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How to create a music scene


In 1996, ambient pioneer Brian Eno coined a term that did away with the ‘great man’ theory that has dominated Western cultural thought for centuries. His term, ‘Scenius’, stands in contrast to the idea that artistic innovations are created by great men, far from the madding crowd of public life. According to Eno, nothing could be further from the truth, with many – if not all – of the greatest artistic movements of the 20th century stemming from scenes; groups of artists working within similar parameters to create something new and revolutionary.

As Eno explained in 2017, while he was taught to believe that individual artists like Picasso and Kandinsky appeared from nowhere and created artistic revolutions singlehandedly, he quickly realised that “what really happened was that there was sometimes very fertile scenes involving lots and lots of people — some of them artists, some of them collectors, some of them curators, thinkers, theorists, people who were fashionable and knew what the hip things were — all sorts of people who created a kind of ecology of talent. And out of that ecology arose some wonderful work.”

Eno’s ‘Scenius’ is fascinating because, if used as a roadmap, it can be seen to serve as an antidote to one of the most destructive attitudes in the modern music industry: that success is gained through the graft and talent of individual artists, who must distinguish themselves from and compete with their contemporaries if they want to survive.

Time and time again, this attitude has proved to be fruitless, leaving artists without a solid foundation for the continuation of their discography, while cutting off the possibility of an alternative mode of musical creativity that could help revitalise our increasingly anaemic live music circuits. The lonely genius makes and releases their work in isolation, leaving them untethered to any grounding principles or values, and thus more easily manipulated by big labels. In contrast, healthy music scenes have the power to create a huge amount of cultural momentum, which, in the past has led to epoch-defining shifts in the musical landscape.

Here, we’re going to lay out some of the key factors that contribute to a thriving music scene, and explore how you can help your local music scene to flourish. Along the way, we’ll hear from David Byrne, Brian Eno again, and up-and-coming bands who have benefited from being part of a scene. So, let’s get started.

How to make a music scene:

Change your attitude

For whatever reason, it would appear that the way we relate to music has changed a great deal in the last 30 years or so. While there are some who I’m sure will disagree, on the whole, music fans tend not to describe themselves as ‘punks’ or ‘rockers’ to the same extent that they used to – rather we tend to identify with individual artists.

Therefore, the first step, (you could even think of this as a pre-step) towards making a flourishing music scene is a mental one. Rather than treating artists as isolated entities, try listening to music in context. What are some other bands from your favourite artist’s city? What are some of the notable venues from this area? Are you able to identify a common strain of musical DNA between these acts? I’m sure I’m preaching to the converted here, but by treating music (especially local bands) in this way, you’re directly contributing to the good health of a scene.

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Collaborate and Organise

As Eno notes, while creators are an essential part of any artistic movement, they are only as important as the people around them. Without bookers and promoters, even the most talented group of creatives doesn’t stand a hope in hell.

A music scene is an ecosystem and in order for it to be healthy, it needs a collective of promoters, booking agents, and small labels who are organised, knowledgeable, and passionate. When they communicate effectively, collectives of this kind have the power to draw on the creativity of their peers to create a scene with real staying power. The London-based independent record label, Permanent Creeps for example has developed a reputation for putting on some of the best and most raucous live shows in the capital, hosting club nights in grassroots venues, including The Social, The Lexington, The Shacklewell Arms, The Brixton Windmill, and The Sebright Arms, offering an essential platform to a number of up-and-coming artists who are now leading the way in UK alternative music.

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Find and support grassroots venues

Venues are the lifeblood of any music scene, but, as David Byrne points out in his book How Music Works, there are specific characteristics that made places like CBGBs so important in their day – some of which are completely unrelated to the venues themselves. Talented musicians can only have so much impact, Byrne writes. A thriving scene also depends on having a wide variety of venues, opportunities for creatives to cross-pollinate, and affordable housing. “A confluence of external factors helps encourage the latent talent in a community to flourish,” says Byrne.

Speaking to Far Out in 2021, The Ringards shared their experience of breaking into the underground post-punk scene in London. “You build yourself into a scene. At the start, the band was me and Enzo and these two other guys and we didn’t know anybody in London. And we were playing gigs with the wrong people. It was the kind of pay-to-play gigs. We didn’t know anybody you, know. But as soon as you start playing gigs at The Shacklewell, you sort of realise that this is a bit of a scene, you know, this is happening. And then you realise that The Victoria does the same sort of night and you start getting around and you meet people.” Of course, London isn’t known for its affordable housing, meaning that many of the UK’s healthiest scenes are in fact located further north, with Leeds, Manchester, and Hull, being notable examples.

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Set up house parties and DIY spaces

Something that has allowed the cities listed above to nurture so many brilliant artists is that they are full of people putting on their own DIY nights. Venues are essential, but there are only so many of them, and, as David Byrne writes, it’s helpful for the fledgling groups to have access to spaces where they are able to experiment with their peers. As he said of CBGBs, “It doesn’t sound ideal, but maybe not having to perform under intense scrutiny (it always seemed as if only a few folks in front were really paying attention) is important, even beneficial.”

DIY spaces also provide ample opportunity for creative cross-pollination, attracting musicians, yes, but also visual artists, designers, photographers, promotors, and every other kind of creative. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeonly old fart, I think it’s much more beneficial for musicians to communicate in spaces such as these than via social media alone. The sheer variety of people DIY house parties and club nights can attract means that you’re much more likely to stumble across people and ideas that shift your perspective and inform the kind of work you’re making. This is what Byrne describes as “more natural, haphazardly development”.