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Big Dreams in a Small Town -

Making Music When You Don’t Live in the City

 Sometimes you've gotta hang in there like a hair in a biscuit!

 by Chris Loeffler

 

 
I was speaking with the guitar player of relatively new band recently as they passed through southern Oregon on their first multi-day tour. They were of course looking for a carpet to crash on and free beer from any appreciative audience members who milled around once the show was over. He got on the subject of their current challenges trying to get anything going in the small town of 2,800 they were from.
 
 
Not every band or musician can relocate to the sort of big city that is populated with venues and eager music supporters... some choose to stay in their small town, grabbing gigs where they can and banking enough vacation time to strap together a small tour in support of their latest album. So what does that look like?
 
 
(Obviously, life is a rich tapestry of unique and different things, and the following is the experience of a handful of bands I’ve interviewed that, while true for them, doesn’t mean there aren’t other truths to being a band in a small town)
 
 
You Play Some Pretty Weird Gigs
 
 
The smaller population of your town, the less diversity you are likely going to experience. At the very least, that diversity can only be supported by so many people and venues. If you live in a rural town and 70’s country radio is the only channel on the dial, that’s most likely the sort of music that is going to be supported at the local bar. You’re awesome Baroque covers of Depeche Mode songs? Probably not going to get booked as the headliner with similar supporting acts.
 
 
The typical community is supportive of local bands, however, so you might find yourself sandwiched between hard-core biker blues and bafflingly sincere 80s pop karaoke when you do get a gig. As you can imagine, the crowd-crossover means the audience engagement varies from enthusiastic to supportive to uncomfortable.
 
 
You Become the Headliner at... Everything
 
 
Small towns aren’t good at “the newest and latest, but they are great at tradition and keeping what works. As such, it’s not unheard to have the local band who aspires to be the next Radiohead get to bill at the Annual Turnip Harvest Celebration, the 4th of July Firework Show at the Little League Fields, and play the County Fair opening for Jason Aldean. 
 
 
You Are a Local Hero
 
 
If everyone is famous in a small town, public performers are flat out rock stars. Whether you are a pump jockey in your day-gig or the principal of the high school, people tend to think of you as “the musician.” Whereas in Los Angeles everyone is writing a screenplay, and in Portland everyone is starting an ironic, Ned Flanders themed thrash metal band, being in a band in a small town often isn’t being part of a thing, it is YOUR thing. It makes you unique and interesting. People dig that, regardless of whether or not they like your music.
 
 
You Eventually Move... Or Move On
 
 
Pursuing ongoing improvement of your playing and creating music takes time and dedication. It can be the sort of invigorating energy that gets you pumped or results in artistic fulfillment, but eventually, if there isn’t enough external feedback to motivate it gets hard to keep a handful of musician-types committed to showing up to practice and songwriting sessions every week so they can play the same three venues for the same few dozen people.
 
 
Without the aforementioned infrastructure and audiences of a larger city to provide diverse performance experiences and the possibility of growing your audience of listeners, it’s hard to avoid the feeling of “been there, done that” eventually, which is why most young bands in this situation make the move. Otherwise, you’ll likely find yourself at a point where things hit an inevitable end.
 
 
In this case, all those things that draw your attention (family, house repairs, grueling work schedule) start to take over your time and space. If music already feels stalled, it’s easy to put it in autopilot and find gigging and creating music demoted to a victory lap once every couple of months with friends.
 
 
There’s nothing wrong with that end to a band, as music transitions from being a calling to a hobby, and even if you do, you’ll still be a small town hero. 

 

__________________________________ 

 

Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer. 

 

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