The Local Rock Scene Is Dead

Listen to the music. It contains every variant of truth and lie. The music carries the capability of generating fantasy, turning it into reality. It can turn reality into fantasy. Music is art.

And so by both definition and simple observation, rock and roll made by area residents is art. And business is business. When business becomes part of the musical equation, the art suffers. Music is no longer simply music, purely art, it's business. So the problem I see in the allegedly dead (and nearly buried) local-rock scene is that money, as usual, is the bottom line. And nobody's making much money.

One example: When Linda Lou Nelson recently closed her local-music hub, the Cactus Cantina on South Beach, she gave as one reason her belief that local music is no longer viable, that the so-called scene is history.

Okay, say it is. Why? I know plenty of local bands that are worth listening to. I spoke to a number of people from all levels of the music industry, but what rings loudest are these lyrics: "There's a war here/It won't make the evening news/'Cause them rich folks/Only thinking about what they choose/It'd be different/If us poor folks held the cards...."

Arlan Feiles, of local band Natural Causes, wrote that, and sings the words in a way as clear and profound as the statement itself. And that's where it all begins: with a person who has something to say. Songs get written, a band forms, they take their act to clubs that allow for original music, and they play. Perhaps they record the songs, sometimes for distribution as a CD.

The band hopes the live shows develop a following that stirs enough people to create a "buzz." If the buzz is loud, a major label might take interest and maybe even sign the group to a lucrative deal, helping the music reach listeners around the nation.

"You have to be a good songwriter," says Tony Moyers, a manager at Peaches Records and Tapes and guitarist for Young Turk, a local band that signed with two major labels. And then the band began falling apart. "If you don't have good songs you won't get signed," he adds. And if you do have the songs (Young Turk certainly did), and you do get signed, that is hardly the end of the story.

"Major labels are looking for a band in their natural environment with a local following," offers Warren Wyatt of Wyatt Management Company. Wyatt handled Saigon Kick, who achieved gold-record status after signing to Third Stone/Atlantic. Then members began leaving Saigon, and its status as a band is currently up in the air.

"I'm not into the geographic scene," says Michael Kaplan, the A&R scout for Epic Records who signed Nuclear Valdez. He discovered that band by coincidence, not through research or by hearing any "buzz," though the Nukes certainly had one. After two albums, they were dropped from the label because they weren't selling enough records. "It didn't make sense for them to stay with us or for us to stay with them," Kaplan explains. "But I still love the Nukes." Alas, Kaplan's job has nothing to do with love and everything to do with money.

"The first record didn't catch, the second record depended on one song to make it happen or not," says Michael Lembo, Nuclear Valdez's New York-based manager. "Pearl Jam had just released their record. There's nothing you can do with an artist who's selling thousands of records and you're not. Luck and timing is the main thing. Beyond that it's persistence."

He mentions nothing about good songs.
"It's a complicated machine," Criteria Studios' Joel Levy says of the music industry. "Gone are the days when record companies would come out to see the band. They want to hear them in studio."

Levy has made an effort to help area musicians record at Criteria, a top-of-the-line studio often used by the biggest names in the pop pantheon. John Tovar -- whose TCA management handles the Mavericks (on MCA) and Marilyn Manson (signed to Nothing/Interscope) A also emphasizes the importance of recording. "I always tell bands," he says, "to forget about the label deal and get something out on their own."

Within the past year a number of local bands have released cassettes and CDs, among them Black Janet, Forget the Name, Natural Causes, Nil Lara, and Rooster Head. After issuing original material, both Mary Karlzen and Collapsing Lungs were signed by Atlantic Records. What more does it take? Radio airplay. "That's the missing link," notes Levy.

"No, there aren't too many outlets for people to hear your music on the radio," says local musician Glenn Allen. "If people don't hear your stuff, they won't come out to see you play and won't buy your records. If they don't see you, there's no buzz about you and an A&R rep will seldom hear about you."

Michael Stock hosts the folk and acoustic program on public station WLRN-FM (91.3) and he does play some local music. "The owners of the [commercial] radio stations just don't care," he says. "They don't have the courage to be different."

Miami itself is different from, say, Athens, Georgia, or Seattle or Austin. The mix of cultures makes this area unique. According to producer Tom Dowd, the ethnic blend can help -- anything "normal" coming out of such a weird place is at least anachronistic. "But on the radio we don't have anything to listen to," he adds.

Dowd has produced records with the likes of Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Eddie Money. He also worked with Natural Causes at Criteria, cutting a demo for Atlantic (the label passed on signing the band). "I have no allegiance to any radio station," Dowd growls. "I won't listen to some station that's competing with fourteen others. Radio's contrived, formulated, and boring."

WSHE-FM (103.5) once provided an alternative to the contrived, formulated, and boring by airing Glenn Richards's She's Only South Florida Rock and Roll show, which aired from 11:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. on Sunday nights. SHE's then-new program director, Ernesto Gladden, hired in June, took responsibility for the cancellation of the local show, explaining that the biggest problem was what didn't get played. "Are you going to tell some kid that he's not good enough?" he asked. Besides, he added, commercial radio should play what people already want to hear. "If people are buying a product, they want to hear that product." (Gladden has since departed SHE.)

"People gravitate towards what they're fed," argues Tony Moyers, the guitarist and record seller. "Radio stations play Top 40, that's what people buy. But at Peaches we carry the local stuff, too."

"WSHE got good PR when they had the local show," notes LRN's Bob Slade, "and they got bad PR when they canceled it. They just wanted to run on auto pilot, cash their checks, and go home. It's not even a rock station. It's more like classic rock. Being topical is the least of their worries."

Slade hosts Off the Beaten Path an underground-rock show that airs each Monday from midnight to 2:00 a.m. He plays local groups. "I don't just play them because they're local," he says. "The music has to have enough of an edge. They have to measure up to what's happening nationally."

And I say that there are many local bands that measure up. Most don't fit into the type of music Slade plays, leaving them few outlets. Actually, two outlets: the University of Miami's 1300-watt WVUM-FM (90.5) and Piper High School's 4000-watt WKPX-FM (88.5).

Warren Wyatt describes South Florida as "an untapped resource." Like gold or oil or any other resource, that implies that if Miami music were effectively mined -- if the art were given a chance and radio would get a clue -- big money could be made. And if that's what it takes....

I look at the bottom line this way: Radio stations are playing what's at the top of the charts because that will take them to the top of the ratings. But if radio put local music first, it might help get people out to see the bands. That would help bands develop local followings, creating the "buzz" that attracts the major labels. That would allow these bands to reach national audiences. They would sell lots of records. Their records would make the Top 40.... Something like that. It's cyclical and daunting and really doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But everybody would make money.

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Joyce Bejar