In a Global World, Can You Still Find 'Local' Bands?

In a global economy, regional music sounds face new rules.


May 29, 2007— -- Columnist Tom Friedman famously announced in 2005 that the world is flat. Thanks to technology and a more open global economy, he argued, any person can meet and do business with any other person on the planet. Nations will become obsolete.

The same could happen to music: As technology and social networking raise visibility for acts around the globe, the idea of "local" music becomes more problematic.

The 1990s were dominated by powerful music scenes: Seattle grunge, Austin alt-country, New York hip-hop. These scenes would serve as incubators for talent and provide one-stop shopping for record labels. Now, thanks to MySpace and Internet radio webcasting, bands don't have to hang around local scenes for long before they get a global audience -- if they're good, that is.

For example, Swedish electro-pop trio Peter Bjorn & John developed a fan base of taste makers, thanks to a single link posted on music web site Pitchfork. Less than six months later, their hit single "Young Folks" is playing in heavy rotation at major city Rock Stations and was recently featured in an AT&T ad.

When everyone can record and distribute from home, is there a role left for local music scenes?

DJs and artists seem to agree that the answer is a qualified 'yes.'

"The new local scene is a global music scene," said Chris Douridas, a DJ for the taste-making radio station KCRW, which also webcasts to a global audience. No one is a bigger advocate for finding music on MySpace than Douridas, who frequently scours band pages and sifts through mountains of emails from bands who want to be played on his show.

This way of doing things is a big shift away from the old idea of local music scenes, which Douridas characterized as areas where college radio and local print media would support local bands, who would all play the same venues and frequently swap members (think of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog in Seattle). From that joint attention, a band could get picked up by national labels and radio.

ABC News contributor Michael Smith is an internationally recognized DJ who has a music-services business. He works with a variety of national brands. or info@smitheventmusic.comThese days, it's a free-for-all.

"You can vault over a scene," Douridas explained. "We're playing a band called 'Detective Byron,' from Sweden. I have no idea how they're thought of in their local community. They could just be making great records, and maybe they don't have a live show presence. I'm just reacting to the records they've made."

But geography isn't meaningless, especially in hip-hop, where flaunting neighborhood loyalties and city-specific styles are key to any artist's success. San Diego-based Chicano rapper Lil Rob has been making albums since 1992, averaging sales of 90,000 units per record, but doesn't have a fan base that makes it past the Colorado River, let alone the Mississippi. In Florida and the Gulf, rapper Plies has achieved similar rabid, but geographically limited success.

Even in rock music, a band's origins still contribute to its sound and approach to making music. California bands have always had a distinctive, open, energetic quality to their music that welcomes the road. The Silversun Pickups's single "Lazy Eye" is a recent example.

Meanwhile, 5,000 miles away, Iceland has developed a sound based on extremes and experimentation. As DJ Douridas explained, "The people there are cloaked in darkness six months of the year and blinded by light the other six months. They have this introvert/extrovert mentality."

Some countries have even gone so far as to cultivate their music scenes with state money. Sweden, which has historically produced amazingly catchy groups such as Abba, Roxette and The Cardigans, has invested in its creative output by giving grant money to its rock bands touring abroad.

Now far from its roots in sugarpop, Sweden has nurtured one of the strongest rock scenes on the planet. It began earlier this decade with The Caesars and The Hives and has continued with Peter Bjorn and John, of the AT&T ad, and The Knife. As the New York Times reported, Denmark, Australia and Canada have also funded their bands' travels.

ABC News contributor Michael Smith is an internationally recognized DJ who has a music-services business. He works with a variety of national brands. or

The question is, as geographical distance becomes less relevant, will the Swedish sound eventually become as diluted and diverse as the American scene, where formerly distinctive local music festivals like Austin's South By Southwest have become national and even global talent shows.

For artists, at least, the idea of a local scene still means something. As Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter James Combs explained, "Camaraderie and the social part of playing music is a really big part of any local music scene. It's just fun to hook up with other artists and help them develop their sound by supporting it and remaining behind them."

And the audiences are grateful to have a local scene as well. In Los Angeles, Combs said, the hip Hollywood venue Hotel Cafe has become the epicenter of local music, where everyone from Pete Townsend to your next door neighbor can play a show in a smaller setting.

Though the Internet provides more ways for the band to blow up, bands -- and audiences -- will always appreciate the intimacy and comfort of local live shows and still celebrate regional stars regardless of their national impact.

"Let's say the band lives in LA: Even if they're making a lot of noise in Europe, it's still a band playing down the street in your neighborhood and you're going to see them because it's fun," Combs said matter-of-factly. "It's still a social world."

ABC News contributor Michael Smith is an internationally recognized DJ who has a music-services business. He works with a variety of national brands. or

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