If you’ve ever seen a sticker or a shirt asking you to “support local music,” you might recognize the sense of pride found in small musical circles. You might nod or offer a smile and go about your way, or you might just roll your eyes and switch to the next song on your iPod.
But it’s hard not to at least notice the strong presence of local music in Ann Arbor. It’s impossible to walk to class and not see a poster taped to the side of a building, rounder or coffee shop bulletin board advertising a local concert. Though the occasional marquee act may stop by Hill Auditorium or the Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor natives dominate most performances around town.
Everyone starts somewhere, and many of Ann Arbor’s local musicians got their start at the University of Michigan. High school friendships, music school projects and even JDate profiles can lay the foundation for lasting musical collaborations that extend far beyond the Diag. Rescheduled midterms, cut classes and weekends spent in vans are a common occurrence. Practice spaces can range from rooms in the music school to cramped basements of Ann Arbor houses.
Sometimes, the bands don’t have any room to practice.
“When you’re playing enough shows strung together, they become your practice,” explained My Dear Disco’s Tyler Duncan, one of the band’s two keyboardists.
Currently on tour in Colorado and gradually snaking its way back to Ann Arbor with stops in Kansas and Iowa, My Dear Disco is merely one of the many popular local bands for University students. The band, currently made up of seven graduates of the University’s School of Music, has gone through several lineup changes over the years.
“The band was first called Toolbox,” Duncan recalled. “But our first gig as My Dear Disco was at the Blind Pig.”
Ah, the Blind Pig. Planted snugly above the 8 Ball Saloon on the corner of Washington and First Avenue, the Pig is a relatively modest venue, but its importance to the local music of Ann Arbor runs deep. Whether it’s housing a familiar crowd of locals and students stopping by to see their favorite Ann Arbor act or just folks stopping by to pick up cheap beer and catch a good, up-close-and-personal concert, the Blind Pig has been an invaluable resource for developing most bands in the area.
Jason Berry, in charge of booking for the venue, is primarily responsible for selecting the bands that come through, and he doesn’t forget a face.
“Once you’re in their world, they have a vested interest in helping you grow,” said Jonathan Visger of local mainstay band Mason Proper — a group of University graduates whose new album Olly Oxen Free recently garnered a favorable review from the respected indie webzine Pitchfork. But as much as Jason and the folks at the Blind Pig do their best to help out, there’s still a seemingly endless amount of drudgework to be done. “It’s a matter of constantly reminding people that you exist,” Jonathan continued. “Bands that ruthlessly self-promote tend to do a lot better much quicker.”
“You really have to promote yourself,” said Ryan Sloan of Farewell Republic, an inventive post-rock outfit that happens to be playing a show tonight at the Blind Pig with Detroit’s Satin Peaches. “In Ann Arbor, you learn how to build your chops as a promotion machine.”
In actuality, promoting shows extends far beyond the thousands of posters adorning Ann Arbor’s façades: Tools like Facebook and MySpace prove essential to reaching larger crowds, and local press is more than happy to put in a blurb about an upcoming show every now and then.
While most bands that call Ann Arbor home would be considered “indie,” the term has become as broad as, say, “alternative” was by the end of the ’90s. The broad spectrum of “indie rock” serves as an umbrella term for the eclectic sounds present across the Ann Arbor music scene. Bands like Lightning Love are notably peppier, with more dance and pop-oriented sounds. At the same time, there are plenty of other more layered and guitar-driven acts like Starling Electric and Farewell Republic. Heck, My Dear Disco is even known to break out the bagpipes in its live shows. Since there are so many bands all with different sounds, there has to be some competition, right?
“No, not at all,” Sloan said. “Everybody helps each other out, and it makes for a really great atmosphere.”
The cooperative environment he describes is most apparent in the shared bills at the Blind Pig, the constant plugging of one another’s shows and something called Bluegrass Night.
“Bluegrass Night is a great time,” said Duncan of My Dear Disco. Organized by local promoter Matthew “Tuna” Altruda, Bluegrass Night is a free night of roots music held every Wednesday night at Circus Bar & Grill above the Cavern nightclub.
It’s more of a gathering of local musicians than anything else, as Duncan explains: “You go to Bluegrass Night a few times, and I guarantee that you will eventually come across everyone on the local scene.”
Local music shops thrive in Ann Arbor, contrary to the sharp decline in larger music stores across the country in recent years. Places like Wazoo Records, Underground Sounds, Encore Sounds and PJ’s Records have an important place in the local music scene themselves, many promoting Ann Arbor bands’ upcoming shows or new albums with large in-store posters. Some show their support by purchasing CDs from the bands, regardless of their confidence in the album’s selling power — their faith in the bands themselves is all the assurance they need.
This grassroots support is unique to these smaller, more homegrown shops, creating a sense of hospitality that larger retailers like Wal-Mart and iTunes can never offer.
“They love what they do,” says Caleb Dillon of Starling Electric, a vibrant quartet which released its stunning Clouded Staircase last year, and will be playing at the Blind Pig Friday night with Lightning Love. “Just like us, when they hear something they really love, they go out and tell people about it.”
Despite so much support from all involved in the local scene, the student crowd as a whole doesn’t always reflect their enthusiasm. It’s hard to blame them, considering the array of parties and clubs that decorate Ann Arbor nightlife, though many would say students just have too much going on.
“It seems like (students) are pulled in a lot of directions at once. They’re involved with too many things to take the time to come out to shows all the time,” Caleb said. “And in a city as active as Ann Arbor, it’s difficult to know everything that’s going on at once.”
Still, it seems that there could always be more enthusiasm surrounding local music, record stores or venues.
But behind the cynicism and unimportance typically placed around local music, there’s always the hope that someone will take a chance. Someone will walk over to Wazoo or Underground Sounds instead of clicking on iTunes; another will stop by the Blind Pig and be pleasantly surprised by that one band that had all of those posters. With new people comes new enthusiasm, and with the constant influx of students, there are always people willing to take that chance. In a local scene as storied, dynamic and eclectic as Ann Arbor’s, there’s no doubt people will continue to find music worth sharing with the world.