Better Isn’t Great

Job’s done. We’ve made it. Release the balloons! Blast the confetti! Pop the champagne! The Oklahoma music scene is great — at least that’s what I keep hearing. I’m worried there’s some confusion about what constitutes a great music scene, though, or even a misunderstanding about what the definition of great is. Because Oklahoma’s music scene is better. It’s growing. It’s got potential. There are quality acts — Parker Millsap, Other Lives, John Fullbright, Horse Thief, Samantha Crain and BRONCHO among them — putting a megaphone to the rest, allowing more and more Sooner State artists to break the threshold into national consideration. Cain’s Ballroom is doing record-breaking business, and Oklahoma City has venues on the horizon (Tower Theatre, The Criterion) that will add to the equation.

But better isn’t great, and I don’t think any amount of lobbying the Merriam-Webster people is going to change that. Small venues and clubs are closing or struggling to get by. Some local artists struggle to get recognition from hometown crowds, even as national (even international) attention comes. Buzzed-about touring bands are greeted by patrons in the handfuls, most of which are the opening bands’ members and significant others. We aren’t a destination; we are just barely getting to be a stopover.

Is the Oklahoma music scene a great one? Blinders down, do you really think it stacks up to New York City, Los Angeles, Nashville, Austin, Seattle, Portland, or Chicago? Or New Orleans, Boston, Atlanta, or Denver? Dallas? … Omaha? I can see why someone might argue it does. Oklahoma has a storied past, one that has given us Woody Guthrie, J.J. Cale, Leon Russell, Wanda Jackson, Garth Brooks, The Flaming Lips, Chainsaw Kittens and plenty more. But don’t be mistaken: Oklahoma is a place where great artists and sharp creative minds occasionally creep out of, but not a state artists are actively flocking to. No one moves to Oklahoma to make it in music; they tend to leave it behind so that they can.

The varying degrees of brilliance of those aforementioned names is more than a pure population numbers game, and Oklahoma does tend to produce a higher clip of talent than most. Frankly, I wouldn’t claim that the fault lies with the artists, because it doesn’t. They are the ones who are willing to play for free to bring vibrancy to any number of Oklahoma events and festivals. They are the ambassadors to the great big world out there, draining their bank accounts on a West Coast run to chip away at the perception of our state as an antiquated, backward, irrelevant, flyover wasteland.

Many are making good music. Some are making great music. And artists like Power Pyramid, Tallows and Sardashhh have me as excited about the songs coming to life inside state borders as I’ve ever been. No, I think it’s the culture. It’s the onlookers. It’s the attitude. And often I’m as guilty as anyone. We need a bigger venue? Go to the ones we already have. The Conservatory bathroom too gross? They could remodel the whole place if they sold out every show. Sad that bands like Grizzly Bear, Ariel Pink, and Mac Demarco rarely come through Oklahoma? All three played Opolis to half capacity or (much) less. Don’t just post a YouTube video of your favorite local artist online and call it good. Explain why it means something to you. Invite all your friends to like or follow them, then go buy all their records and a shirt from them (and wear it everywhere you go). If you can spend $20 on drinks, you can buy a $10 album on top of a $5 cover.

We love our local bands, and I don’t doubt that. But it needs to be more than lip service. It takes advocacy and intention. It takes supporting out-of-state bands coming through town so that it’s easier for ours to book gigs when they are looking to tour. We might be a “big league city,” now, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t one of the smallest. We aren’t blessed with a creative infrastructure and sprawling population yet that would ensure health, even in the face of passivity. This is an all-hands-on-deck, do-it-yourself-or-it-won’t-get-done-at-all situation. If we get too wrapped up in the self-congratulating, I’m not sure that it ever will.

The success of local artists, a school steering music-focused students to the state, a free music festival that has brought names like Dirty Projectors and Portugal. The Man to town, and our illustrious history are causes for celebration. But let’s use that momentum to bust down the gates instead of throwing a party in our honor. We’re more than OK, but we’re not great. Not yet.

Joshua Boydston was hooked by the Oklahoma music scene when he bought Yacht Club’s The Third Floor at Guestroom Records as a senior in high school and reeled in when The Boom Bang destroyed a guitar amp on-stage at Dfest in 2009. He’s been covering all things Oklahoma music for a variety of local publications ever since and hopes to jumpstart conversations on all things music (local and not) with Plain Sense, a weekly column for Oxford Karma.

  • Kelly M Roberts

    Exception to one point you made: “No one moves to Oklahoma to make it in music; they tend to leave it behind so that they can.” // I understand by several stories out of the ACM @ UCO that some have done precisely that. They moved to Oklahoma to make it in music. They may eventually leave it behind again, but I think we can say that people are beginning to move to Oklahoma to have their creativity nurtured, and may or may not stay. Case in point (I believe) is Horse Thief. Unless I’m mistaken, that is exactly their story. And, I do understand that “make it” is a relative term. But I think there is at least a beginning trend of influx, and not just outflux. There are probably others, but I’m just a fan who does good to try to make it to a concert a month…and support what I can. ~ Thanks, KMR

    • Joshua Boydston

      That’s totally fair. I even eluded to that in the last paragraph, which references ACM@UCO without directly stating it. Maybe “few” would have worked better than “no one.” And I have high hopes for the school playing a role in flipping that migratory pattern.

  • Tulsa…it is a natural, nurturing scene.
    Is it easy? Not by any means.
    If you stick with it, can it offer rewards? Yes, yes it can.
    You can – if you work hard enough and play every crappy gig you can book – develop a following. What you do after achieving that particular goal is up to you.
    Broncho broke out of Tulsa in a big way by driving forward for fame. Conversely, a certain female artist who drew high praise for her debut album decided to fall back into the local scene and then lost all of her career momentum.
    Soundpony, Yeti, Hunt Club, The Colony and so many more.
    Sure, you can play those clubs.
    Play the shit places first and build a following. Give these venues a reason to book your group and they will do just that. (Always keep in mind that bar owners run businesses, not galleries.)
    Be amazing for the two people sitting at the bar, the 13 people sitting at tables, the bored bartender and the too tired waitresses. Be amazing for them and be amazing for yourselves because that energy will radiate out from that dive bar and connect with other people through word of mouth. Never be less than the biggest god-damn rock stars who ever owned a stage.
    And, when you’re on a world tour?
    Never forget to play a gig in your hometown.

  • ClobberDobson

    I can tell you right now, one problem in the OKC and Norman area is that local music writers and the more popular venues keep sucking the teats of the same old bands.. There are so many super good bands coming out and others who have existed for quite awhile who need to be given a chance for exposure on larger local levels. I fear the taste of local music media has been left behind (indie pop and folk seems to be the only thing they write about) the national trend of more rock-oriented bands. You, the music media, get with it and start discovering/exposing these bands (a good starting place would be the Oklahoma Noise Fest in the Plaza District in March), and the musicians making the music will do the rest. That will be a step in the right direction.

    • Are you at all familiar with our music coverage? And the things Josh and I covered at the Gazette? Or the acts who performed at our launch party Saturday?

  • David Goad

    I have to agree with this article. This scene will not thrive on passivity. It could be the reason why reception for my band is so much better in cities like Chicago and New Orleans. My band will not be staying here for the rest of our career, and we are getting swooped away. Bigger and better local artists than I*, like Tallows or Bowlsey, have managed to stay active and involved in the local scene while keeping a busy tour schedule. I applaud them for that. If they don’t receive the attention that they deserve here, they may float away on the wind to greener pastures.
    *By the way, I am not knocking my super talented musicians that I work with, or the supportive crew behind me. In fact, I lucked out being able to work with them. I just know my place.