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By Amanda Savage
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It's shaping up to be a stellar year to see touring indie acts in metro Phoenix, and it couldn't have happened soon enough for our atrophied live music scene. Just in the next month we have NYC's Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Canadian twee popsters Stars shortly afterward.
Hold on, wait a goddamn minute . . . I've got it all wrong. This isn't a stellar year to see indie bands in the Valley, and none of the aforementioned bands is playing here.
They're playing in Tucson.
Maricopa County is consistently one of the fastest growing metropolises in the nation, and Phoenix is the fifth biggest city in America, even bigger than Philadelphia. Tucson is a sleepy little cow town that happens to have a university.
Unlike a lot of people in metro Phoenix, I'm not a Tucson hater. But I'm also not ambitious enough to drive a couple of hours to see a show that isn't coming to the Valley. I want to see good live music here.
Over the near-decade I've lived in the Valley, I've noticed occasionally that bands I like sometimes play Tucson instead of Phoenix. No big deal. It never really pissed me off until last spring, when the second leg of Bright Eyes' Lifted tour skipped us in favor of them.
I have to digress: I'm a huge fucking Bright Eyes fan. Have been since Conor Oberst, who essentially is Bright Eyes, was a barely 18-year-old unknown, and occasionally used my house as a crash pad on his jaunts through town five or so years ago -- now he's big enough to afford hotel rooms. So when I heard he was skipping Phoenix, I took the news as a slight, and I've been considering the merits of Tucson as a staging ground versus Phoenix ever since.
The first and most obvious facet I had to look at is that Tucson is between San Diego and El Paso on I-8, while Phoenix is a couple hours out of the way for bands traveling between California and Texas. Still, that argument oughta be easily countered by the fact that Phoenix is more than twice the size of Tucson. Unfortunately, I found that doesn't translate into bigger audiences.
"If you take the stuff I'm doing, the indie shows, I think they do close to the same," Charlie Levy, a longtime promoter in the Valley, tells me. Levy was the promoter for Nita's Hideaway during its glory years at its old Rio Salado location, and now books shows at various venues under the Stateside Presents imprint, as well as running Western Tread Records with Jimmy Eat World's Jim Adkins.
Another major factor is that venues in the Valley have the life span of fruit flies, and with the closing of Nita's Hideaway, the Bash on Ash and all the other clubs you could waste an hour rattling off, the number of appealing venues for touring acts has been minimized. Concurrently, the number of venues in Tucson has increased in the last few years. Club Congress, the Rialto Theatre, Plush, and Solar Culture all regularly host great national acts.
Here in Phoenix, our only stalwarts are the Marquee Theatre and Modified Arts, and both are relatively new venues, at that.
Kimber Lanning, the owner of Modified Arts and Stinkweeds Records, knows exactly why bands aren't in a rush to hit Phoenix. "Everybody that lives here thinks that there's nothing going on here so they stay at home and watch TV," she says, warming up to a rant. "People don't understand how much this city has to offer and they don't participate in it because they've been hearing for years that it sucks here so they just believe it sucks here.
"People think that a music scene is something that's just given to you? Well, fuck you, you have to participate. And you have to buy your friend's CD when you don't feel like it, when you want a free one. You have to go to a show when you might not feel like it because this is what happens."
Harsh words -- and she's dead right.
Andrew Skikne, a booking agent with the Kork Agency in northern California, handles many national indie acts like Mates of State and Atmosphere. He used to live in Tucson. "It's definitely easy for the booking agency to get shows in Tucson; we don't have a hard time," he tells me over the phone.
"A lot of times the booking agent will put the bands where the good deal is for the bands, where they treat the bands nicely, and they're not going to play [both] Phoenix and Tucson -- it just so happens that a place like [Club] Congress, not only do they treat the band well, they give 'em a place to stay, there's a restaurant there, and there always seems to be a built-in audience.
"I think that people just like to see live music more in Tucson," Skikne concludes.
Levy has the same conclusion. "There was a time when people really supported local music, 10 years ago. Then it really waned down. I think right now the local scene is hurting more than anything. I think that's what hurts venues, because local music, local bands is what keeps venues open. 'Cause you're only gonna get so many national acts a month, you need the local bands to pay the bills every day.
"When I was starting to book Nita's, it was insane how many bands could do 200 people and sell it out: Trunk Federation, Les Payne Product, Jimmy Eat World, Dead Hot Workshop, Flathead, 100 Iced Animals. . . . All those bands are gone now or don't play out or they're too big to play.
"I think it's just known that Phoenix isn't known for a very good live music scene, it's a common fact -- for things that aren't on the radio."
Although that fact pisses me off, it's clear to me now why so many bands I like blow off Phoenix in favor of Tucson: As a whole, we don't support live music. It's our own goddamn fault. If we'd all get our asses to shows instead of sitting around being haters, maybe the trend would reverse -- and maybe some clubs would open rather than close.
The truth is that we don't support our own music scene.