If Baltimore Isn’t a “Music Town,” Well, Why Not?
It has produced the sinewy Sturm und Drang of Lungfish and the propulsive pop of Karmella’s Game. No-wave noiseniks throw electro-dance parties. A decade ago, the genre-bending Pornflakes played with frenzied funk-peddlers the All Mighty Senators and arty alternarocker Godpocket. More recently, beard-rock laptop electro-acoustic sprawl opened for the local club-music queen. None of it really fits together, and yet it all somehow does.
This artistic ambiguity is what drew indie maverick Mary Prankster to the city. “I used to thrill to the sight of the Baltimore skyline when I’d drive into the city on I-95,” she writes from her new haunt in New York. “It’s a Southern city with no drawl, an East Coast city with no bustle, and the only metropolitan outpost in a decidedly rural/suburban state. The best part of it for me was the lack of a ‘Baltimore style.’ There was nothing analogous to Seattle grunge or Southern jangle-pop or Detroit garage.”
Mike Riley echoes the sentiment. “I don’t know if Baltimore has a specific sound that you could instantly recognize,” says Riley, who sings for local agit-punks the Spark. “But I think that Baltimore musicians have a predisposition to create something unique. While Baltimore bands are of course influenced by music from other areas, can you really point to another band that sounds like Oxes, or Double Dagger, or the Convocation[ Of . . . ], or Fascist Fascist?”
The man knows of what he speaks. As co-founder of local DIY keystone Charm City Art Space, Riley spends more time working with local acts than most people spend in their own band. “Baltimore is a really music-friendly town,” he says. “So bands of all types are constantly popping up. We’ve always been considered an underdog of the East Coast, so I think that gives people from here a little extra push to create something special.”
Part of that underdog factor is that Greater Baltimore is not that big. More sparsely populated than Washington and Boston, and utterly dwarfed by Philadelphia and New York, metro Baltimore’s population of 2.7 million makes it the largest small town on the East Coast. “Baltimore is very small-townish,” agrees Ed Harris, guitarist for longtime scene staple Lake Trout. “So culturally, there’s a feeling that you can be whoever you want musically, because there’s not many people here that feel you need to fit into some kind of mold. There are musicians here who could care less about the latest New York or L.A. trend. But if you’re trying to network with people in the ‘music business,’, you generally need to get involved with people in L.A. or New York. That’s hard to do in Baltimore, even with all of the internet stuff today.”
Therein lies the difficulty facing local musicians, Roman Kuebler says: “Commercial success doesn’t derive from small places.” Both a musician (fronting indie-popsters the Oranges Band) and a club owner (of downtown scene hub the Talking Head), Kuebler knows every angle of the Baltimore music business. He notes that a frustrating constant “has always been the lack of industry structure. There have always been excellent bands living in Baltimore. Always good enough to deserve the success that many bands from other places enjoy. But in Baltimore, there has never been a consistent support structure to help these bands reach out to other parts of the country, or even reach out to larger crowds locally.
“This has always hindered the small labels in town,” he continues. “Labels like Morphius, Monitor, and Ambiguous City have always struggled with bands that haven’t been able to go on the road for as long or as successfully as they would have liked. Bands from Baltimore have always had an uphill climb, and everyone is learning how to make a scene as it happens. And then the wind blows in a different style and it has to start over again. Baltimore, unlike D.C., never really learns from its history.”
And what a history Washington has. Punk perennial Dischord Records casts a shadow far beyond the Capital Beltway, beyond the innumerable bands who stole their slash-and-burn from Fugazi. The label is a template for how a group of friends making music can gain critical mass. For a handful of bands to coalesce into a capital-S Scene, Washington native and performer Travis Morrison explains, “usually they require one passionate, dedicated person who tells everyone else around them that they can do it, too. And that’s Ian.”
Dischord founder Ian MacKaye is as close to a household name as an anti-commercial punk polemicist can get. But he remembers when the nation’s capital was not noteworthy for its bands. “Back when I started to play music, Washington, D.C., was not considered a music town,” he says. “There were bands here, but they were so underrated and ignored. But I thought, ‘I’m not moving to New York. I’m from Washington, I’ve always been from Washington, and all my friends are from Washington.’ It didn’t make sense to me that anger, frustration, creativity, or passion would be dictated by geography.
“There were all sorts of bands and people around—not all of whom were in bands—who were really encouraging and visionary in my mind,” MacKaye continues. “That’s very assuring in some way, that you have a number of people in a community who you find inspiring. I was really lucky to have that sort of passion and structure around me.”
Passion is not what Baltimore lacks, Morrison says. “I think Baltimore is more vigorous than Baltimore thinks,” he says. “People always start from the assumption that Baltimore is dead and then work up from there. It’s too bad. It’s really always had something going on.”
“In the same way Washington had a bit of a conflict about New York, Baltimore had a conflict about Washington,” MacKaye acknowledges. “But what I’ve found about Baltimore is that it always appears to have been a really intensely creative city. Because it’s not so close to a powerful agency, like the government or the media, life can become art or music.”
That is, in many, many cases, very close to why musicians move to Baltimore or stay here. The lifeblood of Baltimore’s artistic community is the low cost of living. Though the cost of living has risen in recent years, the city is universally praised among musicians for being a singularly inexpensive East Coast city. Without having to worry about rent, artists are afforded the time and space to grow. “It’s possible for bands to stay together for a long time and actually find their sound together,” Harris says, “because they know they can live in Baltimore for cheap.”
“Baltimore has always been a place where it is reasonable, financially, to start something,” Kuebler agrees. His personal “something” is the Talking Head, the downtown bar that has grown into a polestar for local rock bands. Kuebler says he was motivated to open the venue in 2002 when the space was vacated by the Ottobar’s move uptown to a bigger space. “Any sense of scene or connection to what was going on in town was disrupted. It was clear that the town needed a smaller venue, and we had a reasonably hassle-free opportunity to get something started.”
Around the same time, Riley and Mike Wolf established Charm City Art Space in a Maryland Avenue storefront. “At the time, the Sidebar, Ottobar, and the Talking Head were all going strong,” Riley remembers. “But we really wanted a place that could be smoke- and alcohol-free and really just concentrate on the music and the community. There just aren’t enough nights in the week to accommodate [every band] at only a few bar-oriented venues. When people see one DIY space going strong, I’m sure it helps to light the spark for them to get their own thing going.”
The flicker ignited an outbreak of new venues scattered throughout the city, including the resurrected Supreme Imperial, Tarantula Hill, a performance room at True Vine Records, and then there are the large-capacity rooms at Rams Head Live and Sonar. “It’s amazing how many quality venues Baltimore manages to support,” Prankster enthuses. “There are enough clubs of different sizes that you can easily find somewhere to get a foot in the door and have an opportunity to ‘graduate’ to larger rooms as needed.”
The emergence of new local venues corresponds to Baltimore’s rising reputation as a music town among bands who don’t live here. It has become a place to play, and not just an off night between Philadelphia and Washington.
“Playing music here has become more serious for the musicians and more respected by the audience,” says Brian DeRan, co-owner of both Monitor Records and the Ottobar. “I think [that] has changed. Bands are staying in Baltimore now, and actually people are moving here to be able to afford to be musicians. It’s also finally coming into its own with venues, which mean there are finally more places for bands to play here then ever before. This town is better to play than D.C., and bands are recognizing that. Baltimoreans are very passionate about the music they love, and I have never seen the equivalent anywhere else. There is no pretension, and we won’t put up with it—at least in every style except jazz.”
What may come of Baltimore’s current rock renaissance remains to be seen. “Baltimore may or may not get that kind of label as an artist’s city,” MacKaye says. “Mostly, it’s a matter of not trying to care about it and just playing. Then, at a certain time, it all suddenly kind of works.”
“To make Baltimore a musical landmark a band or two need to really make a dent on a national level,” Kuebler says. “But mark my words, as soon as it happens, people will be crying ‘sellout’ and pining for the old days when no one went to shows and everyone went to dance parties. But what is more interesting and important is that if you asked me five years ago what needed to happen, I would have said all the things that are happening now.”
Big Music Issue 2010 (7/14/2010)
Might Don't Make It (7/14/2010)
Baltimore hip-hop may never go mainstream--is it up to its iconoclasts to carry the torch if it doesn't?
Brand of Outsiders (7/14/2010)
Boutique labels reinvent the artist-label relationship
Genghis Tron, Left Hand of God, Shat, and Destructo Swarmbots, Talking Head, Jan. 16
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201