Not so long ago, Mill Avenue was the center of the universe for local bands trying to break into the music industry. Almost every band signed out of the Tempe scene in the '90s made it via the conventional route, cutting their teeth in the nightclubs along the strip, winning fans, and forging relationships with other bands.

Other than the newly reopened Sail Inn, downtown Tempe doesn't have music venues anymore. The strip's been colonized by chains (that decline was documented in the film Mill Ave Inc.), and even the headshops seem stressed to be paying the rent in a neighborhood with American Apparel, Urban Outfitters, and a slew of trendy college bars.

Likewise, the industry that bands once toiled to break into has pretty much disintegrated. The major-label model doesn't work anymore. The biggest-selling album of last year came from a guy who made his name circulating free mix tapes on the street — but how is Lil Wayne's marketing plan supposed to work for anyone else? The music industry, it often seems to me, is slipping into anarchy.

By any means necessary: Doggass Productions promotes on Mill Ave.
Courtesy Photo
By any means necessary: Doggass Productions promotes on Mill Ave.

And so it is that on a recent Friday night on Mill, people stick their heads in a hole cut in a painting of a dog's ass, posing for pictures while a band called Darkness Dear Boy performs acoustically atop ladders. Around the band, local standup comedians and artists hand out fliers to a show at Last Exit. Some hold protest-style signs that say "Support Local Music," "Support Local Arts," and "Support Local Comedy." A guy named Ted Organ, playing his guitar on the highest ladder, fronts the Tempe-based Darkness Dear Boy, and this demonstration is by his design.

Darkness Dear Boy isn't a particularly gimmicky band — they play the same solid, post-grunge alt-pop you'll hear from Nada Surf or The Eels — but this little happening is one of many stunts Organ has cooked up to promote the band. Here on Mill, scene of the biggest musical triumphs the Valley has seen, he's hoping to help rebuild camaraderie in the scene and, perhaps, find a way to "make it" in the post-label era.

"I think, for every band, it takes a little bit of delusional-ness to think you're going to make it, but even more so if you think someone else is going to do it for you," he says. "This is us completely scratching at every opportunity, knocking at every door."

The fact that DDB is asking people to pose with their head in a dog's ass just shows how far they're willing to take it. It also shows how far the local music scene — and the music industry, for that matter — has fallen. It's not that there aren't great local bands in Phoenix, and it's not that local bands aren't making it. It's that the scene is fractured. There's no strip of nightclubs, so bands are forced to play on musical islands across the Valley, working their niche and marketing themselves online. You can't really blame them — it seems to be what works nowadays.

Look at the two local bands that have received the most national ink in the past year, The Medic Droid and The Maine, Alternative Press cover boys this month. Both bands have relatively small local fan bases, building up their national followings on the Web. The Medic Droid, an electronic duo, played their first gig at New York's Bowery Ballroom before ever booking a local show. The Maine, an indie-lite act with pop sensibilities, has more than 10 million plays of the single "Everything I Ask For" on MySpace, yet they're still playing the Clubhouse. You don't see those guys handing out fliers on Mill or, perish the thought, playing on top of a ladder.

That's the Web for you. I still remember the first time the Internet and music intersected for me: It was 1995 and I was in eighth grade, poring over the liner notes to Radiohead's The Bends when I came across an address for a Radiohead Web site. I'd never been online before but I decided to ask my buddy Richard to pull up http://musicbase.co.uk/music/radiohead (yes, that was the URL of their official Web site — if you have a first edition of The Bends, look it up) on Prodigy. Ironically, 14 years later, the band used the Internet to bypass record labels entirely, staying independent after their contract expired and releasing In Rainbows through radiohead.com.

If going label-less works for Radiohead, I have to think it'll work for other bands. And if there are no labels to impress, why don't more bands rustle up fans the way The Medic Droid did, flexing their marketing muscle online instead of with fliers for tiny local shows? It seems to be the obvious move.

Still, you have to appreciate what Organ wants to do: rebuild the pecking order of the local scene. "Really, what we're trying to do is a resurgence. We want to keep it from going down anymore so we can get it going up. That's what we're doing: Putting the rings on it and trying to pull it up again."

It's a worthy goal. I've heard stories from New Times contributor Chris Hansen Orf about when every band on Mill (including his band, Zen Lunatics) got signed, during the heady days of the Clinton administration. Everyone knew everyone, from the Gin Blossoms on down. Bands like The Refreshments were name-checking other bands in the scene, like Dead Hot Workshop, in their songs. It was a wonderful time, he says, until everyone got dropped. But Orf's band is still together, and he's still friends with the guys he played with back then. By contrast, The Medic Droid broke up after their first headlining tour (which is why they're not playing a South by Southwest showcase this week). That's what happens when you don't pay your dues in local clubs.

If Organ has hope of rebuilding, it's through the pleasant quaintness of his monthly BFLS ("Best Fucking Live Show") at Last Exit. His project — Doggass Productions and the BFLS — started after Organ posted a rant about the local music scene on craigslist.org and received an enthusiastic response. He decided to build a show around his manifesto.

The BFLS has four bands and four comedians, so there's something going on at all times. Doggass doesn't book based on genre or "draw" (how many people a band brings in) and everyone is expected to chip in with marketing efforts, handing out fliers and the like. Each $5 ticket comes with a program, so the crowd can figure out who's onstage. Doggass is militant about the start time for every set, and it expects everyone in a band to stay the whole show.

"If nobody else shows up — if it's just the bands and comedians there supporting each other — there's 25 people you're playing to," he says. "I think creating a music scene starts with the bands, the commitment to get there early and stay through the whole time. The other bands support you, you support them."

"It's the opposite game plan of every other promoter in town. They run off 500 fliers, and they sit at the door and take people's money," says DDB drummer Aaron Bland. "You know from us exactly when you play and what you'll get paid."

I'm not a promoter and I'm not in a band, but that sounds pretty good to me. Certainly, it's the most positive action I've seen from a band tackling the many problems with the local scene. (I can't attend a show without someone bending my ear about the scene's problems.) Too many people spend their time bitching about media coverage, making fun of the bands that do get covered, and publishing stupid 'zines to further fragment things. They complain yet don't attend shows where their friends' bands aren't playing, and they hardly ever venture beyond the same few venues. It's no wonder a city the size of Phoenix — a city with a lot of young and creative people — hasn't boosted more bands to the big time.

It's funny: I go to both Hollywood Alley and Modified Arts fairly often, but I hardly ever see the same people at both venues. Yet I see plenty of repeat customers at both. The naysayers are wrong: People in Phoenix care about local music; they just don't seem to care about local music outside their preferred niche, which is why they're left looking for a crowd. Maybe they'll find one this Friday at Last Exit.

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7 comments
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Emilio Vasquez
Emilio Vasquez

"It's no wonder a city the size of Phoenix � a city with a lot of young and creative people � hasn't boosted more bands to the big time."

Yeah because 'the big time' is what it's all about.

Why don't you get a job with Entertainment Weekly or Us! Magazine.

That would better suit you. I don't think you're genuine about this whole 'music' thing.

Chad
Chad

"I have been doing shows in Phoenix for 9 years now. I was doing shows when Long Wong's and Bash On Ash were still kicking. THE PHOENIX SCENE HAS NEVER BEEN FUCKING STRONGER. More bands are doing more cool things than never before. I have no idea what this guy is talking about."

It sounds like you have never been outside of Phoenix. It may be stronger than ever (highly doubtful) but it needs to come a long way to be close to the same level as any other big city. Go to a city like San Francisco, Chicago, or even Denver and you'll see a real scene. There may be good pockets in the Phoenix metro area but they are the exception.

Martin Cizmar
Martin Cizmar

The Maine was just at the Venue of Scottsdale in December, and I think they played The Clubhouse in January or February. http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com...

They're not headlining the Marquee, they're just part of AP tour, Stephen. The point remains: selling 1,300 tickets when you've got 10 million plays exposes some incongruities.

Stephen
Stephen

A) I could not disagree more with Organ. I have been doing shows in Phoenix for 9 years now. I was doing shows when Long Wong's and Bash On Ash were still kicking. THE PHOENIX SCENE HAS NEVER BEEN FUCKING STRONGER. More bands are doing more cool things than never before. I have no idea what this guy is talking about.

B) The Maine are not still playing clubhouse. Their headlining show at the Marquee SOLD THE FUCK OUT in advance. There were no tickets to be had at the door. Their last show before that did 1,300 tickets at The Venue Of Scottsdale.

Tony Toledo-President/Founder,
Tony Toledo-President/Founder,

The local music scene has a pulse and we've all got to work together to keep it alive! The scene may not be as it once was but its still giving birth to some powerhouse metal bands. Many metalheads in town have no idea that they can see good live music almost everyday of the week and even 3-4 different shows every Friday and Saturday night! I'm just talking about local metal shows. With the other genres of local music in town I'm sure there's a number of live shows taking place every night. I believe there are plenty of hard working bands out there doing their part to keep the scene alive but they need your help! You, the fan, are what will breath new life into the scene. You don't have to come out every weekend but every once in a while would be nice. There are so many good bands in this valley just waiting to be heard for the first time.

Tammy
Tammy

Wow! Great article! I could write a "novel sized" reply to this!!! I now have a favorite new New Times writer!

 

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