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May 20, 2011

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The importance of a music scene

AS far as trips go, the information superhighway - the Internet, new media, all digital everything - is a pretty smooth ride. The baggage is minimal. Fellow passengers can not call for pit stops. No, you're at the wheel and the lanes are wide without limit. But has anyone really thought to ask, "Where are we actually going?"

As the world has gotten more and more connected there is a tendency to look past what's near and focus on the long red horizon ahead.

Still, the fact remains that though QQ may feature a penguin as its logo, penguins are not yet known to roam the streets of Shanghai: people are. This being so, to what extent do we actually live together? Is the concept of community in relation to geographic locale still relevant, and more specific of interest to a music fan, what does this mean for music?

Even asking questions relating to the local music community, or as it is commonly referred to as, the scene, seems hopelessly outdated.

In his book "Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century," culture critic Robert Christgau states that "In modern society, leisure (What do I want to do today?) was replaced by entertainment (What is there to see today?)."

When, as a culture, people move away from doing and toward viewing, it makes the exchange of ideas on a personal level less important to communication, the actual exchange of ideas.

With new technology, less people have a more amplified voice. And while some voices do focus on the local, see websites such as Smart Shanghai and Shanghai 24/7, most deliver content with little regard to the physical distance between the communicator (writer, video blogger, podcaster, etc) and the audience.

So what makes up a scene, and why is it important?

I'll be asking questions like these in this new weekly column, "Super Sonic." I hope to go beyond simply the sounds of music found in Shanghai to discover its deeper meanings and what that reflects in the songs, musicians and Shanghai itself.

For some of these questions, I might have an opinion to offer that comes from both my deep interest in the arts and my own experience.

When I was 18 I moved to Gainesville, Florida, a small US town with a rich history of a proud local music scene. I hit that ground running, involving myself in all its aspects, from writing about music to singing in a local band. The scene became my collective mentor, supporting my youthful ambitions and criticizing me when I went astray.

Across the North American continent, Tyler Bowa, drummer in Shanghai-based hardcore band The Instigation, had a similar experience while growing up in his scene in southern Ontario, Canada.

He describes the local scene as "a big part of any city" and important for any town he considers living in. He describes its important aspect as being "supportive ... where everyone is welcome." "There's quite a strong community here," he says in regards to Shanghai.

The nurturing nature of a community in propping up young and mostly inexperienced performers is echoed by Meng Zhao, a local college student originally from Hunan Province. She is very visible in the Shanghai music scene, with a cackling, loud voice and equally loud nickname, Frog Baby. "I prefer to use my money to support young people," she says. "Their lives get changed, even though it's a tiny help."

That view is not shared, however, by Michael Ohlsson, originally from San Francisco and involved in many local music projects, including co-owning club Dada. "I've always had a real problem with 'support'," he says. "I don't really go out to see a friend play just because they're a friend."

He takes a stoic view of Shanghai music in general, saying it has not changed considerably in five or six years.

He doesn't see an expansion coming any time soon, either. "We don't have the audience to support that at this point," Ohlsson says. "We have a long way to go."

Hoping to turn that tide is Tom Hughes, from Huddersfield, England, and co-founder of local music website Shanghai 24/7.

Hughes thinks that the "more integration between locals and aliens, both as creators of and consumers of music, the better." He continues, "If enough people stick at it for five to 10 years, Shanghai will be unrecognizable in this regard."

That might be true, but perhaps not in the way he envisions it. Although his site is about a local scene, its rise is tied to a growing reliance on new media, the medium that puts a stake in the heart of community.

As literary legend John Steinbeck documented in his travel memoir "Travels with Charley," "Communications must destroy localness, by a slow, inevitable process."

Perhaps with the new wealth of information, it's a fair trade. But like Steinbeck, "What I am mourning is perhaps not worth saving, but I regret its loss nevertheless."


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