My Qualms With The Chapel Hill Music Scene

By Tyler M. Bryant

EDIT: So just to clarify, I have actually gotten to know some fantastic and really cool local musicians. There are gems all over town and in no way am I trying to dismiss the whole scene. The Station in Carrboro probably has one of the best open Mics I’ve ever been to. I don’t harbor any actual resentment towards anyone mentioned. I also genuinely dig the music that the fellow I discuss makes with his band. The sound is really progressive and cool while maintaining pop sensibilities. I have gotten to know the keyboardist, who is a fantastically awesome and chill dude in addition to being one of the most talented and creative musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to and playing with live.

This post may be professional suicide (or, let’s face it, semi-professional suicide), but I have some things to get off my chest about the Chapel Hill Music scene.

First and foremost is perhaps my most bombastic claim. If you are a musician in Chapel Hill, the last thing any other local musicians want is for you to be good. At all. That premise may sound like the rhetoric of an oil tycoon; it positions musicians like brands who view competition as a threat to their survival. Unfortunately, that state of mind has been pervasive ever since I began playing around here as a wee freshman.

Thinking in such a way about musicians is something I had never really heard of before entering this music scene. In Mooresville, Davidson, Cornelius, Charlotte, Nashville, and pretty much any other scene I’ve performed or watched music in, artists seem to be exuberantly supportive of one another. These scenes are not only hotbeds for collaboration, but people want to like each other, and respecting the talent of other musicians actually reflects positively on you as both an artist and as a human being.

The way it seems to be around here is that, if you suck (I’ve seen plenty of performers in this boat), musicians won’t give you the time of day as far as collaboration or friendship goes. But, they will tell you they enjoyed your set and maybe even converse with you for five minutes before they have to get in a dramatic phone argument about what kind of laptop stand their synth player is going to use for their set in two hours. However, the real cardinal sin is if you don’t suck (it’s even worse if the audience seems to like your performance). As petty and hard to believe as it sounds, I have had so many encounters with musicians in Chapel Hill who won’t talk to me or other slightly seasoned performers after our sets.

Here is just one of those examples to give you an idea. A year and a half ago, I played at a Battle of the Songwriters at a venue called Chapel Hill Underground. I know what you’re thinking, “of course people are going to be a little standoffish when they are competing against you.” Well, this particular encounter wasn’t even with a musician who was playing in the competitive portion of the evening’s festivities.

The winner of the previous years’ competition was set to play the end of the show as a sendoff (he was not even competing). I had recognized him from a theater production he had been in with my girlfriend, so I introduced myself early in the night. He was nice enough at first, he shook my hand and even made eye contact. As soon as I told him that I was a musician, he looked away and started walking in another direction without so much as a “see ya later.”

I happened to be slated to play last in the competitive portion of the show, right before this other musician. He began setting up his guitar backstage the same time as me. I figured I might forge a bond.

“Good luck out there, man! I’ve heard some of your stuff and I’m excited to see a live performance!”

Nothing.

“That’s a beautiful guitar dude. Did it come acoustic-electric, or did you put that pick-up in yourself?”

“Yeah.”

Afterwards, I played what I would describe as one of my better sets. I played a hip hop song that many audience members seemed to know, and there was an exciting energy in the place as a I went backstage to put my guitar away. Surely, I had earned some sort of respect from him as a fellow artist.

“Good luck up there, dude. Can’t wait to hear your stuff.”

At least the other times he would give me some sort of body language acknowledgement. After my last attempt to converse with the local star, he didn’t give the slightest sign that he noticed my existence. I even said he played a good a set after the show was over, to which he said “Thanks” (I suspect because my girlfriend, his former co-actor, was standing next to me at that final time).

This brings me to my other qualm about the local music scene. The only two genres around here that seem to have any hope of traction are Party Country and Neo-Folk (which, for the purposes of readers actually knowing what I’m talking about, I will refer to as “Mumford and Sons Music”). You see, we seem to live in a time when college students generally don’t go out with the purpose of watching non-internationally-famous (a.k.a. local) music. Only a niche group of students and young people seem to frequent the music hot spots of Carrboro, and they only want to hear the acts with the most hipster credibility, because these listeners bear striking cultural resemblances to the guy in the featured image for this post. For these audiences, seeing bands that play quirky acoustic pop with generic droning about melancholia using deceptively easy guitar riffs is culturally rewarding. They talk to their five friends (four of them are in the given band) constantly about the subtle intricacies of the third verse, which really captures the torment of the singer’s soul (which no one truly understands because his sideburns and emotions are just tooo deep for you to even relate to).

The performer I encountered earlier was in this camp. To my knowledge, he actually has a small following; I just don’t want to have to join some sort of cult to worship the ego of this local student performer.

As far as the party country goes, these bands are typically made up of solid musicians with refreshingly less-than-mountain-sized egos who play frat parties. They accept payment in PBR.

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