The state of our scene is strong, but our creativity needs support. Birmingham has experienced a musical renaissance in tandem with other renewal efforts, and in many ways, this is the healthiest that the music scene has ever been. To keep moving forward, our musicians, venues, and music lovers must all actively engage in this community that we’ve made.
In recent months, Birmingham has enjoyed national attention for downtown revitalization, culinary clout, and other cultural strides. Breakout acts like St. Paul & the Broken Bones celebrate the city that fostered their rise to success, and people near and far are taking a fresh look at a new Birmingham.
Our local music scene plays an important role in feeding that cultural excitement. “It’s better than I’ve ever seen it,” says Audiovore host Lee Shook. “I grew up in the leaner times, when we didn’t have as many venues or bands around. The energy is going in the right direction.”
The year is young, football season is over, and as the Magic City’s nightlife winds up again, let us take stock of what’s working, what’s not, and what we can do to improve our musical community.
“There’s a soul here,” says R. Daniel Long, Jr., co-host of Birmingham Mountain Radio’s Local Mash. “People connect with music in a very unique way in this part of the world.”
There’s no shortage of musical talent in this city. Those willing to go out and listen are well aware of that. The imagination and musicianship on display is something we should be proud of, and something we should activity encourage through attendance and attention.
“Creatively, we’ve had a huge burst of activity,” says Jeffrey Cain, founder of the Communicating Vessels record label in Woodlawn. “We’ve gone from a handful of artists to a huge range of styles, and the artists are putting out gorgeous records.”
Right now, the scene’s most ardent supporters are also its own participants. “I’m encouraged by the community support among the artists, labels, and clubs,” says Cain. “There are so many sparks lit.” While there’s an obvious need to draw more casual listeners to shows, it’s uplifting to look around the room and see faces that spend just as much time on the other side of the monitors.
Our sense of community can be strengthened through events that promote creative interaction. Since 2017, The Loft Show has brought visual artists and musicians together for monthly collaborations, reminiscent of the old GreyHaven shows. Co-creators Cat Hyman and Josh Cox arrange an eclectic mix of genres and mediums, and have hosted their taste-expanding events at MAKEbhm, Trim Tab, and a variety of other venues. Come for an artist you like, stay for something you haven’t heard before.
Long teaches instrument lessons with Mason Music, and can already see promise in Birmingham’s next generation of artists. “We’re doing a good job of showing kids the value of art and music,” he says. “In our Rock Band League, they learn to play together and get to play at some big venues. Some of these kids are just amazing and they’re starting their own bands!”
It’s impossible to pin Birmingham to any one sound. While that may be harder to market from a tourism perspective, it’s a great environment for nurturing musical exploration. “The originality in this town is unmatched,” says Wes McDonald of Cornelius Chapel Records. “Artists in this scene don’t worry about what everybody else is doing.”
We’ve seen artists reinvent themselves, switch genres, and develop entirely new voices, all in the name of expression. They’re pouring their heart and soul into their work, and the passion is palpable. “Bands and solo artists understand that playing live is a performance,” says Brad Lyons, the other half of Local Mash. “They emote on stage and command the audience. They put on a show and make it bigger than life. I remember when I saw Ben Smolin at The Firehouse. That performance has stuck with me a long time after that.”
Birmingham is also home to some dedicated promotors and organizers that keep an ear out for the talent that must be heard. For nearly ten years, Rashid Qandil of Lobotomix has shone a light on Birmingham’s earnest, socially-conscious hip hop artists. “The hip hop community is taking big leaps,” says Cain. “Lobotomix is going strong to inspire new artists to make great records.” On that note, Communicating Vessels currently has a new Shaheed and DJ Supreme in the works, plus a new effort from The Green Seed.
When artists are ready to commit their music to record, they can turn to an expanding industry of studios and labels. “It’s good to see new labels like Earth Libraries and Cornelius Chapel, and all the indie DIY spots that come up,” says Long.
It’s a discouraging sight: a musician on stage, playing their heart out, belting words that took guts to write, and nobody’s there to listen. Even if artists are willing to stay out to see their peers play, that insular system of support leaves us root-bound. We’ve got a whole city of potential fans out there, so why aren’t they showing up?
“I think there’s a fear of the unknown,” says McDonald. “If they haven’t gone to many shows, some people may still think they wouldn’t fit in there, but they’d have fun if they went. Everyone’s there for the same reason.”
While weekends are usually loaded with shows all across town, our pool of dependable concert-goers is too shallow to support more than a handful of gigs on any given night. “Birmingham is still small, and there are only so many people that come out,” says McDonald. “If you’ve got a big show in one place, it’s going to affect the turnout at another show.”
“We’re feeling some growing pains right now,” says Shook. “Growth is great, but we need to strike a balance. Some concert-going whims change with the weather. It’s hard to get people out in Birmingham, especially if you’re going to present something eclectic or unheard.”
“It takes time to translate to a wider audience,” says Cain. “It can be painfully slow sometimes.”
If a big name comes through town, their fans make time for them. “People come out for national acts,” says McDonald. “There’s an opportunity to bring more people into the circle. I want to see big acts that come from here come back and participate in things like Secret Stages, events that would circulate fans.” The larger venues are in a great position to warm up those crowds with a local act.
Birmingham isn’t exactly the city that never sleeps, either. Many shows don’t start until 9 or 10 at night, a daunting prospect if there are multiple acts on the bill. “People shut down too early sometimes,” says McDonald. “Late start times definitely scare people off, and I’ve heard ‘that’s past my bedtime’ so often. We all say it sometimes, but it’s worth staying out when you can.”
For the 9-to-5 folks, catching a late show during the week means sacrificing a decent night’s sleep. “Everyone’s got jobs to get to,” says Lyons. “If it’s late on a weeknight, there are a lot of people that can’t come out.”
However, such late-night shows can cater to the service industry crowd whose work hours prohibit attending anything earlier in the day. And if they’ll come out, so be it. Is there anyone more deserving of music’s cathartic release than those who’ve spent the late shift staring at a POS system, or had purple latex gloves fused to their hands while standing over a blazing range. There are some venues that catch a vital second wind around 10 p.m., when the bleach smell of the bar is cut with lingering aromas of lemon butter, fried something, and cigarettes.
With as much as we’ve gained over the past year, we’ve suffered some steep losses. Two formative venues, Syndicate Lounge and Moonlight on the Mountain, shuttered their doors in 2018. In four years, the Sloss Music & Arts Festival brought in thousands of music lovers from out of town, but won’t be back this summer.
Syndicate’s case was an odd one. While the house was packed on more than a few occasions, the venue’s downtown location was in the middle of prime redevelopment territory, and the old building had to go. “Syndicate was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Shook. “You can’t fight that.”
For a while, there was some talk of moving Syndicate to The Battery on 2nd Avenue South, but nothing came of it. The Syndicate held a farewell show late last February, with a tremendous lineup across genres. It was a fitting end, even if it was all too soon.
Moonlight on the Mountain was Birmingham’s own listening room, an anatomical theatre of songwriting. It booked a respectable calendar of local and touring songwriters, but its most notable contribution was its open mic series. More than a few B’ham musicians cut their teeth on that tiny stage. It was an opportunity to really be heard. Musicians didn’t have to compete with bar noise, TV, or someone talking over their music (sin).
The end of Sloss Fest was signaled with a clap of thunder. Since the first festival in 2015, the two-day event at the historic Sloss Furnaces bolstered Birmingham’s tourism each summer. Heavy draws like Jason Isbell and St. Paul & the Broken Bones shared the roster with local rising acts like The Burning Peppermints and Will Stewart. The 2018 festival was plagued by storms, delays, and cancellations, however. Attendees were understandably frustrated, and the optics turned grim when they took their grievances to social media. Last October, the organizers announced that the festival was finished.
A year later, we’re still feeling the loss of Syndicate Lounge. “We need another small venue,” says McDonald. “We have bigger ones now, which is great, but something with a 150-or-so capacity would help fill the void left by Syndicate.”
McDonald believes that small venues give rising acts a much-needed launch pad, an opportunity to get up close with the audience and show what they’re made of. “When you put a local or unknown act in a bigger space, it can be depressing if the crowd is slim,” he says. “It just seems more empty. Now, it would be great if the bigger venues would have more local openers.”
Many musicians seek out gigs at Birmingham’s non-traditional venues, mostly bars, restaurants, and breweries. These are typically background gigs, an occasion to play covers for several hours, throw in an original, and hopefully get some food and drink credit with your guarantee (ask for a guarantee).
Music and dining go well together, and live music pairs wonderfully with the craft beers produced here in town. That said, venues and artists should communicate clearly before showtime to make sure the evening will be mutually beneficial.
“Some venues fail to consider the acoustical properties of their own building. That can lead to noise, which isn’t fun for anyone,” says McDonald, who suggests that proprietors “get a PA and consider the atmosphere you’re going for.”
“A sound system is worth the investment if you want to cultivate the music at your venue,”
says Long. “A lot of businesses want to participate because music is a big deal now, and they can help by supporting a higher quality production.”
And musicians, whether or not you’re hauling your own speakers, get to the venue before you’re scheduled to play. If a venue tells their patrons that there will be music, don’t keep them waiting. That poisons the water for other musicians who want to play there. “Don’t cheapen the value by showing up late to play,” says Lyons.
We do have a new indie spot that must be noted. Last spring, a new bar opened near Avondale, on the backside of Sanctum Tattoos and Comics. Mom’s Basement was imagined as a casual watering hole with a kitschy ‘70s motif, and it totally nails that. It quickly established itself as a go-to indie venue to boot. In recent months, the tucked-away bar has hosted the likes of Captain Kudzu, Lady Legs, Timber, and touring artists like Daniel Romano among others. The space is on the tighter side and recreates the vibe of a DIY house show… now with a liquor license.
On the main street in Avondale, the Secret Stages music discovery festival has found a new home. The annual block party brings together around 60 acts from Birmingham and beyond. It packs a walkable cluster of venues for two nights in August, and consistently delivers on talent. Last year was the festival’s first fling in the Avondale neighborhood, and the outlook there is promising. “Secret Stages will happen in a big way,” says McDonald. “The people in Avondale are enthusiastic about it. They get it.”
“We’re thriving creatively, but money-wise, it’s different,” says Cain. “It’s a brutal business to get into. Keeping a venue open is hard, and so is running a label. It’s risky. Music is a labor of love. It’s always been that way.”
Birmingham has earned its recognition as a music city, all for the aforementioned talent. We just haven’t found the sort of industry revenue that should accompany that title. “This isn’t an established tourism town for music,” says Shook. “We’re trying to bring the outside in, so the loss of Sloss Fest hurt.”
There is no Beale Street here. There is no Lower Broadway. But even as those touristy environments provide opportunities for musicians, what would it add to our culture? Does hearing “Wagon Wheel” and “Dixieland Delight” drifting out of every window tell you that you’re in Birmingham?
If it does, that’s fine. It’s nice to have you here. And if a musician wants to play those songs on a Wednesday night, I hope it pays some bills while they’re at it.
“Pay is an age-old problem,” says McDonald. “You’re lucky to get $50 per person at some gigs.” At this very moment, out there somewhere, there’s a guitarist tuning up brand new strings on their guitar. They might break even on that purchase tonight.
For the dedicated, music is a way of life, but it’s not a living. “Return on investment is a foreign concept to musicians now,” says McDonald. “There are so many good bands, and they’re not doing this for fame and fortune. Music isn’t something you can just pick up and put down whenever you want. It’s a have-to-do-it thing, a need always tapping on your shoulder.”
“Go see shows,” says Shook. “Support the scene. The only way our music community can grow and thrive at all is if people actively support what’s going on around them. Without that, it makes it infinitely harder for artists and venues and promoters to sustain themselves here. It really is crucial and something I think we can all do a better job of, myself included.”
Music is one of the most accessible forms of entertainment in Birmingham, but we shouldn’t take it for granted. “We tend to only appreciate things when they’re gone,” says Cain. “As lovers of music, don’t wait to tell artists that you enjoy their music. Go see them while they’re playing. It all goes by in the blink of an eye.”
The issues we face as a community won’t be fixed overnight, but the first step is showing up.
“This is our culture we’re talking about,” says McDonald. “People are serious about it. You’re invited to come out and participate.”