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by Chris Roberts
Minnesota Public Radio
November 23, 2001
Minnesota music lovers say the quality of local music is as good asif not better thanit ever was.
The Twin Cities rock world has long been steeped in lore of how good things used to be. Lovers of local music, from the late '70s until now, love to spin yarns about how their erawhen they were young club-hoppers who lived for the next record, the next showwas the most exciting, the most creative, the most euphoric.
For Ali Lozoff, that moment came in the late '80s. Lozoff was a Michigan teenager who loved Minneapolis music. Back then The Replacements were still the darlings of critics, Soul Asylum was the next big thing, Prince was soaring to creative heights, and bands such as Trip Shakespeare, Run Westy Run, and Arcwelder were in the middle of their ascent. In 1988, Lozoff visited some friends in Minneapolis, and ended up staying for good. She got hooked into a music scene buzzing with activity.
"There was music seven nights a week, and five of those nights were free admission most places, either the 400 Bar or the Uptown, and there was always comps to be had for First Avenue. And I was out five, six nights a week seeing music of all types. It was fabulous nightlife," Lozoff says.
Lozoff is now 32, working for the Science Museum of Minnesota, and more marginally involved in music. She still looks in the paper and sees three or four shows on a given night she'd love to see, if only she didn't have to get up so early the next day. Each generation of musicians has raised the bar for the next Lozoff says, creating a much more competitive environment. The scene has changed.
"I really feel like the Twin Cities music scene has matured and grown. In a lot of ways I think it's more positive now. There's more cross-cultural and cross-ethnic boundaries being blurred," says Lozoff.
And, as Pioneer Press music critic Jim Walsh will tell you, it's a scene much more saturated with musicians.
"In the '80s when the club scene first started getting going, late '70s, early '80s, there were probably 30 bands, tops. Now there's 3,000! I mean really! So the clubs have increased, but not by that much. So, you got 3,000 bands trying to get into virtually the same amount of clubs. You do the math," says Walsh.
The 'too-many-bands-not-enough-venues' refrain fills musicians with anxiety. But to music lovers it's a happy dilemma.
It's late on a Friday evening, and the Turf Club is crammed. This aging, gritty, yet homey establishment sits on University Avenue. It's gone through many makeovers on its way to becoming what many view as the best neighborhood bar to see original music in the Twin Cities. The Turf Club started out as a meat marketliterally. After prohibition, it became a swing music club. Then there was its country and polka phase. Six years ago, when ownership changed, the Turf started booking local rock.
"It was basically like rolling a snowball down a hill" says Turf Club Manager Dave Ricker.
Ricker says the bar's philosophy is simple: Treat musicians who perform with respect, pay them as generously as you can, and let them have a few drinks on the house. They and their friends will keep coming back.
"What we do here is we're here for the musician. We never drop bookings. If we give someone a commitment, we stand by it. People always get paid. They get some drink tickets, and they get treated with common courtesy and decency, which we're told is a rare thing in a lot of clubs," says Turf Club's sound engineer Rob Rule, who is also guitarist in the bar's house band, the Mammy Nuns.
On the other side of the river stands the club Rule seeks to emulatethe widely acknowledged epicenter of Twin Cities music: First Avenue. On this Tuesday night, the recorded sounds of former Minneapolis rock band Lifter Puller waft over an empty mainroom floor, while beat music pummels the walls of a sparsely inhabited lounge upstairs. Manager Steve McClellan, who for decades has functioned as First Avenue's eccentric, artistically adventurous soul, is enigmatic when asked how the club is doing.
"It's certainly had its ups and downs," says McLellan. "This has been a roller coaster and it's gone with the flow, sometimes badly. I always use the analogy there's a sea out there and we're one of the smaller boats. The Target Center's a bigger boat. There are bigger boats on the sea, but when economic conditions create waves or a storm, we kind of have to go with those waves and it depends on how well you navigate, to me the very volatile nature of what goes on in a very trendy business that depends on repeat business. You know it'll never be a safe world. If you get all safe, you turn into a Ramada Inn top 40, you know, I could use some specific club names here too but I'm not going to get into that."
McClellan could have been referring to the Block E mega entertainment complex, hotel, and Hard Rock Cafe being constructed across the street. Many worry it's the next threat on the horizon to First Avenue's somewhat fragile existence.
He probably wasn't.
As for the health of the local music scene: "To me everything has changed and nothing has changed in 20 years," says McLellan.
Everything he says has changed in terms of the music people want to hear and how that music is produced, especially given the advent of MP3s, Web sites, and cheaper digital recording equipment. Nothing has changed in terms of the struggle for bands and clubs to "make it." As long as people are willing to take musical risks when they go out to see live music, says McClellan, First Avenue will be okay.
"I don't think anything has changed. There's always this audience out there that doesn't want to hear anything that's on the ... you know they're out ... but it'll never make a club stay open, a band survive ... so you always have that battle. Yes, we've maintained our integrity. Now we have to make a living," said McLellan.
Most bands will tell you they feel pretty good about their artistic integrity. It's the making-a-living part that's a problem. It's tough to get a broad audience. The severe lack of radio air-play for local bands has never been more pronounced.
The University of Minnesota's A.M. station Radio K is probably the only station in town where you can hear local music throughout the programming day and on the weekend. Commercial stations tend to throw a bone with hour-long specialty shows at odd hours during the weekends. Mark Wheat, Radio K's program coach used to have a local music show on Minneapolis community station KFAI and was an overnight D.J. for the now defunct commercial modern rock station Zone 105. When asked why commercial radio stations don't play more local music, Wheat says it's because station owners don't think it will make them any money.
"That's the bottom line with commercial radio, and they will tell you that either their sponsors don't want to buy time around local music or that their audience doesn't care about local music," says Wheat.
Most agree that "corporatization" and consolidation in the radio industry has led to far less adventurous, increasingly generic play lists. The same forces have also dampened the willingness of major record labels to take risks. Numerous Twin Cities bands have signed major label deals only to wind up deep in debt and, in some cases, defunct. Chris Osgood of the arts consulting non-profit Springboard for the Arts in St. Paul, and founder of the legendary Minneapolis punk band the Suicide Commandoes, says even the smaller independent music labels, which have dramatically decreased in number, don't provide as much support as they did in the past.
"For example, it's more typical now for a band to deliver a finished album than it is for them to get under contract with a little label, go in, and record the album. Other things are having to do with distribution and promotion. A lot of the onus falls on the individual artists to do big chunks of that, too, that they didn't used to have to do. So hey, it becomes more and more attractive to not sign with anybody and do it yourself," says Osgood.
In the face of all of this, it's only natural that Twin Cities bands perhaps aren't as ambitious as they once were. Just ask St. Louis Park singer/songwriter Dan Israel.
"The expectations have definitely shrunk for making it in the rock world. And I think that unless you're willing to play a game that's extremely distasteful, which is that you're willing to turn your music into schlock, and image making, as opposed to creative expressions of your deep feelings, it's going to be a lesser-expectations game for most bands," says Israel.
This doesn't depress Israel or Mike Wisti, leader of Minneapolis indy rockers Rank Strangers. Wisti says if, by some strange miracle, a major label offered his band a deal, they would probably turn it down.
"That's just how I feel. That's not where the future of music is, and you can't bank any kind of musical future on imaginary people that buy records in malls. There's no hope for bands like us to do it that way. You have to get your fans one by one, I think. It's got to be much more grassroots," says Wisti.
And the best example in recent years of the grass roots approach Wisti speaks of is demonstrated by the Minneapolis hip-hop consortium, Rhyme Sayers Entertainment. Five years ago Rhyme Sayers couldn't buy a gig at a major venue in town. Now they're internationally known underground hip-hop icons who can sell out First Avenue. Founder Brent Sayers says the group's patience and perseverance has paid off.
"I think it's just a natural progression of people seeing what was going on, and then it just took a few people to step up and go, you know, we'll take a chance with it. First Avenue was definitely very instrumental in that role, because they opened their doors to us and worked real close and well with us rather than putting up those walls to make it harder. And then, some of those doors that were closed prior started to open up," says Sayers.
"We've spent at least the last five years doing extremely heavy tours where, regardless of the situations, we were out there on the road trying to make the name grow. So you've got that and I think the Internet was a big tool in terms of spreading things to areas we might not have been able to reach. But it's a slow process. I mean, just to get to where we've gotten, it's taken us a good five years."
So, what the Twin Cities has now in terms of a rock scene, in terms of musicians, venues, and audiences, is what it used to have before, what it's always had: one another. The twin towns have been downgraded from national indy rock hub to regional music scene in a flyover state, and that's okay with Chris Osgood.
"That isolationism ... I still look to that as a great thing. I think it's really liberating for Minnesota artists, because we get to compare ourselves to each other. And we've got a real high caliber of artists around here," says Osgood.
And music critic Jim Walsh says forget about corporate music and its blandness and safeness and loathing attitude toward local music because as he puts, that wormespecially since 9/11is turning.
"This is my pipe dream. All these bands that have been percolating here for the last couple years, here and in other parts of the country, are about to make a whole lot more sense then they did a few months ago to a lot more people. The manufactured just doesn't make sense anymore. Everybody's been talking about that for the last couple months. And that stuff's going to go by the wayside," said Walsh.
Is the scene healthy? Walsh says, as long as he can go to a bar and see bands that want to change the world with their music, it is, and he says, more often than not, that's what he sees.
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