Columbia Music Scene Struggles for Breakthrough

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"I tell bands from Columbia going out on the road that, [at a show] if you get $50, a case of beer, and a floor to sleep on, you've hit the jackpot."

 

The local music scene in Columbia has found itself in an odd position. Many of its prominent figures praise the amount of talent within the town, as do record critics. Local KOPN radio DJ Jason Cafer's "Comomusic anthology" series, which showcases Columbia acts ranging, has received positive reviews from publications and Web sites like www.rocknworld.com and St. Louis' alternative weekly, Riverfront Times (www.rftstl.com). Columbia's KCOU was recently featured on MTV U's Web site (www.mtvu.com) as one of the best college radio stations in the country. Yet despite all of these accolades, the city of Columbia, Mo., has still not produced a musical act successful on the national level.

A variety of factors explain the difficulty the city has had in producing a mainstream success, but they don't stop its artists from shooting for their goals. Many are optimistic that big success can be achieved. They continue to work at their craft, aspiring to be the act that makes it big and busts open the doors for Columbia. The result is a diverse scene brimming with talent, constantly making a push to overcome its obstacles and grow.

"It's in Missouri"

When addressing the shortcomings of Columbia's music scene, Cafer is succinct: "It's in Missouri." As a result, bands here have a hard time getting access to influential media outlets, says Scott Meiner, general manager of small local venue the Blue Fugue.

"Your press engines aren't there, " Meiner said. "If you get great local press in New York or Chicago, then that picks up on a national level. Great local press in Columbia just doesn't do much for you."

Meiner also points out that, unlike in collegiate scenes like Athens, Ga., and Lawrence, Kans., in Columbia, "There's not an overriding drive to go see all the shows, to see all the local music."

Bert Clark, drummer for local rock band Witch's Hat, agrees on this point. "There's too many bands and not enough people that come to shows to get the [clubs'] payment up enough," he said.

The effect of having a small concert-going audience is that bands end up competing with each other for what few people do go to concerts.

"If you're in New York City," Clark says, "you can have eight awesome shows in town and there's plenty of people to go around, but here we're kind of all vying for the same group of people."

Driving toward success

The aforementioned negative factors in Columbia's scene exacerbate the commitments and sacrifices that all bands have to make to succeed past the regional level.

"Your success is really determined from getting people out to the shows," Meiner says. He notes that doing this attracts music critics and other people of influence. The path to drawing crowds is not quite so simple, though.

"You need to make sure the right people notice you to achieve the press you need to generate fans going out to your show on a local level initially," Meiner says. "You need to do money-losing tours and achieve show trades so you build up a network initially. You hope to get press and get noticed by other bands and eventually build from there and create something larger."

As the percussionist for the now-defunct Latin dance band Abater'a, Johnny Finn took these steps personally. The commitment regularly occupied his weekends. "At one point, there was nine weekends in a row I left [for tour] on a Friday and came back on Sunday night," he says. "If not out traveling and playing, [we were] in here working in the studio on a record.

"To do any more requires being able to cut back on what you do in your real life...to pursue whatever you want to do in your ‘rock star' life."

Life on the road is not easy, says Richard King, who owns Columbia's largest national act venue the Blue Note. "There has to be a ton of patience. I think you have to expect to be lied to, screwed by whatever...sleeping on people's floors and stuff like that if you're gonna get your name out," King says. "I tell bands from Columbia going out on the road that, [at a show] if you get $50, a case of beer, and a floor to sleep on, you've hit the jackpot."

With members juggling schoolwork, commutes from St. Louis, and the prospects of new jobs, the members of Abater'a found that they had to cut too much back to continue.

Clark also encountered a situation necessitating sacrifice to continue with his band when his girlfriend graduated from the University of Missouri and he had the opportunity to move with her to St. Louis. In the end, he elected not to move because of Witch's Hat's regional success.

Hope for a better scene

Though he passed on St. Louis, Clark realizes that he and the band will eventually have to move to further their career.

"I would hope eventually we leave, 'cause I don't think it would work if we just stayed in Columbia," he said.

"Columbia has a certain ceiling in terms of how far bands can go," Finn says.

For the time being though, Clark's band has played an active role in promoting Columbia's music scene through Emergency Umbrella Records, a label/collective that's composed of local bands that include Witch's Hat, the Foundry Field Recordings, and Bald Eagle. In weekly label meetings, the bands share info on places to play when on tour, where to go for press, who to talk to about booking. Emergency Umbrella Records also serializes and copyrights their artists' CDs and gets them distributed to key locations like the University's bookstore and iTunes.

"It helps funnel everything through a centralized location, as opposed to trying to do it all on your own," Clark says.

Additionally, Emergency Umbrella advertises on www.pitchforkmedia.com, a popular music review Web site that Cafer says is highly influential. "The first step really is for someone to make a record that gets a good review on Pitchfork, which pretty much launches a band," he says.

Cafer himself has done a lot to promote Columbia's music scene with his Comomusic Anthology series. Though some of the compilations include songs by disbanded acts, they also feature many active artists. These acts have benefited from their positions on the compilations, as the Comomusic Anthology CDs have been sent to 300 radio stations press outlets.

Still, Cafer is quick to credit Emergency Umbrella Records as the biggest presence Columbia has on the national scale. "If a band from Columbia succeeds nationally, it will likely be thanks to Emergency Umbrella Records," he says.

The local music scene has also been greatly helped by the Internet. Finn notes that Abater'a has made a lot of online sales of its self-titled EP to Italy and Japan-countries the group never played in.

"The Internet has really torn down some barriers," says Cafer. "Prior to online distribution, the biggest barrier is that the people who run big record labels and big radio stations have horrible taste in music. Previously, the biggest obstacle was not being good-looking enough. Popular music is becoming less superficial, thanks to the Internet."

Finally, Columbia can always count its diverse talent. "If I was an A&R exec from L.A. or whatever and I came into this town, I myself would personally be floored by the number of really, really good professional bands," says Clark.

Meiner and King, who both have seen many local acts in their years here, agree. "There are a lot of talented musicians in the city," Meiner says.

"I do think the Midwest has loads of talent that goes unnoticed or not recognized," King says.

Though the Columbia music scene has not made a huge impact in the mainstream's eye, Cafer has hope that town can build a presence. "Towns of this size launch good bands all the time," he says. "Bloomington, Ind., has two good labels-Jagjaguwar and Secretly Canadian-and Bloomington is slightly smaller than Columbia."

Thus, despite the music scene of Columbia's flaws, success originating from the city is possible.

"If you're good enough," says Cafer, "you're going to make it on some level."
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