Creating a healthy, vital live music scene is kind of like whipping up a big, beefy stew -- except that in this case, more than one cook is not only a good thing, it's necessary. To get started, you need some very basic ingredients. Once those are secured, then the real job begins. Take away even the most seemingly insignificant seasoning, and the whole batch can turn to crap before your very eyes.
Spokane's support for live music seems to rise and fall like a gut-ripping roller coaster ride. Over the course of the last 10 years, this scene has experienced significant bursts in vitality followed by periods of confounding lethargy. So it goes. So often it seems, just as things start to catch fire, an important club will shut down or a popular band will leave town (or break up), and nightlife watchers are left to sigh a collective, "Oh God, here we go again."
The musicians who stick it out here must believe (as we do) that Spokane is perpetually poised for some measure of greatness, and that if we could just get all the right ingredients to simmer at the same time, we'd have ourselves a bracing, nutritious and delicious music scene. Certain key ingredients have been here all along and will always be. Others are more elusive. The way I see it, we need the following 10 to fall into the pot at the same time to make Spokane live music truly happening.
Well, there's certainly no shortage of folks in our area willing to get up on a stage and express themselves through music -- just have a gander at our listings. In Spokane, boredom is the mother of invention. And if you don't hear the kind of music you like out there, the solution is simple: start your own band.
The popularity of pre-recorded house and DJ-driven dance music is staggering. Outback Jack's, once known as an excellent live music venue, has recently abandoned live music. DJs hold court in the Kangaroo Klub almost every night of the week. What can we say? They have to turn a profit like everyone else. We were just sorry to see it go that way. On the positive side, Boomerang's (formerly Johnny Rockets, formerly Gatsby's) has been remodeled, sports a brand-spanking new sound system and consistently features live music. There are several other good, dedicated clubs out there, too (check our Sound Advice pages for a complete listing), like Fort Spokane and Capone's, so we're holding our own in this department -- barely. Still, it takes an entrepreneur willing to place a bet that if he or she builds it, they will come.
3. All-Ages Scene
Here's where the wheels fall off. The all-ages scene here continues to struggle without a dedicated, full-time venue. For a variety of reasons, it is nearly impossible for entrepreneurs in this town to make a successful go at a club that caters to young (that's under the legal drinking age) people. But it wasn't always the case. Believe it or not, Spokane once enjoyed a thriving all-ages scene complete with full-time under 21 live music venues. This all came crashing down in the early '90s when local law enforcement officials decided having teens gather to listen to music, dance and sip coffee was threatening.
This attitude has had a profound effect. It has served to further alienate area young people while reinforcing the notion that Spokane is still just a backward hick town that fears change and free expression, a town that continues to drive its best and brightest away. It seems to us that providing kids something more constructive to do than cruising up and down Division Street every night would be an idea worth supporting.
Encouragingly, there are some spots where the younger crowd can look to for sporadically produced shows. The Westminster Church on South Washington is one. Another is the Big Dipper, which has hosted several fine all-age punk shows in the last couple of months. Is there a full-on teen club in the works somewhere even as we speak? We hope so.
4. Radio Support
Unfortunately, in Spokane there is almost no broadcasting, only narrowcasting. Although improvements in this area have been made recently, there is still very little support for real music alternatives on the commercial airwaves. Good, diverse radio is as important as clubs and music stores to fostering a healthy scene. By failing to support artists outside the commercial mainstream, radio fails to inspire; instead, it perpetuates creative stagnation and stylistic inbreeding. When local musicians are constantly exposed to only commercially successful acts, it reinforces the most crass, cynical aspects of the music biz while insinuating that honesty, originality and integrity in music are nothing but quaint, outdated concepts.
Newspaper support is important, too, as people can hardly go to shows if they don't know about them, and Spokane has more sources of information on that front than in previous years. (Shameless plug: Read Sound Advice in this newspaper every week to stay current.)
But those radio stations with programming that spotlights local talent and that see fit to insert songs by local artists into their regular rotations deserve credit. Rock 94.5 recently added a local music show, weeknights at 11 pm. Keep it up and expand on that concept. There is a wealth of challenging, stimulating and inspiring music out there. And if we're lucky, one of our local colleges will adopt a real college format (as a general rule, music you won't hear anywhere else).
5. Indie Record Stores
You can call them CD stores if you must, but the fact is, without a place to pick up a wide range of recorded music -- both mainstream and underground -- no music scene can possibly survive. A good record store becomes a cultural hub, where scenesters rub elbows with local stars. A place where you can find the latest by your favorite band (as well as entries from the back catalog). A place where you can be surprised and delighted by an unexpected discovery, and where the guy behind the counter knows you and can make winning recommendations. And it's also where local performers can sell locally produced product. We have places like that (4,000 Holes in Spokane and the Long Ear in Coeur d'Alene immediately come to mind). In the name of all that's holy, support them.
6. United Arts Community
Let's face it, the arts -- be it theater, music, poetry or the visual arts -- have had to struggle in Spokane for acceptance. Those who recognize what the arts contribute to our society need to look for ways to promote and foster interest in all art forms. The arts community needs to hang together and, finding strength in numbers, work to educate the less informed among us about just what "art for art's sake" really means. Artwalk is a great start. But wouldn't it be cool to expand that concept into a full-fledged music and arts festival, sort of a Spokane version of Seattle's Bumbershoot? Think about it.
7. Recognizing its Value
Downtown revitalization will fail unless you can do one thing: get more people to go downtown. And a vibrant, diverse nightlife anchored by music venues and dance clubs is a big part of the equation. With a few exceptions, this city's core really dries up after the department stores close -- it's like a freaking ghost town down there after 9 pm. Now look at Portland or Seattle, and you'll see something completely different: a dynamic, vibrant nightlife that keeps the downtown sidewalks filled and the businesses raking in the dough until the wee hours. Young professionals moving back to town to be near the action. Musicians living within walking distance of the clubs where they gig. And everyone else is given a good reason to get off their fat arses, away from the TV and into real life. Now there's a model for urban renewal.
8. Local Officials' Support
I know I've hammered on this subject before, but it needs revisiting. Last time we did a scene report, I interviewed a Spokane Police officer and asked him about the perceived hostility between city officials and certain area club owners and promoters. I was told that, in most instances where a club was forced to close, local law enforcement was only responding to complaints and that most of the trouble could be traced to the club owner's violation of various city statutes and ordinances (against noise, underage drinking, etc.).
To some degree, that is all true. But what every band member, club owner and music promoter in this town knows is that there is a definite icy coolness -- manifesting itself in tangible fear, suspicion and distrust -- between the live music sector of the arts community and City Hall. There does seem to be some melting underway and some measure of mutual understanding developing between the parties. There needs to be more. Live music is not evil. Neither are the cops.
9. Free Beer
Just kidding. But that would help, wouldn't it? Hmmmm... We'll look into it.
10. You (Yes, You)
It's pretty obvious, but the number one thing the Spokane music scene needs are folks crazy enough to venture out into the night to socialize, score drinks and experience music created by actual human beings -- right on the spot. It's true. Without all the rockers, blues freaks, punkers, jazz aficionados, folkies and headbangers out there, there would be no reason whatsoever to kick out the jams. Local musicians are doing it all for you, for your loving adoration and/or abuse. Don't forsake them. Now let's all go make a scene.