There was a time when music scenes were rooted in places. Think of Liverpool and Merseybeat, Southern California and Surf-pop, Manchester and Baggy. Even the relatively sedate Thames Valley managed to give the world Shoegaze (whether it wanted it or not).
Scenes like these were fused at the grassroots. Mates would get together, go to the same local clubs, visit the same nearby record shops, listen to the same records; all the time absorbing the music that surrounded them. From this, artists and bands would emerge with a shared sound, which was then honed on the local circuit. Long before the labels, DJs and voracious hacks descended upon it, this would be the embryonic scene.
Or at least that’s how musical folklore likes to see it. Few scenes were ever completely geographically cohesive. There were Grunge bands from California, Baggy bands from London, Shoegaze bands from Leeds. It’s just that over time these inconsistencies tend to get erased in favour of a smoother narrative.
But even taking them into account, the relationship between sounds and places has been a strong one. A lot of scenes have possessed a fixed centre of gravity or at least an association with some city or region. But it’s a relationship that now seems to be breaking down.
Although we haven’t lost our desire for order and continue to lump emerging artists together within the neat confines of newly created genres, what tends to unite scenes of late is the music alone rather than any geographic connection, as evidenced by a scene such as Nu-gaze which included acts such as Maps (Northampton) Asobi Seksu (New York) and Team Ghost (Paris).
At the heart of this change has been the arrival of the Internet and the way in which it has revolutionised our relationship with music. In the analogue world of the past, a magical land of vinyl, mix-tapes and John Peel, both getting hold of physical music and learning about bands and different genres was an arduous process; one that for a lot of the time relied upon who you could ‘borrow’ music from, where you could buy it locally and how good the nearby clubs were.
“Because of this, the place where you lived shaped a person’s musical taste much more.” says Geoff Davis, one-time owner of Probe Records in Liverpool. “This meant that scenes tended to form around certain clubs and record shops because these were the local places that offered the chance to experience music. And so, somewhere like Probe, through what we recommended and stocked, played a role in influencing musical tastes in the city.
By contrast today, the internet, and everything it brings with it, has both democratised and simplified things. Musical knowledge and the music itself, once so difficult at a young age to obtain in any great volume, is now accessible at the stroke of a key. We no longer depend on what’s available in our immediate environment. The entire world is open to us and this means that aspiring musicians can now draw their inspiration from a broader range of influences and sounds.
“The result is the fragmenting of local music scenes” says the writer John Robb, author of The North Will Rise Again- Manchester Music City 1976-1996. “That’s what’s happened here in Manchester over the last few years. You’ve ended up with lots of mini-scenes, each thriving in a separate space. Never say never, but this process makes it much harder for some big Madchester-esque scene to emerge out of the city again.”
This process of fragmentation hints at something else too, namely the gradual erosion of the any relationship between sounds and places. Inalienable local musical characteristics, those that transcend any particular scene or genre and permeate the music that emanates from a given place have long been applied to music scenes around the world.
Some of these connections, such as Surf Pop in California or Reggae and Dancehall in Jamaica are so enduring and intertwined with their locations that it’s hard to think of one without the other. And yet, the Internet is already illustrating its ability to undermine even the strongest of these relationships.
“In the last few years the Internet has had a dramatic effect on the type of music that's now being made in Jamaica, to the extent that Reggae and Dancehall is being marginalised” says veteran Reggae DJ, David Rodigan.
Through an expansion of their musical horizons the Internet has given producers, artists and labels in Jamaica a greater array of influences, and perhaps more tellingly an insight into the kind of music that sells in massive quantities in the lucrative US market.
“People now seem to want to create the next Usher or Ne-Yo record, because that’s what they believe is going to sell” continues David. “As a result, a lot of what’s being made in Jamaica now is vacuous rubbish, some horrible form of HipHop and R&B. It’s a trend that is seriously threatening Jamaica’s long-standing relationship with Reggae and Dancehall.”
But is this process something that we should worry about? After all, the assimilation of different influences and sounds has been part of the music making process since year zero, the only difference today being the ability to cast our collective nets wider.
And, as the closer-to-home case of Liverpool illustrates, this weakening of the relationship between sound and place needn’t necessarily be a negative experience.
Despite being more diverse than it has often been given credit for, the city has had a justifiably long held association with the melodic pop of the sixties. It’s a ‘sound’ woven into the DNA of several successful Liverpool bands that have emerged in the last few decades, such as The La’s, The Coral and The Zutons, as well as numerous well-regarded also-rans like The Stairs, The Stands and Shack.
But according to local music writer Peter Guy, although still evident today, this sound now represents only a fraction of the city’s current music scene.
“There are bands making that kind of music, such as Wicked Whispers, The Big House and Lovecraft. But these are in the minority. In recent years, Liverpool has developed a really disparate and vibrant scene, with class acts in alternative dance and dubstep like Forest Swords and Capac, spacerock in the shape of Gigantes, alt-folk like Sun Drums and Stealing Sheep, wonky pop hype-band Outfit, and really whacked out shit like We Came Out Like Tigers.”
The Internet has played a role in this diversification by broadening people’s music palette. But according to Peter, it’s also gone further by enabling and encouraging bands making music beyond the confines of the typical ‘Liverpool sound’ to thrive, something that has in turn greatly benefitted the local scene.
“In the past, labels, A&R and the press seemed determined to push local bands more rooted in the stereotypical ‘Liverpool sound’; like the whole Bandwagon scene with the The Coral, Zutons and The Bandits. The Internet has come along and changed all this by cutting out the middlemen and providing bands with an easy way to escape being pigeonholed and instead sell their sound themselves. This has meant that a more diverse ‘Liverpool sound’ has started to come to the fore, and one which I think has given the local music scene a much needed shot in the arm. The scene is now buzzing in a way that it hasn’t for some time and the Internet has played a role in this.”
The Internet is quickly unpicking many of the old assumptions that we had about music scenes. Some of us might mourn the erosion of the relationship between sounds and places but ultimately does it really matter? Recent scenes like Nu-gaze still produce great music and as the case of Liverpool illustrates, breaking free of a ‘sound’ can be beneficial to a local music scene. And, as a teenage indie-kid growing up in Liverpool I endured too many shitty sixties-inspired bands to see this change as anything but positive.