I've been planning for a few months now to type up some kind of epic blog post talking about late, great Des Moines Register columnist Rob Borsellino's "So I'm talkin' to this guy..." anthology, Gawker Media reporter John Cook's Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records (co-authored with label heads Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance), and Anderson's book. The idea was going to be to look at Des Moines from a newcomer's perspective and consider ways that we could learn from Merge and Anderson in trying to develop a thriving music community. Well, I gave my borrowed copy of Borsellino's wonderful book back to my aunt, and my mom hasn't finished reading the copy I send to her in Georgia via Amazon, so I can't refer to it specifically. And reading Our Noise made me realize that a lot of Merge's rise-- and even Afternoon's smaller-scale success-- is inextricably tied up in the particular circumstances, work ethic, and dedication of its founders. But I still think there are some lessons to be learned.
For those who don't know, Borsellino was a talented reporter from the Bronx who says he came to Iowa for love-- his wife, current Register columnist Rekha Basu, had gotten a job here. His prose has a terse, hardboiled style. But it's all the more heart-rending for it. He was the East Coast tough guy on the outside, the bleeding-heart softie on the inside, and he had the chops as a writer to hit all of those notes perfectly. He died in 2006 from Lou Gehrig's disease, the same illness that took my grandmother when I was younger. I'm from a little foothill town in Northern California originally, so New York City was an exotic place to me when I moved there in 2004. But I got to know it well enough to understand how Borsellino might've been feeling when he first set foot in Des Moines. That was a long time ago, too, before the rebirth of the downtown area. In New York, it's almost rude to show up to something promptly; in Iowa, Borsellino notices, if you're five minutes late people will call you wondering what they've done to offend you. The main view that I get of Iowa through Borsellino is of a place where people are stubbornly practical. Sometimes they mistake what's practical for what's in their self-interest, but most of the time, people here are just practical in a positive, commonsense, and often warm-hearted way. That's what I get from Borsellino, anyway.
Music isn't practical. You could almost say that's the point. Sure, it can make you feel better, take you outside of yourself, make you see the world a different way, help you meet other people and understand yourself, or just make life slightly less boring. But to say any of this is practical would be like suggesting that dancing is good because it burns calories. Then again, look at Omaha. People there might root for a different college football team, but they're still from the same general part of the Midwest. It's still pretty much an insurance town, which again wouldn't necessarily suggest a huge interest in anything that challenges the status quo. And yet Omaha produced one of the biggest do-it-yourself music success stories from the past 15 years: the rise of Bright Eyes and the Saddle Creek label. Long-running Omaha band Cursive will be playing at Vaudeville Mews on Saturday night. (Ladd, are there still tickets? I thought I was gonna be out of town, but there was a change in plans.)
Merge Records and Afternoon Records are vastly different in size, but their books (both extremely worthwhile if you've gotten this far-- Merge has more pictures and history, Afternoon is more of a how-to) offer similar lessons for budding music impresarios. In short: Start small, put out records you and your friends actually like, don't be too cool to be savvy about the business side of things, build a fan community, spend money conservatively, don't expand until the market basically forces it. Merge, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, started as a 7" label centering around its founders' band, Superchunk, and has since gone on to release beloved albums by the Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel, Lambchop, Spoon, Camera Obscura, and-- probably most famously-- the Arcade Fire. Of course, there was a whole "scene" going on in North Carolina back in the early days, but that doesn't mean one couldn't start here, too-- if enough bands want to play and enough people want to come out and support them. It can't hurt that Merge's home base, Chapel Hill, is a college town; Minneapolis-based Afternoon has that going for it, too. I kinda doubt the music-loving kids out in Grinnell are going to be coming downtown for their live shows anytime soon (someday, maybe?!), but with Iowa State in Ames, Drake right here in Des Moines, and plenty of young professionals working downtown, we have more going for us as a live music city than a lot of places. Everybody from Jens Lekman and Jonathan Richman to Will Oldham, Joanna Newsom, and Devendra Banhart to the Decemberists and Fall Out Boy has played Vaudeville Mews. So we get some good shows. And we have the 80/35 festival, which has been bringing us acts as diverse as the Flaming Lips, Public Enemy, Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, Man Man, Cymbals Eat Guitars, Broken Social Scene, Tilly & the Wall, Matisyahu, Ben Harper, and many others. (I should note: I'll be volunteering a little bit to help out with booking for this year's 80/35, so I'm not totally an objective observer on that front anymore.)
All right, this blog post is already getting too long. Are you starting to see why that epic I had been planning never quite materialized? To build on the music community that's already developing in Des Moines, people really just need to keep forming bands, keep going to shows, make friends with other like-minded people and keep spreading the word. We have nothing to lose but boredom.
a way to escape or a way to wage war? dream, reality or simply something else? well, it really doesn't matter as long as it's yours.