I’ll be frank – I’ve only been actively involved in the Atlanta music scene for around three years. I’m not a hardcore local and I don’t bear the breadth of knowledge about the Atlanta music scene that some locals have. However, I feel at times that works to my advantage. I still view the scene as an outsider and can poke and prod at it through a slightly different lens.
For the past few months, I’ve had debates with people about what defines the “Atlanta sound,” specifically in regards to the various styles of rock that come out of the city. It appears to me that there’s very little consensus about what sounds define the scene, but rather many sub-scenes and cliques existing all over town. To properly address this issue, I want to talk about what I feel makes up a music scene.
A music scene is essentially a localized and often independent community of music fans, artists and media alike. It’s that simple. Historically, certain geographic regions have created a signature sound. Many people are familiar with the jazz and dirty blues that originates from New Orleans. Or in the sixties, San Francisco was the mecca of hippie-psychedelic music. The same goes for genres like techno and rave music which were popularized in the nightclubs of the UK and eastern Europe. I could go on forever about the different styles and genres of music and I guarantee with almost everyone, a particular city or region will subconsciously come to mind.
I would argue that Atlanta’s rock scene is not truly a scene with a signature sound at all. It’s a diaspora of different people with different musical identities and different objectives. Honestly, the only consistent and unified scenes in Atlanta are the rap and urban scenes. Think about it – we all recognize the signature Atlanta hip hop sound. The trunk rattling 808 bass, grim and moody synthesizer lines, simple, but witty punch lines, emcees who focus heavily on vocal delivery and flow. Atlanta legends like Outkast and Goodie Mob helped to perfect that brand and T.I., Ludacris, Young Jeezy, and many others took the formula and ran with it. As more music fans were pulled into the sounds and culture surrounding Atlanta hip hop, the media latched onto it and record label heads started turning. Because there was a signature sound and brand the entire scene was elevated to the attention of mainstream audiences.
When I look at the big rock acts that have come out of Atlanta, mainly Mastodon, Deerhunter and the Black Lips, these groups are vastly different. Mastodon is clearly the most successful and they have pioneered a progressive metal sound in ways other metal bands can’t. Deerhunter appeals to the indie hipster crowd and the Black Lips are basically a party band which occasionally releases a genius garage rock single here and there. But all of these bands come from different streams and musical schools of thought. There’s very little that connects these sounds, at least not enough for someone to label it as a signature sound.
I’ll admit, I may be somewhat biased. I attended school in Athens and have always had a strong connection with the town and its amazing music scene. But while I lived there, I noticed that Athens has a signature sound and brand. There are lots of jam bands and indie pop bands, but that’s the sound. The bands that want to emulate the Sound Tribe Sector 9 electronic/jammy sound or Widespread Panic. Other artists pay closer attention to the trippy indie pop sounds of the Orange Twin Commune/Elephant Six Collective (Of Montreal, Circulatory System, Apples in Stereo, Elf Power and many others). Several of the music blogs and local zines have picked up on the math rock/post punk sounds coming out of Athens via Hello Sir Records. There’s lot of variety and sounds in between, but I feel Athens has forged its own signature sound and style. That little town has created a brand reflective of the people within it.
For a while I was annoyed with the “new” Brooklyn scene. I got tired of hearing and reading about all the hype surrounding groups like Grizzly Bear, Bear in Heaven, Yeasayer and Animal Collective (actually I never get tired of hearing about this group). But I can understand how Brooklyn and Manhattan emerged from out of their comas after almost twenty years. The metro NYC area created a signature sound and brand. Many of the aforementioned bands have a dreamy and somewhat epic pop sound. There are very hazy elements, but the music is tightly arranged and obviously informed by the sounds circulating in the city’s electronic music scene. On top of that, metro NYC is a press haven and once again the media latched onto these artists and reported about all the new venues, trendy places and hot spots.
I’m no musicologist, but I understand one thing – a music scene is like a forest fire. There’s no specific cause for what creates the fire, but once a spark has occurred and smoke starts billowing hard and fast amongst the trees, we know there’s fire. There’s no single explanation as to why lightning may have struck in the particular area, but the life of the fire is contingent upon how much flammable material is available once the spark hits.
I feel that Atlanta’s music scene needs to catch a fire. Maybe it’s already there, but I want to see more of it and I want to fan the flames. The local media will have to step it up and start reporting about not only a diaspora of sounds, but a set of sounds that unites the scene. This will have to be a set of sounds that can bond groups of people locally, but also on the national and global levels.
I don’t have too many words to describe what these sounds could be. I think Atlanta’s scene could appeal to “working-class sounds and conditions.” Many affluent and wealthy personalities have moved into the city over the past decade, but I still feel Atlanta is very much a city whose best spots are surrounded by working class joints. I could picture a bizarre Tom Waits-like figure slowly creeping out of the Atlanta scene and into the mainstream.
Overall, I can’t predict which direction the music scene will turn towards, but I want to lay out and emphasize three points.
1) Bands should continue to network and build relationships
2) Fans, keep going to shows, but most importantly don’t forget that local bands do release records too. Justin Bieber isn’t the only one on itunes; don’t look down on purchasing a local record.
3) The local media has to step it up. I’m tired of reading about your friends’ bands that honestly nobody gives a shit about. Quit writing about labels that release any and everything. Give me some content that speaks to a particular sound and nail it over and over in my head.
Tell me why these sounds (this BRAND) should appeal to me and how it identifies with what’s going on in society. Help me, the music fan, make sense of what’s going on in the streets.