Is Geography History? (Think Piece)

Local music scenes have been crucial in the formation and development of new and original genres throughout pop music’s history, but has the influence of a strong geographical identity become irrelevant?

New York’s CBGB, a home to punk and new wave

For decades, musical styles and genres have seemingly appeared from the furthest reaches of the globe and into the public consciousness. However, these forms and scenes have often been allowed years of development and fine-tuning before breaking through, mostly shaped by the culture that’s specific to the people of these places. With the advent of the internet and its fellow new media, has this crucial developmental period been removed in favour of rapid cross-pollination of styles from one end of the planet to the other? And has the web centralised the formation of new and fresh musical ideas, removing the reliance on physical location as inspirational source?

In the past, small groups of bands with no other means of communication besides the face to face were able to contain a shared sound within a small geographical area. Take the “Madchester” bands of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. It’s hard to imagine the lairy swagger of Shaun Ryder or Ian Brown’s heavily accented Mancunian slur translating easily to guitar bands of the Home Counties, following the inevitable internet hype machine that would quickly spread the sound away from its north-western roots. Without sufficient time to mature and develop its ideals, would the DC hardcore scene of the early ‘80s remained relevant long enough for its bands to spawn the “Straight Edge” movement and its DIY work ethic?

That’s not to say that the collaborative capabilities of genres formed and nurtured in the virtual world aren’t exciting and fascinating in their potential combinations – consider the recent live performance from the heavily geographically dispersed Twitter Band, or the constantly evolving world of electronic music thanks to accessible software and online sound archives. The accessibility of pre-existing genres to areas of the world that had not previously encountered them has thrown up some incredible interpretations also. But does all this mean the end for the once fundamental local scene?

The Hacienda in Manchester

Think of the world’s most famous musical cities: Nashville, the home of country & western, Berlin’s ever-evolving techno scene, the Merseybeat of Liverpool, east coast New York with its hipsters (nee folkies), west coast California and the birth and death of the hippie dream, the tangos of Buenos Aires and the clubbing paradise of Ibiza. Even the lesser known hotspots: the bustling capitals of West Africa with their respective musical traditions, 19th century waltzing Vienna, the chanters and chanteuses of Paris, and that’s not even considering the eastern end of the world.

All of these places had something about them, whether the cultural makeup of their native and immigrant peoples, socio/political climate, meteorological conditions, or just something in the water, that was meant they were able to conceive and nurture a musical style unique to that location. Without tracing the roots of meta-genres back to the beginning, it’s fairly simple to point out one or two recurring factors in the creation of a music scene.

Primarily – after establishing a general ethos (political stance, existing cultural backlash etc), consciously or otherwise – it appears that there must be hospitable venues for a scene to germinate within. Madchester had the Haçienda, punk and new wave had CBGB (ironically itself an abbreviation of country, blue grass and blues), reggae squeezed the formation of an entire genre into Studio 1, etc.

Clement “Coxsone” Dodd at the controls of Studio 1

Hip-hop has arguably one of the most easily traceable genetic lines (or at least the one traced most often), with specific dates and locations of key developmental stages within the New York borough of the Bronx available for examination. Its manifestation from the parental genres of soul, funk, and electro is clear and evidential, and, although its associated art forms sprang from – and helped to dictate – the culture of African-Americans far beyond the reaches of the Big Apple, its birthplace is indisputable.

Some scene-spawning locations may not be restricted to single venues. Fela Kuti’s Nigeria of the 1970s was a complex maze of political corruption and abuse of civil liberties; perfect for shaping his unique and oft-imitated brand of Afrobeat, whereas similar troubles in the Jamaica of the late ‘60s boosted a renewed sense of pride in heritage in groups of reggae performers (Bob Marley & The Wailers among them), leading to the “roots” strand of the genre.

However, these days scenes need not rely on location or shared political ideals. “Chillwave”, the recent internet-nurtured, reverb-laden genre du jour is, in its very nature, an LA sound: sun-bleached, airy, and awash with surf. Yet a large number of its main protagonists manage to channel this sonic aesthetic while residing far away from the beaches of Malibu and Santa Monica. This is a great example of genre transcending geographical location – chillwave as a form being one of the clearest instances of an internet blog-fuelled scene, with early forages into the production style from artists such as Animal Collective’s Panda Bear championed by tastemakers like Pitchfork and Hipster Runoff (widely believed to have coined the term “chillwave”) rather than spawning any sort of local, physical “scene”. It could now be considered a global form, with artists as wide-reaching as Barcelona’s El Guincho to Oxford’s Chad Valley embracing the genre’s manifesto, and this can only be down to its existence as an internet-based form through the promotion of blogs and forums.

Barcelona’s El Guincho

Conversely, there is a modern genre that seems to have bucked the trend. Although receiving much love and attention from the virtual world, for many years the core of the dubstep scene has remained fairly insular in its south London bubble. One explanation for this could be that it was picked up by pirate radio and clubs long before the internet got a hold, and the underground London scene that was still in the throes of UK garage and grime was much more receptive to the half-time, scattergun beats and throbbing bass lines. It rapidly became a badge of geographical identity, one that the rest of the world didn’t pick up on until inevitable commercialisation much further down the line. Pitchfork launched its monthly Grime/Dubstep column in 2005, long after the heavyweight likes of Skream, Benga and Digital Mystikz had become local legends, and the slew of dubstep forums that eventually sprang up only began to snowball in number around this time. Even now the scene is heavily UK-based, radiating from Croydon to the clubs of Brighton, Nottingham and Manchester, while Bristol – not content with its own achievements in the creation of trip-hop 20 years ago – now has a claim for dubstep’s second city. This is very much an outdated template in the spreading of a scene: a localisation of a specific musical style that has remained contained within its place of birth for enough time to distinguish its sound, before being picked up on by the wider population.

David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s fantastic TV series Treme also touches on these themes by examining attempts by New Orleans inhabitants to revive the spirits of a city devastated by natural disaster through its long and prestigious musical heritage. In the wake of hurricane Katrina, with large sections of the city still sore in the structure of its buildings and the psyches of its people, tourists from around the world poured into the city, having only recently learned of the rich musical past that its natives have nurtured for decades. The New Orleans jazz and blues styles that permeate the show are prime examples of decades of scene-building, something that would have very quickly taken on a life of its own had early Professor Longhair albums leaked onto the internet before their release date. In a humorous twist of fate, one of the city’s most successful contemporary artists, the rapper Lil Wayne, owes his career outside New Orlean’s borders to the internet-generated hype surrounding his music.

Even pre-internet, not all scenes relied on physical location to grow and expand. The Britpop of the ‘90s was less a collective group of musical ideals, more a loose, media-generated term that brought together a scattered selection of bands to fight America’s musical dominance of the decade to date. Britpop had factions in both the north and south of Britain, each with its own take on the concept.


Cover of an NME Britpop edition

The centralisation of music’s geography online is not a wholly negative thing. Collaborations between artists can now be instantaneous; influences and inspiration potentially boundless, not limited to what LPs can be found in the local record shop (in themselves rapidly becoming obsolete). Bands can now exist in the musical consciousness from areas not previously associated with a strong musical tradition, giving way to weird interpretations of past genres resulting from the large panoramic view of bygone eras the internet offers.

However, there are the inevitable downsides. Local competition in smaller areas often bred better music as artists were forced to push themselves in the face challengers. Where once artists took pride in the areas that raised them – US hip-hop’s east coast/west coast divisions, Springsteen’s blue collar America, the determinedly proud French chanson of Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour et al –references to these places are now more concerned with paying dues rather than recognising the effect they had on their sound.

But this is current the state of play, and music, as with every art form, has found ways to adapt and progress in an age less reliant on physical space. The internet serves as an all-encompassing meeting point of musical minds, as well as a bizarre and often confusing time capsule of what has come before. When these two factors collide, it has the potential to create some fascinating interpretations of what music is in the 21st century.

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