Politicking & Community

“The perks go to the guys who play the game, the ones who politick. I knew a long time ago I didn’t have the stomach for that.”
– Robert Hanssen, Breach (2007)

The above quote stuck out to me upon my first viewing (of many) of Breach almost 8 years ago. It’s curious: as a longtime political and current events junkie (who’s been trying to detox the last ~8 months or so), I’ve long been averse to political gamesmanship in most all areas of life, particularly in music. I don’t enjoy schmoozing and/or networking for the sake of schmoozing and networking, and I try to be genuine and let the interaction or music speak for itself. I know many folks who are always out in the “scene,” working as many people as they can just so they can ultimately get their own back scratched. It’s slimy and I have a hard time bringing myself to do it. That being said, I have “networked” in the past, but whenever I do it’s coming from a sincere place: I’m trying to make a connection; I’m genuinely interested in what he/she/they are doing; I think a rising tide lifts all boats. Etc., etc. But the older I get, I see that I’m in the minority. Indeed, it’s a pirate’s life for all…

But as with what most refer to as politics – the crafting and implementing of public policy – the how is almost as important as the what (if not more important in some cases). You want something to become law? Okay, how will you get that enacted? Similarly, you want to play a show? How will you get that booked? Who should share the bill with you, and what can you do for them (and vice-versa)? Instead of that rising tide lifting all boats, it’s a giant wave lifting some boats and pulling others down in its wake. Zero sum. Good for the goose, bad for the gander. The cold crossfire of competitive self-interest.

And yet, despite my aversion to acting politically, my longtime fascination with politics and desire to engage in public service has led me to a political post on my own small scale. Basically, I reached a bit of a personal tipping point: I could obsess over obscure congressional races and legislation throughout the country, etc., or I could actually focus that energy on what’s going on in my own city, joining the process at the local level in the hope of affecting immediate change myself (or at least giving it a shot). At the end of 2014 I applied to fill a vacancy and was appointed to the City of East Lansing’s Arts Commission. It’s thus far been quite a gratifying experience. I’ve learned a lot about the city’s political and policy landscape, and despite the seemingly innocuous title and post, I’ve quickly observed that no politicking is too small for politics. Though, of course, if that’s how it is with music, why wouldn’t it be so for politics itself?

Words like “scene” and “community” are often bandied about synonymously when discussing a local/regional/etc. musical environment. However, it’s been my experience that competing “scenes” (and/or “selves”) often work against forging a “community.” Even at the very local level of where I live, the various disparate musical enclaves feel almost balkanized. (I lightly touch on that here.) First, there’s the municipal and mental division of East Lansing and Lansing. Though the border is largely a highway, it unfortunately can feel like it may as well be a derivative of the Berlin Wall. I live in East Lansing and am still only a few miles from Michigan’s capitol in Lansing, and yet the change in vibe regarding perception and tired old stereotypes once I cross said highway are palpable. EL vs. LAN: college town vs. industrial town, MSU vs. GM, transients vs. townies, cover bands vs. the hardcore, acoustic vs. electric. And I’m just talking about the cities. When looking at the various musical scenes, one can quickly go down an endless rabbit hole of not only competing styles (acoustic, rock, jazz, etc.) but competing castes within each style (bluegrass and singer-songwriter, indie and hard rock, bebop and all else). But that minutiae is another entry for another day.

When I first joined the Arts Commission, I think a couple of my friends (and even myself to a small degree) thought that it’d be a comically sterile experience, more akin to student council or the municipal government from Gilmore Girls (between my wife and a former roommate being fans, I couldn’t help but absorb some of it) than “government.” However it’s been more rough and tumble than anticipated, and I’ve gladly and enthusiastically accepted that challenge and dove in head first. The first big issue to pop up after my appointment was the city’s divesting East Lansing’s municipal contemporary art and performance venue (SCENE)metrospace to Michigan State University’s art department. (I won’t turn this post into a diatribe on the topic. I’ve said more than enough on it locally and you can read about it here, here, here, here, and here if you’re so inclined. Separately, Matt also wrote a post on it from his perspective to bring in the new year.) In short, (SCENE) will continue as a visual arts space curated by MSU’s AAHD, with music and other non-visual arts greatly reduced (almost to zero). The deal is still officially in talks but I have no doubt that it’ll pass in the coming weeks.

Bringing this full circle, I’ve been gobsmacked by the local music and arts community’s deafening silence on the (SCENE) issue. Without naming names, I know quite a number of folks who have performed or shown their work there over the past several years who have made little-to-no (with emphasis on “no”) public comment about this. For some, I believe that they think the change may benefit them in some way. For others, I wonder if there’s a territorial “scene” mentality taking place, considering that some of them may see (SCENE) as competition for their more hyper-local scenes. (SCENE) benefited them in the past, but now that they seemingly no longer need it, why rock the boat and state that they care? Of course, those who live in East Lansing are more affected, considering we’re the ones whose tax dollars will continue to fund it while losing access to perform or exhibit. And, considering a number of the aforementioned folk live in Lansing, and given what I wrote about the supposed EL vs. LAN divide, it’s “understandable” that they wouldn’t raise a stink over something that takes place on the other side of US-127 divide. On top of this, most other venues in the area are nearly monopolized by Fusion Shows, a Lansing-based booking agency and promoter. Once you’re in with Fusion, why care about the Alamo-like independent venue?

So where am I going with this meandering entry? (Not that it matters much.) It’s likely obvious to only me, but this post seems to continue along a path touched upon in previous posts (here, here, here): the micro trumps the macro; the individual trumps the whole. While (SCENE) is considered by many at first glance to be a visual arts space, it’s been an important local resource for live music in every style in East Lansing (including a handful of shows by yours truly over the last several years), and just about the final holdout to stay free of the clutches of the Fusion leviathan. (SCENE) will of course continue – and possibly thrive – under its new management as a visual arts venue, however the live music component has been squelched (with small, tightly-controlled exceptions). Another venue bites the dust. So many got so much out of the space – artists, musicians, and attendees alike – and yet so few came to its defense when it was put on the chopping block. I wonder if things would’ve been different had those folks made a stand. Perhaps not, but we’ll never know.

“All politics is local.” – Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill


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