Ann Arbor’s Ever Changing Music Scene

Ann Arbor is number one on Forbes Magazine’s 2010 list of “Top 10 College Towns,” number two on the list of “10 Great Cities For Raising Families (Kiplinger 2010),” the seventh best city in America to find a job (US News 2012), first on the list for “Communities with 100,000+ Residents for Educational Attainment (Business Journals  ‘On Numbers,’ 2011),” number six on American Style Magazine’s 2011 list of “Top Art Destinations,” number two on The Atlantic’s 2012 list of “Most E-Literate Cities in the America,” number 2 on the list of “Most Educated Cities In The U.S.” according to the American Community Survey in 2010 and number four on the Daily Beast’s 2012 list of “Most Creative Cities.” If you’re from Ann Arbor or have ever been here, most of these statistics sound spot on. Interestingly enough though, not one of these rankings have to do with music specifically. Read them again if you must.

Don’t get me wrong – we don’t need any press or rankings to know that what does come out of Ann Arbor’s music scene is top notch, but there is something to be said about the fact that it is, well, a little hidden and underrated perhaps.

One of the first things I learned about music and Ann Arbor was that Madonna went to U of M. Later I learned that Ann Arbor was once the home of both Iggy Pop and Bob Seger. Growing up, I heard about a few local bands that played atTop of The Park, but other than that, nationally touring acts that would come by to play the Blind Pig or the Ark usually got most of my attention. The music scene in Ann Arbor was otherwise very mysterious to me. I’d see posters stapled or taped to lampposts on State Street and partially torn-off stickers on various stop signs, but overall everything seemed very distant and underground. This article is an attempt to familiarize readers with the elusive, ever-growing and perhaps under-appreciated music scene that is so integral to Ann Arbor and its distinct culture.

Mayer Hawthorne – 2012 Sonic Lunch

There are multiple scenes in Ann Arbor, from folk to electronic. Here is an incomplete introduction to what’s been happening musically in Tree Town. Please listen to a variety of artists from Ann Arbor while you read this article! (I hope you like opening tabs.)

Andrew Cohen, better known as Mayer Hawthorne, is an Ann Arbor musician of importance to the world of R&B and soul. Signed to Stones Throw Records, Mayer Hawthorne throws down smooth retro music with a late sixties early seventies feel.

Andrew W.K., known today as the “King of Partying,” grew up on the same street in Ann Arbor as Andrew Cohen, Hawthorne Road. He is well know for a variety of things in the entertainment world and has written tons of hits, including “Party Hard,” which was featured most recently toward the end of the trailer for Pixar’s Monsters University. He also hosted the show Destroy Build Destroy that aired on Cartoon Network and is currently available on Netflix. Many of his songs have been used in movies, including “Old School,” “Freaky Friday” and “American Pie: Band Camp – as well as countless commercials. He has made appearances in many T.V. shows and movies and has even spent time as a self-help motivational speaker.

Meanwhile, in the world of hip-hop and rap, Ann Arborite turned Detroiter Ilana Weaver has become a very prominent female hip hop/rap artists under the name “Invincible.”

Some Ann Arbor natives who have been around longer may remember the hit single “Smokin’ In The Boy’s Room” by the rock band Brownsville Station. The song reached number three on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 Chart in 1974. In their day, Brownsville Station played with the likes of Ted Nugent and Mitch Ryder.  It may surprise you to find that they’re still around and touring, with their most recent release, “Still Smokin’.”

In the world of electronic music, Dabrye, a musician signed to Ghostly International, struck a deal with Motorola to put his song “Hyped-Up Plus Tax” in a commercial for the Razr flip phone. It was also made into a ringtone. Dabrye is well known for collaborating with many hip hop artists including J Dilla.

The son of the man who started Zingerman’s Bakery decided to cook up some electronic tunes under the name Shigeto, and he signed a contract with Ghostly International as well. Much to his surprise, Aphex Twin covered one of his songs in front of 20,000 people during a concert in Singapore.

Saturday Looks Good To Me is an Indie/Pop band that was formed in the 2000s and is still kicking it. They just released their latest album, “One Kiss Ends It All,” just last month.

The Ragbirds are a band from Ann Arbor that plays folk, roots and world fusion music. Their most recent record, “Travelin’ Machine,” has some of my favorite Ragbirds tunes on it – namely “The Bully.”

Now that you’ve picked something to listen to, I’m going to continue attempting to explain why you haven’t heard of as many of these artists as you should have and sneak in a few more names while I’m at it. It has been said that the city of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan are inseparable, and what kind of a blog post about music and Ann Arbor wouldn’t at least mention it?

One complicating factor regarding the scene and its nebulous quality is the presence of the University of Michigan. While many local bands are formed at the University and continue to immerse themselves in Ann Arbor post-graduation, most student bands remain a part of the student community exclusively and sometimes, if not often, fade out after their four years here. U of M has a music culture of its own going on.

The space between the larger musical community in Ann Arbor and the musical community among students at U of M is shrinking – just not very quickly. The University of Michigan is full of young talent, both in the music school and the other colleges, and student-run organizations provide students with every opportunity to be involved in any aspect of the business that their heart desires. Groups like The East Quad Music Co-Op and New Beat Happening host shows at various venues around campus for student bands and promote the events with fliers and the like. New Beat Happening also puts on a conference annually called Music-Con where student musicians can learn from experienced individuals about all aspects of the music industry. Groups like Music Matters put on large scale charity concerts, bringing in nationally recognized acts, supported by local artists to raise money for charity. This year’s artist was Ben Folds, and the event was a huge success. Big Ticket Productions is another student organization that brings touring artists to Ann Arbor and was responsible for bringing acts such as Lupe Fiasco and J. Cole to Hill Auditorium in the past. For those interested in the production side of things, there is the Audio Engineering Society and the Songwriting Collective – two orgs that foster student collaboration on musical projects. Other musical student groups include the Michigan Electronic Dance Music Association (MEDMA) and the university’s independent radio station, WCBN that frequently plays local music.

It doesn’t stop at student organizations, though. There are countless bands and independent musicians on or near campus. For starters, there’s Motel Model, who recently opened for Ben Folds at Hill, and fthrsn, who opened for Atlas Sound just last year.  Moon RootsRospoemTeenage OctopusThe Finer Things, Coup d’etatas, Doctor Striker, The Organs, Samn Johnson, and Pushbutton might be some of the names you’ll hear people throw around on campus. It would be hard to find a weekend where there isn’t a show going on somewhere, at somebody’s house, with a bill of two or more bands comprised of umich kids. The sheer number of musicians and bands at the University carries huge implications for the larger picture of the music scene in Ann Arbor. If the student body could somehow become more directly involved in shaping it, the potential benefits would be immeasurable. What that might look like isn’t entirely clear, and fostering an environment in which these student groups have the opportunity to achieve greater success in the community is not a science, but the conditions have been just right for many groups in the past.

 One of those groups is Nomo, whose music has been described by Rolling Stone as a combination of “motown, futuristic funk [and] avant-garde jazz.” Nomo signed to Ubiquity Records and went on to play Bonnaroo. In their time together, they released five studio albums and one EP. Today, Nomo is no more, but some of the members went on to form a smaller group called Wild Belle – who is signed to Sony and already enjoying a modest degree of success.

Ella Riot, formerly known as My Dear Disco, was another band that formed at the University of Michigan. They experienced a great deal of success – especially for an independent band – releasing two albums, “DanceThink” and “Love Child.” They eventually earned a spot on the 2009 roster for Wakarusa Festival and 10,000 Lakes festival, where they played with Dave Matthews Band and Wilco, among others. Ella Riot has since disbanded, but singer Michelle Chamuel auditioned for the Voice in 2011 and made all three of the judges press the “I Want You” button. She eventually ended up being one of the final three contestants and even Rolling Stone praised her for her outstanding vocals and live energy.

“The bespectacled, self-proclaimed geek hopped her way through Pink’s ‘Raise Your Glass’ as if she had just ‘won the lottery,’ as Blake put it. It was upbeat and energetic, and you can just tell Chamuel will hold nothing back during the upcoming live rounds.” (Rolling Stone)

While Michelle is winning the hearts of viewers on The Voice, Theo Katzman and Joe Dart, also formerly of Ella Riot, are on tour with Darren Criss. Criss has been a part of the cast on Glee and also happens to be a U of M grad. He recently has set out to pursue a solo career and stopped by Ann Arbor on June 13 this summer to play Sonic Lunch, a free outdoor concert series hosted by the Bank of Ann Arbor in Liberty Plaza. Similarly, Theo Katzman and Tyler Duncan of Ella Riot are also in the midst of pursuing solo careers.

And then there’s Frontier Ruckus. The band is signed to Quite Scientific Records, an Ann Arbor label, and they play a critical role in the folk scene in southeastern Michigan and arguably the nation. They’ve played Bonnaroo, toured across Europe and have been praised by Rolling Stone for being “the perfect recipe for Gothic Americana.”

Also signed to Quite Scientific Records is folk singer/songwriter Chris Bathgate, who has put out an impressive nine releases since 2005’s “Silence Is For Suckers.” His most recent release, “Salt Year,” got great reviews from Indie Shuffle, NPR, Fogged Clarity, Eastern Surf, The AV Club, Metrotimes and Consequence of Sound. Chris has played South By Southwest in 2008, 2009 and 2011.

Tally Hall is another group with members who attended the University of Michigan. Each member wears a signature colored tie during their energetic live shows and in music videos.  Tally Hall has played South by Southwest and Bonnaroo and has released three studio albums.

Each one of the aforementioned groups is an example of why fostering the relationship between students and the larger Ann Arbor community is critical to the health of Ann Arbor’s music scene. There are countless other bands and musicians that are born at the University of Michigan, but to name them all would be a rather daunting task. Clearly, the University is one of the biggest strengths the Ann Arbor music scene has. Matthew Altruda, radio show host for Tree Town Sound on Ann Arbor’s 107.1FM put it best when he said, “The best in the world come here for a short time and they fall in love with Ann Arbor.” The city and university themselves serve as a “gravitational pull for great artists,” and as the city and university get bigger, so too will the music scene.

However, the university is a bit of a double-edged sword, and it presents many challenges to keeping the scene “stable.” According to Jeremy Peters, Ghostly International’s Licensing Manager and co-owner of Quite Scientific Records, “Part of what makes the scene so vibrant is what hurts it – being a college town, bands become popular and then decline as incoming classes of students rotate out of town.” When a huge portion of a town’s population is churning over every year, it becomes difficult for local and student bands alike to continue building a following. When a given class graduates, they’re going to be spread out all over the world and virtually no tour could be contrived to reach those folks without it being economically inconceivable.

What has to happen to keep these student bands and musicians around and ensure their success in the greater southeastern Michigan area? How can we market to a huge student population to promote local music and take the money they might otherwise use on food? Why do so many local musicians move out of Ann Arbor when they reach a certain caliber following? How can we get more people to come out and see live music? These are all challenges posed to the music scene in Ann Arbor, but they’re not crippling by any means. The scene has been growing for a while, and it’s only getting bigger every day. According to Altruda, “If it grows at the same rate as it has grown in the last five years, there will be more festivals and great nights of free live music.” He continues to explain that pondering on the details of this growth can get rather trivial and that no one really knows exactly what it will look like, but the important thing to remember is that it is growing and that won’t stop any time soon. According to Altruda, “It will make its rise, and all the right people will rise with it.”

One of the many benefits of being a musician in Ann Arbor is that for the most part, artists here look out for one another and want to see others succeed along with them. “Everyone has really done a good job of raising everyone else up,” says Matt Altruda, host of Tree Town Sound on Ann Arbor’s 107.1FM. It is not uncommon for bands to help other bands book shows, tour with one another and collaborate musically.

 

Tim Adkins, founder and publisher for iSPY Magazine, puts it this way: “[On] any given night at the Blind Pig you’ll run into a ton of artists. It’s kind of like a big family. There are those weird uncles and second cousins you don’t really talk to, but you know they’re there [for you]. We reciprocate/reflect that in iSPY by being a part of that family and helping it grow.” This family attitude is part of the reason why the future for music in Ann Arbor is so bright.

The single most important ingredient for a thriving scene, however, is outstanding music, and with so many people making music, it can be very challenging to make your music stand out.  According to Tim Adkins, “Artists need to know that being in a vibrant scene means you have to be good at your craft. Just playing in a band doesn’t warrant booking a show or that people will just show up and buy your [music] or pay $5 to see you play. You have to be better than good. There are too many ‘good’ musicians around here.”

While there are many better-than-good acts around town, if the scene is to grow further still, so too must the caliber and number of such acts.

Another key ingredient to a thriving scene is marketing. Marketing is critical and can either help build up a scene or stagnate growth. Once a musician does have a top of the line product, the next step is killing the business side of things. “Similar to entrepreneurs, artists need to know how to market themselves, build relationships and engage their audience. There’s not enough of that happening right now,” Adkins says.

Along the same line, one of the reasons it appears hard to get to know the music scene in Ann Arbor is because it is fairly decentralized. There are over ten record labels that call Ann Arbor their home, and, to complicate things, a non-negligible number of bands that are from Ann Arbor choose to sign deals with labels not from Ann Arbor and vice versa. The more inter label and inter-scene collaboration – or at least awareness, the more growth we’ll start to see. In the words of Matt Altruda, ”It just needs a touch of organization.”

All of this, however, is pointless if people in the community don’t support local artists and encourage them to continuously improve. People need to come out to shows. Altruda didn’t have much to say about low live music attendances in Ann Arbor at first. “I don’t know why the Ann Arbor culture doesn’t go out to see live music as much.” He continued to speculate that perhaps free events like Top Of The Park and Sonic Lunch have something to do with it. People may consciously or subconsciously avoid shows because they can get it all for free in the summer. We also must keep in mind that Ann Arbor isn’t exactly the biggest city in the world, either – although it grew two percent just last year. And lastly, some argue that if there were more music venues in Ann Arbor, more people would go out to see live music. Adkins disagrees. “There’s a complaint that there aren’t enough venues, but the fact is that there’s not enough people paying to see live local music.”

Whatever the cause for low attendance, it remains one of the biggest reasons many artists need to find a new home base to continue their careers. In the words of Dan Henig, a rising singer/songwriter from Ann Arbor, “Ann Arbor is a great launching pad. It needs to grow a little more in order to be the great music city it has the potential to be.” Dan plans on relocating to LA sometime in the fall of 2013, and his story isn’t an uncommon one. Theo Katzman has decided to move (back) to New York.

“Detroit [for example] has a lot of space; it’s a huge city. Ann Arbor’s a town. It’s my favorite place in the world, but I think there need to be urban – sort of like metropolis hubs – to sustain large groups of artists. There need to be more people seeing live music,” he said. He made sure to point out that his decision was a personal one and that each artist should consider what is right for their career and that he may move back later on.

“I would consider moving back because I want to prioritize the creation of my product,” he says. “I feel like I could do that easily and cheaply in Ann Arbor while still enjoying life. That’s the kind of thing that people will do more of. I’m a firm believer in ‘if you build it they will come.’”

And according to Jeremy Peters, if one or more of Ann Arbor’s own “makes it big” and decides to keep living here, “it’d do wonders for attention to the scene and [its] over-all health.” In time, there is no doubt in my mind that this will happen.

While big names are clearly important, it is the grassroots that make the biggest difference. Perhaps you’re wondering what it is you can do to contribute. Adkins says he answered that question for himself when he started iSPY magazine.

“I know it sounds cliché, but that old saying of ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ really resonates here in Ann Arbor. There are too many resources and free thinkers here to limit what can and can’t be done.”

So what can you do? Attend a live show – maybe even one that costs money. While you’re there, buy a CD or some merchandise or simply spread the word when you stumble across something cool. Cast your vote with your wallet and ears! What sound do you want to see “succeed” in and outside of Ann Arbor? Know your scene and help shape it.

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About nubsqueak

I'm a God loving kid who's exploring the world and everything in it.
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