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A Hard Change Has Gotta Come: the New Music Scene in Los Angeles

Brennan McNally
Los Angeles, 2011

Growing up in a small town in Orange County, I saw Los Angeles as where you go when you want to see live music--and that's how I ended up here. The city fascinated me. I would drive up after school and explore whatever neighborhood that night's venue was situated in--Hollywood, Silver Lake, Echo Park. I never used GPS; I spent innumerable hours at home pouring over maps of the city on Google, using Street View to virtually walk the streets and memorize locales. Los Angeles has always felt like home to me; hence moving here was the natural course.

Once here, I involved myself in music in as many ways as I could: DJ'ing on college radio, working at an artist management firm, two independent record labels, and the music department of a late night television show. This city's music scene fascinates me even more now than it did while I was in high school--it's such a complex organism. But despite how quickly bands come and go here, there is a Catch-22 which (for now) seems pretty static.

Every musician who plays music in this city, is aware, whether consciously or subconsciously, of the always-present possibilities of getting their big break: being seen and approached by someone in the industry who can give them a career playing music. That's why you move to Los Angeles if you're a musician--because this is where you can make it. All of the major record labels are here, all of their A&R people go to the shows to discover new, unexploited talent. The opportunities that can fall into your lap here are staggering. Of course, such a small fraction of a percent of the musicians who move to Los Angeles to build a viable career in music actually have their dreams realized here...but that decimal is what continues to pull people from across the country like a tractor beam.

Unfortunately, this overwhelming industry presence that motivates artists to write, perform, and work hard also stifles their creative output. I'm speaking in terms of quality; with the exception of a select few artists who come along with enough original talent to sell themselves, you have to sell what the industry wants to buy. Los Angeles is an exciting city to make music in, but it's a struggle to create art when so many only view that art as business.

A successful manager is one who isolates the artist from the business, building a creative vacuum for the artist to work in. This rarely happens. Los Angeles is oversaturated with "the industry"; and of course, I'm part of that saturation. I run a small artist management company, which is (in conjunction with everything I've laid out about Los Angeles being a magical cornucopia of factors befitting success) why I still live here instead of a rural cottage somewhere in the Irish countryside, spending my days quietly reading William Blake poems and sipping tea by the peat fire. Not that I'm at that level of disillusionment with the Los Angeles music scene yet (au contraire); it's just that at times, the pressure to be profitable here can be overwhelming.

Luke Messimer of Mississippi Man
Luke Messimer and Missssiippi Man

"Books & Teachers," by Mississippi Man
Whatever pressure I may complain about is tenfold for the struggling musicians of LA; as a result, many are leaving Los Angeles in favor of cities that with more aesthetically centered music scenes. Luke Messimer is one. When I ran a production company that filmed performances and interviews with local LA musicians, his band Mississippi Man was the first we worked with. Shortly thereafter, the building blocks to professional success started falling into place for them: they were signed by a booking agent at Billions, Inc., recorded and mastered their debut LP entitled "A-OK" (which had begun circulating various record label offices), and were readying a tour to play their new music across the states. At the last minute, mounting turmoil within the band led them to break up, and Luke moved to Seattle to pursue a lifestyle centered on music, but without the pressures found in Los Angeles.

"I think the biggest thing is the people," Luke explains. "The people are what give the music scene in Seattle a name." Besides general qualities associated with Seattlites (independent, organic, great roasters of coffee), the key traits in respect to the Seattle music scene is an openminded appreciation of all types of music. For a city with as rich a musical history as Seattle--where everyone from Ray Charles and Jimi Hendrix to Sir Mix-A-Lot and Nirvana started their careers--there is very little industry presence in comparison to Los Angeles. The largest industry presence in Seattle is Sub Pop, the independent record label that rose to fame during the grunge era with Nirvana and Soundgarden, and continues to put out records by local Seattle bands. In Seattle, you play music because that's what you love to do, and you play it for crowds who are appreciative of that. "People just being people and loving music and seeing talent and appreciating it," as Luke puts it--that is the backbone of the Seattle music scene, and that is what fosters creativity there. Los Angeles lacks this to a great extent. The mindset is focused elsewhere.

Essentially, what it comes down to is this: music needs to be an art first, and a business second. If the people of Los Angeles can take a cue from cities such as Seattle, perhaps a musical renaissance will happen. If you're good enough and you work hard enough, you can make it here--but the system needs to be modified in order better to foster independent artistic integrity. A shift in the public consciousness needs to happen: art first, business second. Funding needs to be allocated for teaching music in public schools; more independent performance venues need to open in underrepresented neighborhoods; people need to appreciate music on a much larger scale; and American Idol needs to stop teaching us that you need to do what industry people tell to do in order to make it.

Some of the best records in the history of recorded music happened when the artist decided to stop listening to their label, stop thinking about singles and radio placement, and just make something that came from a place of complete creative freedom. No industry person would have told Miles Davis to make Bitches Brew--who would buy an experimental freeform jazz album with two twenty minute songs filled with distorted guitar solos and unexpected metrical shifts? Or Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, or Pet Sounds, or anything Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart put out? Just because it doesn't fit the "pop music" mold doesn't mean it won't be popular; just because you don't know how to market it doesn't mean it won't sell.

There are many, many other aspects that I'm neglecting to touch on, but the ultimate question I pose is this: Can Los Angeles eschew its misguided preconceptions of music and allow a new, openminded creative renaissance to happen in our backyards? "Unfortunately, I don't think that's something LA can adopt," Luke laments. "People in LA are far too judgmental." A gross generalization perhaps, but regardless: if the industry can act in a more laissez-faire fashion, and if musicians are given the freedom to create from the heart, we could have a great era of music just around the corner.

Brennan McNally