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Trivial Pursuit

by Bryan Reed

March 11, 2014

Supporting local music only because it’s local isn’t really helping

In the years I’ve spent writing about music publicly, I have been praised for supporting the scene and denounced for antagonizing it, in roughly equal measure. Tellingly, whether somebody voices a compliment or complaint correlates exactly to whether something I wrote about their band (or their friend’s band) was favorable or not.

Normally, I just shrug it off. I just try to be honest. I praise things I feel are worthy of it, and criticize the things I feel are worthy of that. I try not to let an artist’s scene allegiances or hometown shade my view of whether their art is good or bad. The art ought to do that on its own. 

To a degree, at least, I ascribe to an idea often attributed to Duke Ellington: “There are two types of music: ‘good’ and ‘bad.’” The line has also been attributed to German Composer Richard Strauss, Louis Armstrong, and Dr. John. Suffice it to say, somebody who knows a thing or two about music drew that line in the sand. The rest is irrelevant.

Obviously I have my tastes, but like pop critic and New York Times Ethicist Chuck Klosterman has noted, ”You must be able to separate your favorite from the best.” I try to do that. If I’m trying to assess quality, too, it follows that facts about an artist’s background are just so much trivia. They might help make a narrative more interesting, but so what? What’s really material to whether the music is good or bad? Listen and decide for yourself.

Still, it seems odd to me that no matter whether I’m supporting the scene or not, everybody seems to agree that I should be. After reviewing one Raleigh-based singer-songwriter's album, an online commenter threatened to slash my tires. Nobody gets so riled up if you say Nickelback is mediocre. In other words, by covering local music, I’m implicitly obligated to like and promote things based entirely on their proximity. Frankly, I think that’s a pretty poor measure of quality.

People have made and will continue to make music, with varying goals and purposes, whether or not I care to acknowledge it. The scene is not a charity; it shouldn’t need to be supported out of obligation. Too often, the “Support Local Music” slogan reads as a guilt-trip command or feel-good lip-service. That’s why the “local music” bin so often feels like a prison. Bands that find their audience don’t need such qualification; they’re just “good.”

In Raleigh, Daniel Lupton runs Sorry State Records, a label and shop specializing in punk rock and its offshoots. As the label’s roster has grown to include Tar Heel favorites like Raleigh’s Whatever Brains and Double Negative and Charlotte’s Joint D≠, Brain F≠, and Nö Pöwer, local listeners started paying more attention to the label’s output, not necessarily to the comfort of the Lupton or the bands on his roster. “I felt more connected to the international punk scene,” he told me last year. “I feel like these local music things want to, like, claim me.”

In other words, Lupton didn’t want to find his bands in the “local bin;” they ought to be lumped in with the national contenders. Sometimes, the tangential interest of locality can feel like a consolation prize. And that’s something I know about firsthand.

I suck at playing basketball. I have always sucked at basketball. And it’s not a case of never really caring about my success in the sport. I played from elementary school through middle school. I practiced dribbling on the driveway after dark. I jumped for every out-of-reach doorframe, imagining layups, even dunks, I’d flub in real life. No matter what, I still sucked. When kiddy rec leagues gave way to school teams, I didn’t make the cut. I shouldn’t have been shocked or surprised; anyone with eyes could see that I sucked. I scored a career-high of two points during my eighth grade season. When I shot the ball, I closed my eyes.

Still, in all those youth leagues, at the end of the season, I got a trophy. With no right beyond my participation, I won the same prize given to league champions. It fooled nobody. When everybody wins, success or failure is meaningless.

That’s how the “Support Local Music” rule becomes poisonous. It gets in the way of giving credit where it’s due. It ignores the healthy role of criticism and competition. It’s a participation award.

I love music, and if you’re reading this, I assume you do too. I assume you’ve realized that seeking — and finding — new music to love is one of life’s great pleasures. And I hope you would seek and find it wherever it lives. A lot of it happens to live nearby (which gives me a nice frame for this column).

But, really, that’s just trivia.

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