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The Suburbs - Musical Friend Or Foe?
By Mick Polich - 01/01/2008 - 09:24 AM EST

I live in the suburbs, and I will say it's an upscale neighborhood to a degree, if you judge on ascetics, dollars, and materialism. We’ve been here not quite a year – so far, good folks around us, so you gotta like that in any respect. I am still finding my way to it’s cultural soul, though - don’t wanna judge too quickly, but there are glimpses of some defining characteristics. So, this column is going to look at the ‘burbs, and if it’s defining culture helps or hurts musicians who want to play and create good music (and… what the turkey neck is ‘good music’, anyhoo?).

First off, I’ll let every one in on a little ‘secret’: as I grow older, I don’t wish to be marginalized as an artist, or a person. Self-centered, hmm, perhaps, or maybe it is the fear of an evaporating youth – could be a mix. I think millions of people who are moms, dads, single, married, kid-full or kid-less, probably think about this. The shout is,” Hey, hey, lookie what I DID!! “ - rightfully so, devotees! Art and music shouldn’t be judged solely by what the ‘big dudes’, our’heroes’ on t.v., and the ‘Net do – if that’s a margin of quality, well, I’ll pass, thank you. People all over the mudhutch are putting it out daily, and I wish I was more in the position with my time now as I was 20 years ago (pre-mortgage, marriage, kid, dogs – hey, I’m NOT wishing to go back there, just would like some time at certain points to work on the ol’ craft), to be able to check out all the cool stuff that people come up with everyday. You know, art happens in spite of it all – people make it happen, and usually to deaf ears and dumb eyes.  Believe me, it’s the same old saw wherever you go, but my own personal belief is that on-going urban sprawl does not help matters when it comes to growing a healthy arts community. Some will argue, and some will have good examples of places that defy said examples, and some will not care – as per any point in human history.

I grew up in the suburbs, with a brief period of growing up on my uncle and aunt’s farm north of Des Moines, Ia., and my dad’s “gentlemen’s farm” south of Ankeny, Ia. A lot of people say suburban growth was different back then – I don’t think the mentality was different – heck, suburbs have been around in some form for hundreds of years (seriously, think about it!). The need to ‘move to the country’: then, everybody buys 40 acres and a mule, and heads west, so to speak – it’s the American dream not every one can afford, but still try to make a go at it. I find studying societal patterns interesting because cultures change, and really, somewhere in the world there is a society for every one. So, as new cultures spring up, more developers are buying more land to build new stuff, but the trend here in the U.S., over the past 20 years, has been to put blocks of the SAME STUFF ALL OVER THE DAMN PLACE IN DIFFERENT CITIES!!!! I really don’t find comfort, joy, and safety to see the same Barnes and Noble/Old Navy/ Bed, Bath, and Beyond block o’ shops in Peoria as I do in Fort Worth (and I SHOP those places!). But, it boils down to money and the transient nature of companies to move folks around the nation, or globe (and brother, I do know about that bid’ness!). You could even extend that theory to ‘megachurches’ which seem to be in abundance around these parts, but again, another column for another day……

So, why worry about it? Well, two schools of thought that start with suburban schools: one, if there’s enough money in the school district, and the educational standards are there, the kids learn music, start with concerts and plays in elementary school, and it’s all nice and acceptable and we get good grades, why worry? Two, if the music program wasn’t there, would it matter? Pump the money into athletics and developmental programs at an early age, such as football?

I feel for school band directors at this point –they have a tough gig. Teaching kids about music, trying to run a top-notch program, looking at a mostly unforgiving budget. Yeah, why does it matter ‘round these parts anyway if you’ve got a music program?

Does music matter at a local restaurant, bar, or coffeehouse? After a long, hard day, usually folks will want food, some drinks, and a short chance to relax. Maybe there’s some guy or gal in the corner of said favorite place with an acoustic guitar and a small p.a., playing their hearts out for a smattering of applause and a few tips. Think those musicians feel marginalized? I would say yes – also, if you’re out with your family to eat, your mind is concentrating on either running after your 5 year old, or making sure there’s peace at the dinner table with the rest of your clan. How can ya concentrate and enjoy the music? It’s a quandary, for both parties –musician and customer.

Well, I think I just answered my own question on why it’s frustrating to be a musician in the suburbs!

Because even if you’re on the dance floor, sitting at the bar, or in a booth waiting for food and drinks, ENERGY is required for checking out local musicians and music. I know –I’ve got an 8-year old, and between him, my wife, dogs, and house, some days the last thing you want to to do is play or listen to music – it requires some PROCESSIN”!!! Rare are those days, as I make it my discipline to work on my craft and business every day.

So, that focus of time and energy could be a problem. Instead of the statement, ”Dude, Zig’s band is playing tonight at the I-Oyr, let’s party up and check ‘em out!” the mostly likely statement would be,” Honey, can we go to Planet Burrito, then come straight home with the kids? “ It is was it is, and I think for suburban parents, that’s mostly what it is, peoples!

So, given that time, energy, interest, and focus are some keys to what kind of music and culture can function in the suburbs – what can we find out about the acceptance of certain music styles? Well, yep, we’ve got the school music programs, cool, and yep, we’ve got the strip mall bars with mostly ‘classic rock’ bands or sensitive acoustic singer/ guitar players doing everything from George Jones to Dave Matthews, o.k. – now, let me get you in on my theory of having a college campus nearby to your suburb, and how that helps with cultural awareness…

Having a college nearby brings many things to an area –some good, some not so good.

The good stuff is culture – tons of it depending the school. Back in Des Moines, at one point we lived at various locations near Drake University – the art center was near, too – but lots of developing artist lofts, bars with cool live music, a theatre that showed indie films, stuff that can get yer blood pumping (at least mine). We had the same set-up in Columbus, Ohio, during our stay there – small, private college in Westerville, where we lived, and Ohio State (which surprisingly, isn’t all about Buckeye football, although it sure seems that way…). We lost that in Alpharetta, GA. – north suburbs of Atlanta. You knew you were starving for something when you welcomed with open arms the Borders store when it moved in. Colleges and college life bring a freshness – people young and old are going to an institution to learn new stuff, which is usually an inspiring kick-in-the-pants to get it gear to at least pick up a book and READ (God forbid we put down the Blackberry to do THAT!).

It’s convenient to be ‘spoon-fed ‘ what’s suppose to be good in music today because, at this point in history, it’s EASY and CHEAP!!

What about the artist that breaks thru that actually has a pretty good, hooky pop song that could actually make us think about something other than Maslow’s first law of needs (which, today, is sex, youth, money, power, violence-same as it ever was, David Byrne!!)? Sure, all the other stuff is fun, but what about music that educates and inspires, gets to our deeper emotions, makes us think?

All together now: SHUT UP, YOU OLD FART!!!

Ha, ha, kids, but I write the COLUMN, so I got the control!!

Leave if you want to – I’ll just keep talking….

Time, energy, money – where you want to put all these to get some pleasure, joy, or deep meaning out of whatever artists are in your area; I do believe that’s a big key to how the arts and music can make it in the ‘burbs. And still, artists, writers, and music folk are looked upon as the sideshow, the attraction that garners comments better suited for the circus or a lecture on disease control. Again, I think it’s the lack of interest to go beyond anything besides the music of the generation – boomers, X,Y, Z, and the subdivisions thereof!!

People are just too damn busy, you could say. Or…. that they don’t care about supporting anything other than what their kids are involved with (school band, church band) – understandable on both fronts (been there, AM there…). I think ‘different from the norm’ is a key phrase.

My son had a buddy over from class this past Thanksgiving break. While we were all eating a lunch that I had prepared, Andrew’s little bud asks me, “ So, why don’t you work?” Well, I said, Andrew’s mommy works and she has the main job that supports all of us. Andrew’s buddy looked a little puzzled: “ I thought dads worked and moms stayed home. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, isn’t it?” A lot can be gathered from that innocent comment: one, the ‘way it’s suppose to be’ is pretty much the norm for high-level executive types who have transient positions with companies – dad is a company higher-up, mom and the kids come along to make a home and fit into the community. So, the community (usually a suburb) fits around them, too – Mom helps at school and church programs, usually during the day, or at night when Dad’s out of town on business, and helps the kids with their homework and activity planning. Usually, unless it’s a town that accepts ‘alternative family lifestyles’, this is the way things are set up – it’s majority rules. Along with this ‘set-up’ is a mindset, and probably anybody who studies lifestyles and sociology in high school or college (or fun, on their own, like me sef’) knows where these observations can lead. There are guidelines, rules, social norms, and regulations, like anywhere else. I ain’t cuttin’ on it –Lord knows we need some rules some days – but when it comes to the arts, creativity, and music, I have found it’s a pretty narrow path. ‘Populist’ is an operative word……

So, what’s a mother to do? Move? Change the collective mindset? Get to some place that accepts what yer sellin’ artistically, OR…. stay and fight the good fight, and see what shakes out?

Me – I have no other choice (well, I do, but it wouldn’t be a good one, trust me!): I’m here at this point in time because we’re suppose to be, for various reasons – fate, in the cards, and God’s will. So, I plan to see what shakes out here as I make my way thru the urban landscape again. When you hoist the flag up and say,” Hey boys and girls, look at ME!!”, you have something to present to the world in an artistic sense. And when you present musically or artistically something that’s tweaked a bit beyond the norm, then you get paid in various forms: admiration, indifference, intolerance, disgust, acceptance, or rejection (probably a few more – talk amongst yourselves and add your own….). Hey, just like in any other form of society, you too can experience REJECTION!!!! YAY!!

But it’s the stuff like rejection that builds a formable shell for the artist. A musician buddy, composer extraordinaire David Burke from Hot ‘Lanta, brought up a good point regarding the ‘audience gauge’ on your music: Dave said that if a GROUP of people have the same reaction to your music (like rejection, or non-acceptance), you should probably listen to them. Like, how AWARE is you own self-propelled “B.S.” meter when it comes to your own stuff?  Now, your whole town could neo-conservative, which would paint the bias a wee bit dark for you if yer churnin’ death metal epics, so, by the law of averages, you would have to expand your community to get a fair gauge on who likes your stuff and who doesn’t. Here’s a Codger Music Moment: when Peter Frampton followed up his mind-blowing “Frampton Comes Alive” with “I’m In You” (not to mention an ill-gauged appearance in the “Sgt. Pepper” movie….) back in the 70’s, well, you could smell the dead carp on the waterfront worldwide (and Mr. Frampton knew it a few years later). It’s the ol’ “What The Hell Were You Thinking?” moment, for sure…..

A summary for this article would be about choices – choices for the musician to make regarding if he/ she can present their music to the general public, and choices given to the public to pick what they want to have hangin’ around the ‘burbs for tunes. A small percentage of people will pick up on somewhat ‘intelligent’ fields of music in pop, rock, jazz, blues, country, or classical, while the majority ‘shop’, or wait for some prophet to tell them over the airwaves what’s ‘good’ (or what’s ‘hip’ so that they can look good for their neighbors…). What it boils down to is work by a small group of enthusiasts to bring the word out to the street –and it’s more critical now than ever. I have found that working the street team logs for Lost Highway, I see people anywhere from their teens up into their 60’s, spreading the gospel for these artists that have taken the road less traveled. I receive e-mails, You Tube videos, and blogs every day from my students, ex-band mates, and music industry folk – amazin’ times we live in!. And with technology, sometimes you gotta grab it and wrestle it to the ground to see what you can wrangle with to work for you – yes folks, it is here for US!!!

The fight for cultural awareness can extend anywhere, really – the inner city, the retirement villa, the oppressive, myopically visioned country (pick anywhere, Earth).

Really, no need to bitch about not having the resources here in the U.S. – it’s pretty cushy, kids, comparatively…..

It’s hard to create and maintain your own musical universe, but I try everyday. And given the current climate, the technology and the ever-changing music business allows people from Rapid City to Racine, from Madrid to Bangkok to create and distribute their own music. You can expand from your confines to let people hear your stuff. Still, we worship and tear down our idols – somebody will want to be a star, so “American Idol” will continue to thrive and a be a gold standard, while the underground uses it resources to bust a move and make some people heard by the electronic grass roots.

Don’t give up fighting the good fight for bringing music, culture, and arts to the masses, people!

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