This Present Silence (Our SC Music Scene)
Let us begin -
I have spent a good portion of my life, (youth and adult), giving deep thought to the condition of the music scene in South Carolina and I have to say I have come away with as little understanding today as I had in 1978. At best I can say that the years have revealed to me some truths and some lies about how original music has been cultured, channeled, promoted, and crushed both historically and present day throughout the Midlands and the state as a whole. To put a lot of this in perspective there are some key elements you have to realize before you jump into this black hole - the state of South Carolina has not one but at least three nationally appealing Colleges and they are pretty well stocked with young bodies and hungry minds most of which can't wait to hear that next unknown sound that might elevate them socially among their peer set as "the one that discovered that band first". Now granted digital music formats have all but leveled the national music industry as we once knew it and by proxy and ease of access it has brought forth a vast horizon of free-to-download music by even what we would count as big league players still, by all accounting there should be enough rich and fertile soil in this state to grow and sustain a lot more music than can be found.
To even begin deconstructing and analyzing the South Carolina music scene you have to break it up into segments for clearer understanding and easier digesting. There are two primary areas that original music and the artists and bands that create it fall under and those areas are live performances and product releases. Understand that two simple categories really can’t begin to explain the absence of original music and artists in this state but I feel it is a primary starting point if you want to look this ugly monster in the eye.
Concerning live performances any creating musician will tell you that's where the songs go to grow. Historically it has always been live performance repetition that has turned a good original song into a great original song through sheer physical and sonic exploration. Without the opportunity to explore every aspect of the material you are writing and creating in a live, spontaneous environment complete with instantaneous audience feedback you might as well be masturbating. As an artist or band the key areas in the state to strive toward for live performance are Columbia, Charleston, and Greenville. There have been a few other specialty clubs and venues to reach for over the years but from a market standpoint these mentioned are the big three.
Being the capital of the state and touting the largest College to boot we have to start with Columbia which also happens to be the city I have the most musical experience with and my adopted hometown. I say adopted because I moved here from a much smaller town in SC and I understand that I always will be an outsider here, the proof to that statement will be from those who read this and say I don’t know what I’m talking about but I do because I personally experienced it myself. When it comes to musical circles in this town you are either in or you are out, there is no in-between and in all fairness I would venture to say it is probably like that in every city in every state – Lord of the Flies, which tribe are you with? The truth is that starting in the seventies and reaching well into the eighties the process kind of went like this –
you had to be a USC alumnus of some sort to get the chance to go before a handful of key people who owned and ran the clubs in the capital city to whom you would request an opportunity to play live at which point these key people might then take council with one or two local music gurus as to the weight and value of that which you have created and had to offer their audiences in their fare city.
As sad as this all sounds and as tragic as it was this process alone affected at least two generations of musicians and artists in and around Columbia, SC. And that in turn stunted the growth of the very music scene these key individuals relied on to define themselves to themselves and in their peers’ eyes. You can call it a case of "snake-eats-self-tail-first" if you will. Even Hootie came up in this same way and I'm sure their standing as USC alumnus did not hurt them locally at all as they passed through this process. Understand I am not taking anything from Hootie concerning this - they worked hard and they went beyond the borders of Columbia and even the state as often as they could to expand both their name and their fan base. In the end there is no denying that their incredible work ethic and diligence gave them the break they got but no matter who you are or how big you are it all still starts at home.
Now that we have laid out the live performance aspects of the capital city and we have discussed in brief the culture and rules within the environment that existed we can talk about the product or lack thereof. Because of the culture mentioned above and the “closed door policies” it held concerning all but a chosen few there was a period of time where many up and coming talented writers, musicians, and performers from all around this state had no avenue available to them in which to strive toward and because of that they simply gave up or died a slow death by being bound to local small town performances and small town venues. This forced extinction by exclusion which occurred over roughly twenty years, (just about the lifetime of a handful of key music scene players and club owners as mentioned before), had a detrimental effect on original music being developed and distributed throughout South Carolina. Simply put when artists could not play to the larger audiences for example in Columbia nor could they work toward writing and composing better songs for larger and more cultured audience acceptance beyond their smaller home towns they quietly quit or slowly faded away.
Another key component that has to be factored in on all of this is the timing and the impact digital music had to the present state of music and entertainment not just locally and regionally but nationally as well. Concerning the state of South Carolina, (which is the focal point of this conversation), by my math right about the time the above mentioned 20 years or so of market exclusion was coming to an end across the state the reign of digitized music on demand and free by “hook or crook” was coming into being. The eighties brought a wealth of access and possibilities to anyone with a personal computer to increase their music collection expediential. Yes, it’s true that same personal computer also gave every would-be musician and band the opportunity to break free of the standard tract to recording deals through monolithic record labels or freedom from the gauging high cost of local recording studios and their imposition of pre and post production on said musicians signature sound, this is something we can discuss at another time. I mention this component because it plays a big part in the marketing portion of local original music and the basic survival of working musicians and bands.
With the end of the 20-year exclusion policy the midlands and the state found itself in “catch-up” mode where many new artists, musicians, and bands were tuning in to the new digital age and the wealth of expensive but accessible home recording equipment by which they could track that incredible new song they just wrote and get it out to their friends via iTunes and iPods. On the national front a web of digital resources was emerging and musicians who knew how to look and what to look for or were just lucky found opportunities to have their material heard by independent labels which were also cropping up on every street corner at that time. There was not a wealth of money to be made but an artist’s material could be made available to audiences not reachable before and that alone often times can keep a dream alive for a while.
I believe Columbia is just now waking up, it’s a slow arousal for sure and it seems to lack a lot of vibrancy and electricity steeped in rebellion and individual creativity – all of the key elements that made other recent historic scenes so important like nearby Athens, GA or Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, NC. Which I might add both of these examples experienced their prime during our “silent years”. We have lost about two decades’ worth of growth, discovery, experimentation, and social block building and in the music industry that amount of time can wipe out an entire region of musicians and songs. It’s not just the music that suffers to survive, live, and grow in our midst but the social tapestry as well. We now have throughout the midlands what I can only describe as “clicks” or pockets of musicians and bands who cling together out of necessity, similarity, and survival, not knowing what else to do because their city has failed to grow much of a local based support mechanism to nurture, train, and lift up the talent we might have. I admire and respect Hootie and the Blowfish but I absolutely refuse to believe that one band will forever define South Carolina and every artist and band contained therein. Hell, even Liverpool managed to give us Flock of Seagulls too!
If we are ever going to realize true growth in our states cultural status, real clout in our ability to generate great singers, great songwriters, great performers for the rest of the world to hear and enjoy, then we have to take a more vested involvement in the growth and development of this current generation of music makers AND the environment surrounding them. If we don’t do more to help them now then we are simply adding another lost decade to the books, another 10 years of lost songs, lost performances, lost guitar solos, lost social statements and social views, I truly did not understand the weight of love and loss until I could write about it and work it out of me to hold, to examine, to share with others who might not have the ability to articulate those very feelings and help them pass through their fire but not alone. This is the power of music and I believe every young musician in our great state has the ability to do good and powerful things with this they simply lack a light to show them the way and the means by which to guide them.