By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
One of the biggest musical phenomena of the 20th century started because of booze and a Brit. When Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt of Sub Pop records wanted to push Seattle grunge music from a local bubble into world-denomination territory, they wagered that the key was to pique the interest of U.K. tastemakers. Enter Everett True, who was a rock writer for the now-defunct English music magazine Melody Maker.
"They paid to fly Everett True out to Seattle. And they pretty much just fed him booze and took him to rock shows for a month," says Mark Baumgarten, editor of Seattle Sound magazine. "Then he went back, and in Melody Maker wrote up the scene there. And those bands got a European audience, and then it just took off from there."
What took off was the explosion of Seattle grunge of the early 1990s. A major-label feeding frenzy ensued. Nirvana took over the world. A&R reps trawled the city for any Kurt Cobain look-alike to gobble up and exploit. And flannel shirts started getting fancy names stitched inside the necks and $100 price tags.
Recently, the propulsion of the Twin Cities music scene seemed an eerie parallel. In January, the U.K.'s Guardian wrote up local punkers Baby Guts. In February, NME offered buzz-band Solid Gold's "Get Over It" as their daily song download and printed a band bio. Each article referenced Minneapolis, making one wonder: "Could we be the next Seattle scene? Can the Brits do it again and get the world's media to finally return our gaze?"
"Over the years, I think that system, which identifies strongly with geographic areas of the country, died away," Roberts says. "To a large extent MySpace has rendered it obsolete. With MySpace, it doesn't matter where you're from."
Creativity has long pulsed through the local scene. It began in the garage-rock era with hit-makers like the Castaways and the Gestures, arguably peaked with the '80s heyday of Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, and Prince, and continues now, when hip-hop label Rhymesayers has made the Twin Cities an underground Mecca of the genre, and Tapes 'n Tapes have become national indie-rock darlings.
But Baumgarten agrees with Roberts's assessment. He argues that even if we find our modern Nirvana, a Seattle-like resurgence is impossible—and he says it's because of the decline of the record industry.
"That's never going to happen again," he says. "Now it's gotten to the point where the industry is so atomized and fractured that there is no way a single band can hit and then [have the city get] devoured by the record industry the way that Seattle was."
Despite this, Seattle today still has a healthy and growing music culture. Baumgarten says this is because business infrastructure from the boom days is still in place.
"Let's take Fleet Foxes as an example. It is possible for a local band in Seattle to work with only local businesses and skyrocket to international renown," he says. "They can really work with an all-local industry and propel themselves into that stratosphere, and that can't happen in Minneapolis. Right now there are a good number of things that need to be there that aren't happening. One of them is a label with international distribution and a national/international reputation. I don't think there is much of a management structure in Minneapolis, with managers who are well-connected to the industry who can hook people up."
Maybe this is okay. Maybe we don't need to push the Minneapolis/St. Paul brand on the rest of civilization, because we know we're cool. Spend a few nights hopping from the Turf Club to the Triple Rock to the Hexagon and one can't help but recognize the immense talent of our local musicians. Take alt-country groups like Romantica and Chris Koza. Take electro-poppers like Mystery Palace and I, Colossus. Then there are the Retainers and Kitten Forever making us squeal with punk delight.
Roberts says the quality and variety of local music is largely due to the freedom to experiment that comes from living in a fly-over state.
"We're not as privy to what is going on on the coasts as people on the coasts are. So we have to make it up ourselves," he says. "And that's why, stylistically, we're just going off in every direction. We only have ourselves to please. We don't need validation from the rest of the country."
If Baby Guts and Solid Gold go on to bring their noise to the masses, good for them. If hip-hop all-stars like Atmosphere and Doomtree can continue to make our home team proud, more power to them. But if the world doesn't discover the legion of amazing bands packing our venues every night, it's their loss. We'll be glad to keep them.