A few days ago, SPIN published a fantastic article online titled “The Call of the Wild: Alaska’s Untamed Music Scene.” The point this piece explores is whether or not geography is still relevant in music. That is, whether being from a certain area can still damper the level of exposure a band or artist can get or be as restrictive as it used to be.
The article calls Anchorage “spectral and post-apocalyptic” and talks about a band “fronted by a 28-year-old former dog musher from Juneau via Guam, with spiked hair and a soul-quaking voice.” The Alaskan music scene is ultimately described as being self-contained with bands made up of shared members who haven’t crossed over into the mainstream and don’t really want to.
The subhead reads, “Has the Internet really made geography a moot point?” but after providing an interesting take on local bands and culture from a Californian’s perspective, that question is only vaguely answered in the final paragraph: “Just because you’re on the edge of the earth, doesn’t mean you can’t be heard.”
There are examples to prove that rings true. Ohio emo band Hawthorne Heights built a fan base through their MySpace profile and eventually had a No. 3 album in the United States. More recognizably, Canadian heartthrob Justin Bieber was discovered through videos he uploaded to YouTube, and besides being dumped by Selena Gomez a few days ago, he’s doing just fine.
On the other hand, the article quotes Zachary Carothers, bassist for Portugal. The Man, probably the biggest band to come out of Alaska, as saying, “When I was growing up, there was the sense that you could only get so big in Anchorage. You can open up for the few big shows that come through and that’s about it. You can’t really tour from Alaska.”
Touring is how a lot of emerging bands make a living, both through ticket and merchandise sales, but it’s become easier for bands to put themselves out there with the Internet, so the question is whether or not the Internet can be used to catapult a sustainable music career despite the situation geography puts bands and artists in.
It’s really hard to say.
I live in Van Buren, Maine, a town of about 2,000 people up near the northern tip of Aroostook County: I can literally see Canada from my house. Aside from Travis Cyr, who lives in Van Buren and plays shows around the state, there isn’t much of a music scene up where I’m from. Like Alaska, it’s far away from the rest of society and there aren’t a lot of people around.
Cyr, who primarily plays upbeat folk and is a competent singer, is the biggest example of local success, even if it’s modest. It’s hard to say whether he would see more success if he lived in Portland with the increased opportunities. Then again, he’s similar to many of the Alaskan bands mentioned in the article because he’s content doing what he’s doing. He enjoys playing local shows and has even made efforts to bolster the Aroostook County music scene by starting Arootsakoostic, an annual music festival in New Sweden, a small town near Caribou and about a half hour from where I live.
Trying to get big via the Internet is even harder, I imagine. It’s far easier to create a brand for yourself and get your music out there without a label, but like anything that’s easy, a lot of people are going to try it out. There are thousands and thousands of bands and artists who are uploading original material onto YouTube, Bandcamp and ReverbNation.
Some of those artists are probably pretty good, but if you take one band at random, it’s likely they don’t have what it takes and are just another piece of noise pollution, clogging up the Internet and making it harder to sort through the aspiring bands and find the ones that matter.
It’s hard to answer the question this article asks. If it were easy, the writer probably would have done it. I guess making it in music is about the same things it’s always been about: talent, drive, a bit of luck — or your definition of “making it.”
If you want to be heard from the edge of the Earth, it’s possible, but with everybody talking all at once, sometimes all you hear is noise. Sometimes, just having a willing audience at a local bar makes the edge of the Earth a pretty great place.