From The Issue: Making The Band
Written by Bwog Staff
Keep your eyes open for the September issue of The Blue & White, coming soon to campus. Until then, Bwog will honor our heritage/amorous affair with our mother magazine by posting highlights of the upcoming issue online. Among the treats to look forward to: a litany of bizarre and outdated freshman hazing rituals, a conversation with a luminary on DIY education, and a (half-fictional) account of romance in the John Jay dining hall. In this article, contributor Zoe Camp illustrates how campus musicians are taking matters into their own hands.
“College music” is a nebulous term, born of the legendary kids who spent their undergrad years honing their craft in the campus microcosm before exploding into real world success. College music scenes are as much the product of their student surroundings as their larger geographic context. At Columbia, we face the bizarre combination of dire campus circumstances and a city with one of the richest music scenes in the world. It’s just not as simple as throwing a bunch of kids in a cramped double and waiting for a REM or a Radiohead to, as a Chia might, manifest itself overnight. Columbia students confront competing local scenes, a shortage of viable gig locations and practice spaces, and a particularly picky crowd to please. But despite such setbacks, several student groups have found a way to circumvent these roadblocks and make a name for themselves.
The sheer number of options for live music in New York City makes for a competitive market that often sees marquee acts overshadowing the small student band. With Madison Square Garden’s big-name draws and Brooklyn’s intimate venues so close and accessible, it’s no surprise that many students might choose a Fleet Foxes concert at Radio City over a gig held by a student band in an East Campus townhouse.
Jonathan Tanners, CC’11, a blogger and former WKCR DJ, considers Columbia’s prime location “a blessing and a curse” and reflects on its effect on the Morningside scene. “With such an embarrassment of riches all around us, it can be pretty easy to look anywhere but campus for music,” Tanners said. “I think whatever there is of a Columbia scene certainly suffers from the infinite possibilities of New York nightlife,” he added. However, Tanners also pointed out that the abundance of concerts is not so hindering “that Columbia bands don’t have fans and followings in their own right.”
One such band is Life Size Maps, a power-pop trio headed by Mike McKeever, CC’11. The group has played campus events like Battle of the Bands, but has for the most part chosen to break outside of the Morningside Heights bubble. In addition to playing a series of showcases at CMJ’s annual Music Marathon last fall, the band has spent nearly all of the summer performing at various Brooklyn venues like Union Pool and Death by Audio. Working within the Brooklyn scene instead of competing against it, the band has managed to garner a larger audience while still retaining its collegiate charm.
Despite more mainstream success, McKeever remembers their humble beginnings. “We started out around campus. Our first shows were at Barnard suites, and we practiced in the Carman laundry room. We moved on to local bars in M-side and were psyched when we started playing venues downtown and in Brooklyn. Since then we’ve played a lot of different types of shows, from grimy Bushwick warehouse parties to dives.”
Another barrier to a strong Columbia music scene is campus itself. Even with Lerner Party Space and the (recently-reduced) handful of frat houses available for concert space, many students and musicians find the venue opportunities on campus lacking, citing bureaucracy and red tape as perpetuating factors that make impromptu, low-key concerts (the type that help to spark larger music scenes) difficult. It’s a problem amplified by the number of non-bar concert halls in Morningside Heights. This has led many campus musicians to take D.I.Y. approaches to concert planning.
At the forefront is the Columbia University Society of Hip-Hop (CUSH), a large collective of hip-hop enthusiasts who hold monthly meetings (referred to as cyphers) in the rooms of the IRC house. With traditional practice spaces scarce, the members of CUSH took to Facebook to organize meetings and events in IRC spaces. Now, CUSH repeatedly draws crowds of 30 to 50 people at its meetings—an impressive feat for any campus group, much less a bevy of rappers.
“There aren’t really strong places for [artists] to network, get to know each other, and make moves with each other,” explained Ace “Tha Pyro” Anderson, CC’11, one of CUSH’s founders. “That was the reason that motivated Mpho Brown, CC’11, Jon Tanners [the blogger and DJ noted above], and me to create CUSH—as a way for people that love Hip-Hop music, and make it, to network with each other.” The collective’s efforts paid off, and at the end of last spring, the group opened for Das Racist and Snoop Dogg at Bacchanal, drawing probably the largest crowd a campus band has ever seen.
Alex Silva, CC’10 and member of the band Face of Man, believes the problem for Columbia musicians is less about finding like minds and more about what happens thereafter. “Columbia is a great place to start a band. I think it’s a hard place to really maintain and grow one though,” he said. Face of Man came together through connections forged in the music department, the jazz performance program, and WKCR. He describes the social networks at Columbia as fertile ground for a music scene to develop, but says that space constraints can inhibit the power of these networks. He recalls perpetual difficulty finding space to practice, which he explained can make it difficult to realize musical projects fully and creatively. It can however, lead to some inspired, if fleeting, alternatives. “I had some friends that hosted a performance in the tunnels under the business school, for like 5 minutes at least.”
Although Columbia was indispensable to the formation of Face of Man, Silva noted that out of school, “it’s a lot easier to maneuver as a musician.” Their self-titled EP, which was mastered by Joe Lambert (Dirty Projectors, Panda Bear, Deerhunter) and debuted this summer, has already received significant attention from critics, yet the band remains relatively unknown on campus.
As in all things creative at Columbia, there is no lack of talent or enthusiasm in the music scene. By all rights, Morningside Heights could have a thriving little college band culture. But a lack of space, or rather lack of willingness to make space, for bands to practice, perform and develop themselves locally pushes them into a wide set of alternative routes. They find their own spaces, perform behind closed doors, or move far off-campus. They make names for themselves in Brooklyn, but fail to gain a following on campus as well. Columbia will always produce a wayward band or two, but if we want those bands to stay local—to create a Columbia music scene, we must find a way of providing them a room and an audience.
Want to hear more? That’s the beauty of the internet! You can download tracks free from Life Size Maps on SoundCloud, the entire debut album from Face of Man, and watch members of CUSH perform at WBAR and Bacchanal.