Bandcamp

Artists in Boston’s independent music scene deal with changes

Ben Semeta hopped on stage to check his bass guitar rig and then hopped off, almost unnoticeable, as a crowd shuffled into a Cambridge nightclub for a concert on a recent Sunday night.

Semeta and his band, Black Beach, are an anomaly of sorts in Boston’s independent music scene. They’ve been playing together for at least a decade, though it was only three years ago that they started playing as Black Beach.

“I’m kind of blessed none of us went to school at a city,” he said in an interview before Black Beach’s set that night. “We didn’t have peers to support us – we had to break into the scene.”

The trio started playing together back when they were still in high school, with a goal to just have fun playing together.

“It took a while to find the style we are good at writing,” Semeta said. “I like to think that Black Beach is different: we didn’t meet and say ‘hey, let’s start a band.’ We have been jamming our whole lives together.”

Boston’s bound to have garage bands and basement shows – but even so, there are no major record companies to sign them. Black Beach stands out among the numerous short-lived groups that fade in and out of the scene, or move to a bigger city.

It’s partly because, in the digital age, they’re able overcome a lackluster music scene by self-promoting on music discovery platforms like Bandcamp.

“It used to be that you had to tour nonstop, but with such sites and social media you can stay relevant in places you have visited once or twice, just by posting occasionally,” he said.

Other bands started by college students move out of the city as band members graduate or pursue other endeavors – contributing to the short-lived nature of the scene.

Kyle McEvoy started Seagreen Records a few years before Black Beach was started, but 230 miles southwest of Boston, in Watertown, Connecticut. At the time, all he wanted was the ability to physically self-release music from his former band, The Guru, so he focused on cassettes and vinyl records. The Guru shared their music on Bandcamp and would hand out business cards with their Bandcamp link at concerts, McEvoy said.

The Guru was made up of college kids that, like Black Beach, started out jamming, but in 2014 the band tossed the towel after Eddie Golden III, the band’s drummer and lead singer, no longer wanted to continue the band. The Guru had successfully booked tours across the U.S. several times by then, McEvoy, who was one of the two guitarists in the band, said. The Guru frequented Boston, being that McEvoy went to school in the area.

But the splitting of the band left Seagreen Records at a strange crossroads, despite the romantic aspect of ending a band while still somewhat successful that had led to the record labels fruition, McEvoy said. His confusion about how to progress his label partially derived from the temporariness of the music scene in Boston, he said. Now McEvoy lives in New York and is figuring out in which direction to take his label.

“In Boston it is a new music scene like every year,” he said. “For the most part it is college bands that eventually make the move to New York City or L.A.”

The sentiment is not exclusive to McEvoy or Semeta – Dan Shea, founder of Boston-based music blog Boston Hassle and more than 15-year scene veteran, said he has observed several variables, such as increasing cost of living and the short-lived nature of college bands, take a toll on the scene since he started getting involved at the turn of the 20th century.

Shea’s non-profit Boston Hassle and its monthly newspaper the “Boston Compass” have struggled to get an affordable working space in the city and are currently operate out of an illegal warehouse, he said. Part of the reason being that it is an anti-corporate, do-it-yourself, pro-independence consortium.

“It is hard to come from a place where money isn’t the first thing you think [about],” he said. “Existential questions for the organization itself: We are trying to create a situation for freedom to experiment and try to foster all kinds of art in a communal way. But trying to do that in a city in a way that the more bohemian and artistic people, no matter where they are in their life, are going to be here less and less because they are going to be priced out, who will be our audience?”

Social media and new music discovery platforms have made the scene vulnerable to change, but also helped bridge the disconnect in finding new music, according to Shea.

“It really comes down to the people who are looking can more easily find what they are looking for,” Shea said. “Subculture is about people who are looking, most people look at the surface. There are so many options and so many directions where people can go.”

Despite the short-lived nature of the local scene, Semeta remained optimistic before Black Beach’s set that night in Cambridge. This December, Black Beach was nominated for Rock/Indie Artist of the Year at the Boston Music Awards.

A band must remember why they started in the first place, even with such achievements, Semeta said.

“We are never going to stop,” Semeta said. “At the end of the day we started a band just to jam with each other, with no goal in mind.”

VIDEO: How a couple of local artists promote their music

How I consume music

spotify

Last night I was talking with a friend and I wanted to show him “Bloodstyle” by Caroline Smith because I had it stuck in my head. Naturally, I busted my phone out of my pocket and opened Spotify. The first thing that came up was a notification telling me that The Rolling Stones “Blue & Lonesome” was officially out and I should listen. It was 2 in the morning.

It is no secret that music streaming services have made music more accessible to the consumer (evident when my ears entertained new music from the Stones really, really early this morning). This year will mark the first year that music streaming revenue surpasses download sales, if the year’s streaming trends continue, Pitchfork recently reported.

With this much access to a broad amount of music, consumers are now faced with a unique problem: What new music should I listen to and why? I remember one of the first physical CD’s I bought was Metallica’s then long-anticipated release “Death Magnetic” in 2008 (Boy did we not foresee having to wait eight years for another full album from the outdated Bay-area thrashers). I went to Best Buy, bought the CD then listened to it, in 2008, over and over. Just last week Metallica released a new album and I heard half of it before I remembered the name of a random song that was stuck in my head, so I put that song on for the sole fact THAT I CAN WITH THE CONVENIENCE OF A CLICK OR SWIPE.

This convenience of music accessibility sheds light on the abundance of music. I feel like a boy who can’t decide what to listen to because there is so much I want to listen to and I can listen to. In other words, I feel like a hungry cow who has been relocated in a field of grass that stretches miles upon miles. So what am I to do to optimize my time upon this grass field?

I don’t know, but I think I am on my way to finding out so I am going to explain how I consume music nowadays.

Spotify playlists are my go to. I make playlists for any task from “this will hit the spot when running at dusk” to “I just got out of the shower and have to get to class in 22 minutes, but don’t want to get ready in silence.” A useful tool that Spotify has is the “related artists” sidebar in an artist’s profile. This comes in handy when I am crafting a playlist and perusing more music to add.

Another useful feature Spotify offers is the different discovery playlists. I had mixed feelings about these options, at first, but they are in fact helpful. Last week I was talking to the manager of a local band, and we started talking about what we each listen to. He told me that he uses the discover playlists often, and that it is helpful for people in the industry because it shows you a glimpse of what is out there and how long you can tolerate a sound – if you like something you don’t skip it and chances are you will now retain the memory of the song or artist because you didn’t skip it. Voila: Finding new music.

Finally, I use Spotify’s radio feature. This is not my favorite feature, but it helps me find new music. Earlier this year I was listening to some random station when this band Whitney kept popping up and I eventually started to recognize them. That led to me to check out Whitney’s debut album which led me to become a fan of Whitney.

Given, Spotify’s radio feature is not that good especially when compared to music radios such as Pandora. My main problem with Spotify’s radio feature is that the collection of songs in a given station doesn’t contain that many curve balls that hit the “wow” factor for me (if you hadn’t noticed you can browse the songs that are part of an artist’s’ radio station by scrolling past the “play” button – that will REALLY ruin the “wow” factor).

Fortunately and unfortunately I don’t solely use Spotify to consume my music. Bandcamp is just as relevant in my music diet, to a lesser extent. The great power I have found in Bandcamp is a) local artists are much easier to find and b) I personally love the roughness of some outtakes and raw cuts that some artists post on Bandcamp, but not on Spotify.

Bandcamp makes local artists easier to find because it doesn’t matter where your locality is, once you start browsing a band’s music you can see upcoming shows and tour history on the sidebar (see below). If this is not found on Bandcamp’s sidebar then you can find it on an artist’s Facebook which would be linked in the same sidebar. Once I start browsing who a band has played with then I start checking those bands out. This works because if an artist is not on a heavily promoted tour with already established artists, that artist may be playing shows with locals. Next thing I know I spend an hour listening to different bands that are connected in some way.

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Back to how Bandcamp can sometimes have rough outtakes, though. This is not a consistent theme for Bandcamp, but some of the bands I listen to do post outtakes every now and then. For example, Porches’ “Scrap and Love Songs Revisited” may be my favorite release from the band.

And if you really like rough demos (as I do) you can find more on Soundcloud – which rounds up my music diet. I have to admit I do not go to Soundcloud that often, but I do seek out the site for the sole reason of demos. I mean, even Kanye West has released demos on Soundcloud; Father John Misty is the king of Soundcloud demos, out of the artists I listen to.

Yes, there are a lot of ways to consume music thanks to streaming services improving over time. And although it may appear as if there is an overwhelming amount of music being shared, the music discovery platforms enable exactly what they offer: The discover of new music.

Whitney’s Bandcamp account screenshot by me. Spotify photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons.