For THE ATLANTIC: In his speech celebrating the E Street Band‘s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April, bandleader Bruce Springsteen said something striking: “Real bands are made primarily from the neighborhood. From a real time and real place that exists for a little while, then changes and is gone forever. They’re made from the same circumstances, the same needs, the same hungers, culture.”
In 2014, Springsteen’s comment sounds like an anachronism. The Internet has been widely blamed for killing local music scenes, and there’s much discussion about how rising rent prices in cities like New York and San Francisco are driving artists away from once-thriving, creative neighborhoods.
The E Street Band formed more than 40 years ago. And for every Bruce Springsteen in the world, there are countless not-famous musicians who start or join a band and then take on the difficult task of developing and maintaining it. Does this always happen organically, within a local music scene, among friends and acquaintances? No way.
I was lucky enough, in the ‘90s, to be at the center of a thriving local scene, where bands developed music naturally and haphazardly on a handful of local stages, nurtured by peers who were also in bands. Our local independent radio station gave as much airtime to our music as it did national and global acts. We rehearsed in living rooms, basements, garages, and warehouse spaces, and when we weren’t performing, we attended one another’s shows. Newspapers, magazines, and zines wrote stories about us. We signed with small record labels or started our own. We partied, danced, and helped each other get home at the end of the night, while wearing one another’s band T-shirts. Through our shared times, we shared a common language and understanding.
But for those who continue to play music well into the 2010s and have moved to different places or live in places with no discernable music scene, that description I just gave no longer applies. For the past decade, I’ve joined half a dozen bands almost entirely through Craigslist and similar sites like Gumtree, Musolist, and others. As a result, I’ve performed and recorded lots of music with complete strangers. Some of those strangers have since become close friends and tour mates, some I’ve known only briefly, and some I’ve had arguments with and will probably never play music with or see again.
It starts out simple enough: I post an ad that says “Trumpet Player Available.” Then the responses land in my inbox. Some get to the point quickly: “Can you play like Miles Davis?” “Nobody over 30.” Others unload paragraphs of detail about their favorite albums, and share long-winded explanations of their musical ideology: “Jamming is the truest musical form.” “I’m trying to open up to more of Joni Mitchell’s later stuff.” The Craigslist musician’s section is a vast window into the aspirations, music snobbery, fellowship, and alienation of musicians who are not attached to a connected, local scene.
Through online classified ads, I’ve joined groups with as few as three people and as many as 11, and played music ranging from funky hip-hop to punk-soul, gypsy jazz, and Afrobeat. Through relationships forged online, I’ve busked, toured from Dublin to Istanbul, and opened for national acts. A long trail of EPs, CDs, YouTube videos, embeddable SoundCloud recordings, Dropbox files, band emails, and Facebook, MySpace, and ReverbNation profiles chronicles all of this.
My music scene is no longer a raw, shared vision among friends: It rests entirely on my Internet access, a willingness to put myself out there, and faith that people with absolutely no history together can make music together. It’s an online pick-up game for un-attached musicians who are willing to believe that common ground can be found among people you did not grow up with, go to college with, or share previous meaningful experiences with.
Forming a band with strangers can be a weird, awkward experience. Since you know next to nothing about a person you’ve agreed to play music with, you must learn to communicate. This involves meeting up at bars or cafes, lots of jamming and noodling on instruments, and conversations about “influences.” Whether or not you love seminal bands like the Grateful Dead or the Beatles can spawn arguments and be deal-breakers.
Musicians write songs, which is very different from building a house (the latter comes with blueprints). How can you make a song that makes everyone happy when you’ve only known one another a few hours, days, weeks, or months? It can be tedious, and the results don’t always please everyone involved. But since you don’t know everyone that well, it’s difficult to know if someone’s unhappy, or how to deal with that unhappiness.
Playing with strangers found online can also be liberating. There’s no baggage, no sensitivity to touchy subjects, no inside knowledge of past shortcomings or victories. It’s a clean slate and an opportunity to create something new, which is exhilarating. If you don’t like a melody or a drumbeat, it can sometimes be easier to tell a new acquaintance than a longtime friend. It can also be easier to simply walk away if things turn sour.
A growing arsenal of digital tools help makes up for the fact that as a group of strangers, you may not have a strong local network to tap for help. At least 12 hours of content is put onto SoundCloud every minute: Musicians can upload, edit, and share songs with more than 40 million users and many more worldwide. If spotted by the right people, one YouTube video can launch a career. The 2010s is the decade of data: clicks, shares, and web analytics can make or a break an up-and-coming band. Web-savvy musicians investigate the “psychographics” of their fans through back-end diagnostics and pursue strategic brand partnerships that can build a career with or without a local scene.
Arguably, no online music community can quite take the place of a supportive local one. A thousand “likes” is exciting but isn’t the same as hearing 100 people cheer while they dance to your music at a live show. But online communities and tools have the capacity to take music to a national and global level quickly. Working a local scene with a limited number of venues and finicky promoters can be a slow burn for an unconnected, up-and-coming band. And local media can be hard to convince: London writers were quicker to embrace the now infamous ‘90s “Madchester” sound than the hometown ones.
So Springsteen is not entirely wrong. Local scenes still exist. But you can get by just fine without them, if you need to or if you want to.