Anywhere's Better than Here

How can Miami ever develop a decent music scene when its best bands keep leaving town?

On a warm Monday afternoon, the members of Miami's alternative rock foursome Muse are packing up for a road trip. They're bringing along more than their music equipment and a few changes of clothing, though. After all, their upcoming trek isn't just a two-week shuffle across the national nightclub circuit: Muse is relocating, leaving Miami and the club scene where they cut their teeth for one of two cities in Georgia -- either Atlanta or Athens, both respected music capitals with vibrant live-music scenes. Together both cities have produced a slew of major-league acts, from Athens' B-52s and R.E.M. to Atlanta's Black Crowes and TLC, nearly all of whom have remained based in their respective hometowns throughout their efforts to find a national audience. Muse has been thinking about moving for close to a year now, and with the success of their May 1995 self-released compact disc -- an eponymously titled set of melodic yet crunching guitar-heavy rock -- and the ink still drying on a recording contract they signed with an offshoot of Atlantic Records, they figure the time is right to call a new place home. Whether they settle in Atlanta or Athens, the assumption among the band members seems to be that either place will be better than Miami.

"We love the city in a way, but it's really hard for rock bands to make it when they're based in Miami," says Jose Pulido, Muse's comanager. "People here are more interested in going out dancing and not much into seeing live rock bands. It's just too hard." Muse drummer Brett Thorngren agrees: "Live music is a really low priority here for too many people. You can bust your ass to promote yourself, but this just isn't a rock town. Miami has more of a dancing and bar-hopping scene going, but Atlanta and Athens both have great [live-music] scenes happening, with tons of places to play and a lot of people who like to go out and hear bands."

Muse isn't the first band to feel the frustration of trying to scratch out a living in South Florida, nor are they the first to leave Miami for a more receptive music climate. Honky-tonkers the Mavericks lighted off to Nashville as soon as their 1990 album From Hell to Paradise (MCA) established their hit-making credentials. Forget the Name cofounder Rene Alvarez left town last fall to establish himself in New York City, where his new hard-edged group Sixo is drawing considerable crowds at Big Apple haunts, including the punk mecca CBGB's, the East Village institution the Pyramid, and the New Music Cafe, a hangout for college students. Tom Smith, the driving force behind the guerrilla noise group To Live and Shave in L.A., bid a disgusted farewell to Miami last December and set up shop in Chicago, where his avant-screech experiments have found an enthusiastic and receptive audience -- something that eluded him throughout his five years in Miami.

Although these artists are working in decidedly different and diverse spheres of the music industry A from the multiplatinum world of the Mavericks to Alvarez's genre-mixing patch of Latin-rock turf A the reasons they've all left Miami are basically the same: the dearth of live-music venues; the lack of support from both clubgoers and the media; and the isolation and impracticality of living at the southernmost tip of a southernmost state. It's not surprising, then, that as soon as an opportunity arises to leave Miami for a more musically conducive locale -- be it the catalyst of a record deal or simply the lure of a wider array of nightclubs -- musicians usually wave goodbye to this city with their belongings in tow.

"It happens a lot in Miami," notes Richard Ulloa, referring to the artist exodus. The owner of Yesterday & Today Records and one-half of RS Artist Management (which boasts clients such as Mary Karlzen and For Squirrels), Ulloa has seen countless musicians take off for more promising parts. Some leave out of frustration, he says, others out of necessity, such as the Mavericks, whose pre-MCA debut disc was released on Ulloa's local Y&T label. "A lack of places to play has definitely hurt us, and the less venues you have, the less chance you have of developing a really great music scene," Ulloa explains. "With the Mavericks, it was very practical for them to move to Nashville. There were no places here for them to play, and since all the networking in country music happens in Nashville, it was a smart move for them. And Miami's just so far away from everything. Even if you're based in Atlanta, you're still just a hop, skip, and jump from practically everywhere. If you're based in Washington, D.C., you're basically four hours from New York, Boston, Chicago. Being in Miami, though, it's not easy to make it unless you're touring all the time like [former Fort Lauderdale group] Marilyn Manson. But not everyone can tour for two years straight."

Churchill's Hideaway owner Dave Daniels also understands the strictures of touring from a Miami base and acknowledges the limitations that the city's geographic location imposes on bands from elsewhere. He took over the Little Haiti club in the late Seventies, and has been booking local and national bands there since the early Eighties; currently Churchill's features an eclectic array of area talent, from folkie songwriter Diane Ward to punk extremists Kreamy 'Lectric Santa. Daniels says there are more clubs in Miami now than when he opened Churchill's, and though he admits that Miami's live-music scene isn't that great, he believes it could be much worse. "The location hurts Miami in a way, because it's impossible for a group to have a reasonable calendar of gigs without traveling through the state," theorizes Daniels. "And when you consider it's about 500 miles from here to the top of the state, that just isn't good geography from a traveling point of view."

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