Local Wire

Why Scene Vets Leave Phoenix, and What They Find When They Go

The author and Ian Murdock, exploring the Seattle noise underground.
The author and Ian Murdock, exploring the Seattle noise underground. Ashley Naftule
You’ve heard this story: Local artist/musician does good work, starts to build up buzz, becomes a linchpin of the scene, and then flies the coop to feather his or her nest on a coast.

The siren song of the sea claims so many Phoenician expatriates that I’m surprised no enterprising hipster bookie has started a moving-on-up “dead pool” yet. “Place your bets, place your bets! Cover story in Phoenix today, driving a U-Haul to Portland tomorrow!”

It’s a story I’ve seen play out time and time again, but not one that I’ve experienced firsthand. I’ve lived here for all of my 34 years. I’ve escaped the orbit of the Valley for the occasional trip, but I have no idea what it’s like to try to plant roots in new soil after growing so much in one place.

I wanted to gain a better understanding of what it feels like to pull up stakes and start over in a new community as a creative, so I reached out to three recent Phoenix expats to find out what they missed about their old home and how it compares to their new one. They reinforced a few things that I’ve always believed about the Valley’s musical and arts communities: that Phoenix is a hotbed of creative cross-pollination, and that our city’s low cost of living and laid-back cultural attitudes toward money makes participating in the scene easy (perhaps too easy). They also pointed out a few things about our city that I never would have guessed. After all, it’s hard to be objective about your fishbowl when you haven’t swum in any others.

“You know how in Phoenix, you could go for years without knowing what someone’s day job is? We want to be defined by something else. Here, it’s routinely the first thing that both artists and non-artists ask each other.”

By “here,” Kevin Patterson is talking about Charlotte, North Carolina. Patterson was a staple of the downtown performing arts scene, organizing and performing in variety shows, talk shows, poetry slams, open mics, and theater events. Moving back to North Carolina to be closer to his family, he’s noticed the more business-savvy, money-conscious aspects of Charlotte’s creative community.

“Charlotte is the second-biggest banking center in the nation,” Patterson explains. “Bank of America and Wells Fargo have their headquarters here.” That banking culture also has an impact on the kind of work that seems to thrive in Patterson’s new community. TED Talks, Pecha Kucha, and Ignite-style events happen all the time there, he says. And for any event that doesn’t fit in one of those PowerPoint molds, getting access to a stage can be tricky.

“To get a venue is harder. So I think that makes you more inclined to take it seriously,” he says. “That leads to submission processes. For all the events I did, I had to submit something, whereas in Phoenix, I rarely had to.”

In Seattle, Ian Murdock noticed a different kind of barrier for performers: the high cost of living.

Like Patterson, Murdock was a familiar face in the downtown community: a prolific performer who also went to countless shows. He’s noticed that Seattle’s pricier lifestyle can make experimentation a risky bet.

“High-risk shows are hard to put on at venues where you have to charge $20 to get in,” Murdock says. “There isn’t much cross-pollination between scenes. It’s harder to do that here because it’s expensive. I can’t go see an $18 improv every weekend … or ever, really.”

Phoenix’s music and performing arts scenes frequently intermingle and collaborate with each other. You may not see comedians or performance artists working alongside bands at Crescent Ballroom showcases, but when it comes to house shows, variety shows, and many other gigs across the Valley cross-pollination is the rule, not the exception.

The Valley’s low ticket prices also make it easier for residents to hop around and visit multiple events in a single night. For the price of $20-30, you could go to a museum, see an improv/comedy show, and catch a night of live music at a bar. In most other cities, you’d be shelling out that amount just to do one of those things. An argument can be made, though, that the lack of money flowing in and out of the scene leads to people having less skin in the game.

Ryan Avery witnessed that difference in dedication during the 10 months he spent living in Los Angeles. Owner of the Related Records label, frontman for Father’s Day, and performance artist-extraordinaire, Avery has been an integral part of the Valley’s underground for years.

“It’s more common to see artists and musicians taking themselves seriously,” Avery says. “The first thing that anybody wants to talk to you about is, what’s the new thing you’re working on? Which is both and scary at the same time — it gives you this weird pressure. ‘Oh, I guess I should be working on something right now!’”

Avery noted that constant interest in what people were doing was kind of refreshing.

If you’re talking about something they don’t know, they’re genuinely interested in learning about it because they want to know. There’s a hunger to be knowledgeable about all things cool, which sounds like an insult, but it’s totally not.”

Avery explains that people in LA aren’t just eager to know about what’s good — they’re hungry for their work to be a part of that conversation. The drive to succeed is palpable.

“I feel like Phoenix is really competitive with art and music, but it feels like you’re competitive in the way that you’re competing with your sibling,” Avery says. “But in LA, it’s different. The local bands and art shows I’ve seen, they’re like, ‘I am the best!’ That’s what their statement is: ‘Try to fucking beat this.’ That’s cool, but I can’t imagine doing that unless you had a lot of money. And the crazy thing is, a lot of the local independent artists, they have funding for what they’re doing. Because that’s where the industry is for that type of thing; everyone’s business-minded. Before they even get a band going, people are like ‘I need to find someone who can do my costume.’”

Funding is an f-word that rarely gets thrown around in Phoenix. There aren’t many grants to go around, and city support for the arts varies from threadbare to nonexistent. This isn’t the case in Charlotte and Seattle, though.

“A lot more events in Seattle can rely on solid turnouts and backing from the city,” Murdock says. Any events dealing with groups “in the crosshairs of marginalization” or that “celebrate intersectionality” was likely to garner heavy press and support from the city.

Patterson notices a similar trend, where politically charged and socially relevant work seems to have a much higher profile in Charlotte. “Southerners love to have causes,” he says with a chuckle.

Money and careerist ambitions may not play as large a role in how the Valley’s music and arts scenes operate, and that’s to our benefit. The tradeoff for working in an environment that’s less professional and driven by money is that opportunities for creating and performing are much more readily available. And Phoenix has one unique aspect that makes it more performance-friendly than other cities: the weather.
“One of the reasons why Phoenix has such a healthy performance scene is that there’s so many stages outside,” Patterson says. “Phoenix is one of the very few cities in America where you can do an outdoor monthly show all year long.”

Patterson’s point about Phoenix’s history of outdoors performance made my head spin: it’s the sort of thing that’s easy to take for granted. “We’re talking Firestage, Lawn Gnome, Alwun House, even Trunk Space had a stage outside back in the day … It makes it easier for venue owners to run a building. The code is a little less, the overhead is a little less. Here, all the shows are inside, so there’s a little more formality.”

As our community gentrifies further, perhaps noise ordinances and irritable business owners could lead to fewer outdoor spaces and fewer open mics. Cost of living can increase; artistic cross-pollination could break down. Perhaps the real question isn’t how Phoenix is different from cities like Los Angeles, Charlotte, or Seattle; the question is, how long will it take before we become just like them?

“At this point, it’s hard to separate where the line is between regional differences and ‘this is how American culture is right now,’” Murdock muses on the phone as we wrap up our conversation. “We’ve been homogenized in so many different ways, through social media and neighborhood engineering … the local proper nouns are different, but it’s still got that kind of sacred urban vibe that everywhere is trying to capture. I think South Park dedicated an entire season to it.”

Maybe one day, Phoenix will be so much like the cities that expatriates flee to that there will be no point in trying to “escape.” Here is just like everywhere else.

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Ashley Naftule