, co-workers and family that they have a show!  Its almost as if there's an embarrassment factor.  Well, if you're embarrassed about being in a band, QUIT!  The few fans they may have had at any one given time probably don't even know there's a show to begin with.  It may be a hard concept to fathom, but show announcements aren't being shared telepathically just yet.  Now, if people who might go to the show know about it, there are more excuses being thrown around as to why they can't go instead of supporting their friends.  Even other bands who play essentially the same style of music being performed at the show, stay away from the show like the show has the plague.  Bands seem to have an ego or an attitude that they're beyond the level of supporting their friends or other bands locally especially if they've seen the band once or twice.   In the defense of the folks who don't attend for whatever reason, the crowd that gravitates to the exciting world of cover bands like flies to feces are older and have a less hectic schedule.  They're not dealing with exams, homework, weird shifts at work, video games, Facebooking, crying on Tumblr, posting to Pinterest, partying, smoking dope or hanging out at the mall.   These distractions will continue to kill live original music to the point that neither of the two remaining venues for it in Pittsfield will opt to book something else.   

If you can stomach going to see a cover band even for just a few songs, take a look around the room and if their band isn't playing that night, you'll see quite a few audience members who are in other bands at the show.  This is something you rarely find at shows where bands are playing original material here in region and this is extremely frustrating. 

Take for example a recent show in Pittsfield with the band Shanren from China.  Shanren will normally play to 15,000 in extremely large venues throughout the world and it was a coup that they somehow ended up in Pittsfield on their first-ever North American tour.  The band understood they would be playing smaller venues to smaller audiences because they are virtually unknown here.  Shanren has successfully combined the traditional sounds of what you'd expect a band from the mountains of China to sound like with rock n' roll, metal, hip hop and reggae to create a very unique and incredible sound that really will appeal to anyone who hears them.  At times they remind me of John Zorn's Naked City of all things and at other times they sound very familiar but different.  Also sharing the bill with Shanren was three great bands.   Locals Noumenon and SufferDie were representing the hometown scene and the band Wringer was added to the bill as they were on tour from Indiana.  The Berkshire Eagle did a fantastic job of plastering Shanren on the 413 section (above the fold, for those of you keeping score) as well as getting picked up on a few other outlets including Paul Rapp's Nippertown site.  Yet with all of that promotion and buzz, the show drew a paltry, very typical amount of people.  Don't get me wrong,  everyone attending enjoyed it, the other bands enjoyed, the club enjoyed it but it was a shame that more people couldn't drive a few miles to see a band who traveled thousands of miles (or hundreds in Wringer's case) to play here in Pittsfield.

To be continued!!!!!

1 comment:

  1. Great post! otoh, I have to say that I think that although age has something to do with it, I think it's more about how original bands are left twisting in the wind by the Berkshires scene, whatever their age is (or the age of their fans). Too few venues around here are run by people who book bands just because they like the music (which is the way good unknown bands become good well-known bands). If no one will book you unless you can guarantee you'll draw over 40 people, then no one will ever hear of you except your friends and whatever small word of mouth you can generate from that.

    Praise be to Cthulu that there are a few promoters like Rebel Sound and clubs like Chameleons who are the exception to the rule, but until more venues realize that the way to build a reputation as a home for great music is to book original bands (and pay them!) based on how good they are, not on how many of their friends they'll drag to your bar, the Berkshires music scene will continue to be represented in the public mind mostly by bands that sound exactly like every cover band anywhere in the country.