The Good, The Band, & The Buggie: Central PA's Music Scene
Central Pennsylvania is a large, bucolic area that amasses 10 counties and an indisputable reputation for Amish residents, candies, conservative values and cows, lots and lots of cows. These traits rarely give rise to noteworthy artistic destinations yet over the past decade Central Pa has created a name for itself as the hometown of bands like August Burns Red, This Or The Apocalypse, Texas In July, Carousel Kings and a slew of other violent band names who’s members aim for positivity and inclusivity. The mid 2000’s saw a meteoric rise in these artist’s clout and if you started a band in Central Pa and got a good amount of buzz you had a great shot at having a flourishing music career. However, just as mysteriously as the scene arrived, it’s seemingly vanished and trying to play original music in the 717 has become a fight against the current in a sea of pay to play deals, limited venue options, unflinching booking agents and an insatiable stinginess that’s left artists with a diminished sense of enthusiasm.
A quick search of central Pennsylvania finds some 200 venues within a 50-mile radius. The namesake spots being The Chameleon Club in Lancaster, Reverb in Reading and Club XL in Harrisburg, all having a capacity of 1,000 and capable of attracting national talent. Not bad for cities that have a population of less than 500,000. And while these venues do seem to do pretty good business they aren’t the kinds of spaces that make a “scene” or a faction of interested participants supporting each other and allowing the arts to flourish.
Regardless, there really is no reason this area shouldn’t have a thriving music scene. The caliber of talent in this area is second to none in scenes I’ve come across in most major cities. There seems to be a creative energy that’s elevated by the boredom of Amish country that uses desolation and remoteness not as a distraction but an inspiration to delve deep within one’s creative potential.
Secondly, Central Pennsylvania is in a prime location as it’s located less than 2 hours away from Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Baltimore. This type of consistent traffic puts one of these cities in the running to be a locale that hosts some major event like a music festival. Even more to consider is the newly opened Rock Lititz, a production company that’s worked with the likes of Taylor Swift, Usher and Lady Gaga. Considering that anyone driving from Washington D.C. to New York City will be passing through the Lebanon Valley and the top level of industry talent continually working in Lititz the ingredients are all there for this area to really take off. But for many musicians trying to be heard in Central Pa there always seems to be an air of lamentation about performing here.
One person who has a great deal of insight is a man who simply goes by Jhed. A Central Pa native for the past 4 years, Jhed runs sound at the Chameleon Club and is an integral part of the scene as both a supporter and contributor. I asked him what could be done to help the scene grow and he felt the scene was suffering from a stronghold of the Church’s burghers, a lack of all age spaces and little effort from the artists themselves when promoting their shows.
“Finding a space to put on shows is nearly impossible on account of noise ordinance problems. There’s also a huge lack of spaces for kids to play gigs. The earlier kids get into playing shows the more likely they are to continue as an adult…if kids don’t get into guitars when they’re young they don’t realize music is an option for fun as an adult and when they’re old enough to finally go out they choose douchey clubs instead because they don’t realize how fun live music is.”
I also asked him if venues were doing enough to support the artists.
“Venues around here do the best they can given the nature of the live music landscape-the reality is when it comes to local shows, it all really falls back on the local acts to promote and bring in the audience instead of just assuming a promoter or venue is going to do the work for them.”
He also added that “people around here are CHEAP, they won’t go to anything that costs more than 15$ unless it’s shitty Def Leopard at Hershey Stadium.” This lack of spaces doesn’t just hurt younger artists trying to play shows, it also affects bands that don’t quite fit in with the “bar and club scene.” April Hartman, the mastermind behind Apes Of State, arguably one of the most successful independent bands in Central Pa also felt a lack of DIY spaces, house shows and environments for young kids to play was severely holding the scene back. “We need to remove the profit incentive for running music venues in order to help small and newer bands thrive and to get them paid without having to worry about selling out the club to cover the large overhead costs.”
DIY spaces or “do it yourself” spaces are usually held in places where there is no bar or need to cover costs for the evening other than the electric. While the sentiment of putting your own entertainment on is as old as time, DIY and house shows really took off in Oakland in the 70’s and 80s with the rise of the hardcore scene that didn’t fit in with the poppier bands at the time. This type of show is ubiquitous the world over and often creates a safe, cozy, cheap and intimate experience for both the band and performer and many artists prefer to play in a basement or a living room to a venue. Unfortunately Central Pa is severely lacking from these spaces.
Amari Soria, a Lancaster based singer-songwriter who’s spent time in Colorado and had an easier time playing shows there as a newcomer than Central Pa where they’ve lived all their life finds breaking into the local scene next to impossible. “Central Pa is very exclusive, you gotta know someone who knows someone that knows the owner. The venue owners get all the same people to play and make every show about the money, it should be about the music…if the venue owners created a space for community based on music then the music would be successful.”
Johnathyn Youmans, a long time scene veteran who now runs Youmans Booking recalls the days when “you’d see 200 kids at a local show on a Tuesday....But a bunch of bad bands and bad promoters showed up. Book the bad bands and nobody wants to go to a show anymore. And then pay to play came onto the scene and it was less about going to do something cool and more about helping your friends not have to pay a promoter.”
Pay to play is a show booking tactic where an opening band is guaranteed a spot on the gig but they have to sell a certain amount of tickets or make up the difference of ticket costs to the booker. Pay to play is a controversial way of putting on a show and there are both sides to the argument but the consensus from most bands it’s an absolute pain in the ass. The constant pressure of selling tickets or scraping together enough money just to perform often leads to bands breaking up and in turn destroying the scene.
Skyler Giordano, a multi-talented artist who’s been in the game for a decade recounts this sentiment and thinks the scene needs to return to its authenticity. “With the theme of authenticity is the return of well put together mixed genre shows. I think the main reason is it forgoes the typical “good lineup” as the air at a mixed show is unlike any other and if show goers were exposed to it more often it would definitely breathe some life back into all shows, not just the handful of good shows we get every few months.”
A mixed genre show is one that finds several bands with several different styles playing. These shows aren’t very marketable as most promoters want to put together 3-4 bands that have a similar style but most artists find they’re the most fun to play. One thing Central Pa artists do seem to have down is a willingness to play outside their preferred genre and be accepting of a wide range of musical styles.
Taylor Kouqj Bull, owner of Seventh Wave Studios in Palmyra and bass player for Paradrei feels a strong sense of inclusivity in Central Pa but also a quite a bit of egos. “Central Pa is a largely diverse area which I think is super rad, especially being a trans-woman, there’s quite a few other trans folk performing and doing their thing. However, I think there’s a weird sense of superiority from a lot of facets of the local community. Big egos that grow into large fish in a small pond…Largely, I like being in the area and am happy to work with the local acts that I have in the past.”
All of the aforementioned artists perform somewhere under the ever expanding umbrella of alternative music with Apes of The State being Folk-Punk, Giordano’s Band, It Looked Like Fire playing a blend of Post-Hardcore and Amari Ra’fael making music in the singer-songwriter category.
But there’s quite a variety of local artists making music nowadays like Lancaster’s Jordan Bleyer who performs under the moniker Michael Wavves. An R&B singer-songwriter who’s broken into the iTunes charts and nearly sold out both The Chameleon Club and Tellus 360, Bleyer has opened for national acts like Chiddy Bang, Chris Webby, Jake Miller, Huey Mac and Drake Bell and feels a relatable sense of difficulty with bringing people out to his shows.
“I wish people would be more willing to support friends and people they know going after it and working at making the dream happen. Things like coming to shows and not asking for free tickets and recognizing what goes into things behind the scenes.”
Bleyer also feels “artists could create more sought after events and put more attention to detail at their live shows.” He also feels there’s hope Central Pa could return to its heyday. “Lancaster is a sought after location and could grow into a more sought after market as time goes on.”
Scott Church a Lebanon based photographer who runs Scott Church’s Living Room, an all ages space that hosts live bands several times a month thinks “too much focus is wasted on online marketing, social media ect and not enough attention is being paid to actually meeting and drawing in a crowd in the real world…it’s easier to track meaningless online analytics for virtual product that effectively earns nothing but money for the social media outlets while most artists fall deeper into obscurity and poverty.”
This statement highlights a very real and seemingly paradoxical dilemma for today’s artists: venues want them to have a draw before they book them but playing shows is a very pivotal part of creating a draw. More and more artists today are turning to social media to promote their work but often get inundated in the bottomless, unrewarding pit that is social media.
Obviously every music and arts scene has its array of problems, perhaps we artists should just be happy there’s still some places that’ll allow us to play, as many towns across the country are losing more and more venues. There’ll always be places like Station One Center For The Arts and The Kaleidoscope in Lancaster, DIY spots that create opportunities for local artists to put on their own shows. There’s also Little Amps in Harrisburg, a coffee shop with a strong local following. Then there are people like James Searfoss who makes experimental music under the name Teuthis Galore. James is working on creating a DIY record and bookstore that’ll have consistent independent shows. James can be found under “Teuthis Galore” on Facebook and is looking for any interested participants to help get this store up and running. Anyone reading that is interested should feel free to reach out.
Of course, a scene would be nothing without its supporters. When I began asking artists for their opinions on the local scene, Afi Belgrave, who is a writer and strong supporter of the local arts and music scene reached out to tell me this.
“The DIY music scene here is wonderful and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Haven’t had any problems personally. As a person of color and a female, I was a little worried about getting involved in the southern PA scene but everyone has been so down to earth, I honestly adore it.”
Music communities will always have their issues, there is ideally no perfect place to play music. All things considered, Central Pa, with all of its backwards, old fashioned ideas and reliance on Amish tourism, one of the more oxy-moronical concepts I’ve been wrapping my head around recently, seems to be a good place to see a local show.