The Antifolk Collective – A Short Anthropology of the Music Scene in NYC

So I booked a last minute gig at The New York Antifolk Festival this year – opening up the festivities on Saturday.  I’ll be using it as a kind of “live rehearsal” in the tradition of R.E.M. to work on performing the material out.  It should be a fun night.  Beau Alessi (i.e., Robot Princess) will be curating most of the rest of the night, with some excellent choices that have survived that hottest of fires that is the Monday Night Open Stage at the Sidewalk Cafe.  Given my return to the Antifolk Festival – a festival I haven’t played in several years – I wanted to take the opportunity to provide a short anthropology of the music scene in NYC.  In fact, this is a look at NYC’s music scene that you won’t be able to get from most any music writer.  Why?  Because the actual local music scenes in NYC (and in any city) are created through the interaction and aggregation of musicians, and for some reason I have yet to understand, writers are hesitant to navigate these circles.

As a result, and I say this with some frustration, many music writers don’t actually really understand the music scenes that exist in the cities in which they live.  So you end up with a disconnect between the music that is written about in an area, and the music that is created in a particular area.  New York City is just one example of a city in which that disconnect exists.  As it happens, if you read an article about some band from Brooklyn in a popular blog – chances are that band is not actually a part of a local music scene in Brooklyn.  There certainly are lots of bands that live in Brooklyn.  But most of the ones that you hear about are groups that merely decided to record music in Brooklyn, and who then devote most of their remaining attention to status-climbing the blogosphere and touring.  I say that, a bit tongue in cheek – because no doubt – everyone has to start status-climbing the blogosphere and touring at some point.  But some bands at least spend a bit of their free time in Brooklyn saying hi to their neighbors and talking shop.

It is because of the aforementioned disconnect, that the music media has provided a rather distorted picture of what the New York City music scene actually is.  Much of what is referred to as the music scene in New York City is, in actuality, more like a horde of independent businessmen, shouting each other down in an attempt to gain market share.  The actual music scenes in New York City consists of a certain number of large collectives, where musicians meet and talk, and perhaps even listen to each others’ work on a semi-regular basis.

You should care about the actual music scenes in New York City, because these scenes are the only places where musicians actually end up comparing their work to each other, and musicians develop reputations based on the respect of their fellow peers.  These scenes tend to center around the open-mics in New York City – a format that refreshingly doesn’t give musicians enough time to put on airs.  Most of the people in the audience are disinterested strangers, or other musicians – people who require you to earn their respect, under that burning, harsh, incredulous light of anonymity.  The open-mic system in New York City, in fact, casts a brightness that is much too harsh for most of the indie bands that become darlings of the blogosphere – and if such bands had attempted to make their way through the open-mic system, they most certainly would have perished.  So, there’s a rhyme and reason to why they avoid it – I get that.

By my most recent estimation (though it will take some mining through this memory of mine) there are three grand music scenes that have developed in this city.  Today, I’d like to talk briefly about one of those scenes, the Antifolk collective in the Lower East Side and Brooklyn.

The Antifolk collective is loosely based around the Sidewalk Cafe, and more specifically, the Monday Open Stage at the Sidewalk.  The Open Stage is (after having done some research on this) without a doubt, the largest and longest running true open mic in New York City.  This makes the Monday Open Stage a most intimidating ordeal, because a single night can run 7 hours long, and every single night will feature singers who could easily get onto American Idol, and songwriters who could write circles around your critically acclaimed indie darling.  Many of them (well, most of them actually) lack the financial resources to put together the mixing, mastering and other resources that are required these days in modern music.  It’s a sad fact, that should make you reflect on the role of wealth and privilege in the so-called indie music industry.  I personally think there’s an important social justice issue to discuss here.  In fact, one of the other venues associated with the Antifolk community was Goodbye Blue Monday, which unfortunately closed its doors a number of months ago.  Its customers are not wealthy folk, in the prime of their financial lives, handing out ten dollar bills like nothing at all.

The open stage is hosted by Ben Krieger, who came to helm the event after the departure of Lach – the progenitor of the Antifolk movement – though I have never actually met that man.  The open stage itself hosts the most diverse range of talent in New York City – and quite possibly the world, as a result.  This means that there is the opportunity to hear some delightfully surprising music.  This also means that there is the certainty of hearing a lot of shit.  Of course, this is probably why local scenes like Antifolk repel writers like the plague.  Though this is also why writers miss out on some aesthetically superior gems that are literally performing in their very back yards.  In fact, places like this are among the only places where you can actually hear something before it becomes cool.

Some choice listens from the Antifolk Crowd (only a short list): Ray Brown, Robot Princess, Debe Dalton, Solid Goold, Charles Goold, Charles Mansfield, Bird to Prey, Joe Crow Ryan, J.J. Hayes.

(edited on a rolling basis).