What's a music scene under quarantine?

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

A music scene is as much about place as it is anything else. Between artists, fans, venues, and every other moving part that builds a music community, place is the commonality - usually. Because, of course, much communication takes place online now, especially within music communities, whether it's from fan to fan or from artist to fan. The internet has opened up scenes beyond physical place and has raised the level of accessibility. Place is no longer a prerequisite. But some have even gone as far to say that the internet has killed the local music scene - that it’s dying out: “We now make connections and hold global conversations with such speed that local scenes might not have the time to develop and assume their own identity,” writes Hazel Sheffield in an essay for The Guardian in 2010. But, it’s been ten years since Sheffield posited that, and still, I don’t think we’ve seen the death of the local music scene. It’s helpful, first, to define “scene.” At the heart of it, a music scene is simply a community of people coalescing around something in common, whether it’s a genre, a city, or both. So, when we’re discussing a local music scene, the shared thread tying people together is, of course, the location. And historically, when a new style has emerged, it has spread locally before moving out nationally (Seattle grunge is a popular example of this, or Midwest emo). I do think it’s a tempting argument to assert that the internet has killed local music scenes, and there is some validity to be found in that thought. Emo rap, for example, does not have any roots in one singular place. The origins of the scene are entirely online - through Soundcloud. But still, online communities have not erased the associations between a single music scene and it’s home. Drill is another recent style to emerge in the earlier part of this past decade, and drill is intrinsically tied to it’s Chicago roots. Some rockists might lament how there will never be another revolution like Seattle grunge in the 90s, but isn’t that a bit of rosy reminiscing? Some misplaced nostalgia for something you may not have even experienced? Sheffield even affirms this, writing of how such “local genres weren't always as definitive as legend would have it.” Hindsight is 20/20, and those living amongst a musical movement may not see it as such in the moment. It’s simply more accurate to say that local music scenes still exist - the boundaries are just blurrier and also, more evident. And isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t accessibility the one shining merit of music living on the internet? Moreover, there’s one thing that the internet has yet to replicate: live music. Arguments around genres and locales aside, the heart of the local music scene was, and still is, live shows. I live in Nashville, and here, you can find pulses at Drkmttr, Cobra, or That 70s House. At Cafe Coco or Two Boots. Ultimately, the internet has not killed the local music scene because it has not killed live music.

Photo of music venue The End in Nashville, TN by me (Cheyenne Bilderback).

So, what’s a music scene constituted of when these venues and stores and bars are no longer accessible? When we’re quarantined? If the heart of the music scene is community, what are we without the fellowship found by seeing our favorite bands at a local venue? Or by discovering a new local artist at a show you happened to swing by? That, to me, is what a music scene truly is. Not genres or styles or etiquettes. Online fellowship seems to be the answer. Interpretations thus far have been wildly creative (see: Soccer Mommy’s Club Penguin concert). There’s Minecraft, Instagram Live, and Zoom, which have all been co-opted to recreate the sanctuary of live music. The amount of available livestreams and the swiftness with which they are appearing is both beautiful and overwhelming. Because, I think we can all agree that this is a placeholder. Or, it’s meant to be a placeholder. Despite social media encompassing most interactions within small music communities, these communities still heavily rely on live music space. And at this moment, these spaces are gone. I don’t have answers. I don't know what a music scene looks like in quarantine, even though that's what I wanted to write about. No one has answers, of course. Maybe in a month, or three, or six, we’ll have some more understanding. We’re all grieving right now. We’ve all lost something.