Blue Robot

If You Build It

Posted by Stephen Smith on 04/21 at 02:18 PM

As a music reviewer for the Blue Robot blog, I’ve gotten a good taste of the music scene in State College.  As I near the end of my tenure, I’ve noticed that the music scene is mostly comprised of two types of performances: cover bands and Bryce Jordan Center-caliber celebrities.  In this great college town of ours, it surprises me that there really aren’t any locations truly dedicated to the cultivation of original music for the aspiring young musician.

Now, that’s not to say that State College is totally absent of outlets for local and original music. Amidst the half dozen cover bands that play nightly at bars, there are shows such as SPA’s free Noontime Concerts. Every Friday at the HUB, SPA brings in small independent artists, and sometimes gives students the spotlight to showcase their talents.  Also, there are groups on campus such as SLAM!, SOMA,  and the Songwriters’ Club that give students an opportunity to perform to a receptive audience of like-minded peers.  Off campus, there are weekly open mics at the Phyrst and Rotelli.

Unfortunately, none of these options are really the epicenter for what could be a thriving music scene.  The multitude of small clubs and open mics are fractured.  They are not affiliated with each other and tend to make small circles of regulars, rather than an interconnected community of musicians.

If, for example, one of the many vacant storefronts downtown were bought and converted into a music hall, it would provide a venue for these independent groups to come together and perform.  With the right atmosphere, these groups could blend together in a single sub-community based around music appreciation and apprenticeship.  Lessons could be taught by instructors, used instruments could be bought and sold, and live performances could be brought in from around the state.  This music hub would also bring in students from local high schools, creating a broader sense of community between college students and the community.

Back in January, I interviewed Rainbow Music employee Gary Owens, who has worked on and off in the store for the past eight years.  He mentioned that there used to be non-bar type venues awhile ago, but they did not fare well.  Owens went on, saying the scene is cornered by a handful of cover bands that do make quite a living off their bar shows.  These bands have come to flourish because, as Owens explains, “no matter how big or small the market, drunk people always want something they can sing along to.”

Other people in the community share the same pessimism towards the music scene.  Last semester, Blue Robot alum Marcus Correll wrote “The State of Music in State College.” He attacked the apparent gap between cover bands and small, student clubs. Another former Blue Robot writer, Aaron Wynne, outlined his views on fostering original and local music (see here).

Collegian writer Alex Weisler noted that the music scene “hasn’t always been so strong,” in reference to the ability of the area to attract mainstream bands.  “State College hasn’t always been the best for live music.  Bars book an abundance of cover bands, and most mainstream artists hop from Philly to Pittsburgh without stopping here on the way.” 

In a comparison article, Martin Guttman contrasted the local music scene to other college towns.  “In a place that bills itself as a drinking town with a football problem, live music [in State College] can fall into obscurity.”

While students pay upwards of $40 for tickets at the BJC, University of Florida students have their tickets subsidized and tickets are usually in the $15 to $25 range.  Furthermore, while college towns like Charlottesville, SC, Athens, GA, and Gainesville, FL, can claim to be the home of Tom Petty, R.E.M., and the Dave Matthews Band, State College no such claim to fame.

I even personally received a Facebook message from a guitarist in a local cover band who longs to start his own band with more creative input, but is forced to play in the cover band due to the income it provides.  I feel that musicians shouldn’t have to choose between playing to the bar crowds or pursuing their own artistic endeavors.

Considering these views and my own experience in the music community, I know that there is a large coalition of genuine music lovers waiting for a place to coalesce.  With the right business model, an organization could not only survive, but thrive in this town.  Given the size and prestige of Penn State, there should be one focused organization—either on campus or off—dedicated to encouraging original music production and appreciation in State College.  The music is out there.  It just needs a place to be heard.

{name} Author: Stephen Smith
Bio: Stephen Smith is currently a senior English major at Penn State. In his free time, he enjoys playing Xbox, drumming, playing his guitar, and writing fiction. His favorite genres include alternative rock, emo, indie, metal, and most anything played acoustically. His favorite bands include Say Anything, Counting Crows, City and Colour, and Daphne Loves Derby.

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