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