This year marks two full decades since I first wrote about music for NUVO Newsweekly. Thinking about it makes my bones ache. Twenty years?
But the pain eases when I remember how much has changed in that time, for Indianapolis musicians and audiences alike. Amid the endless ebb and flow, the trends are mostly upward.
Come along, back across the ages, and consider the conditions of the late '80s and early '90s. (If you disagree with my overgeneralizations, please keep it to yourself.)
In the pre-Nirvana world, the divisions were stark: rock vs. pop vs. rap vs. country; college vs. commercial radio; alternative vs. mainstream. Mass communication was still a top-down business. Mediocrity ruled, and the underground really was.
Here in Naptown, bars dabbled in live music, and all-ages clubs came and went, but the original-music scene struggled to catch fire. For long stretches of time, the Vogue and its farm club, the Patio, were among few options for bands who foolishly insisted on playing their own songs.
And oh, the technology: In terms of recorded product, cassette was still a popular medium for independent artists. The Internet wasn't really here yet, which meant no e-mail, MySpace or Facebook, now the staples of DIY promotion. Clubs didn't have websites, and utility-pole flyers were still the chief marketing weapon for local bands.
Concertgoers were largely limited to Market Square Arena, the RCA Dome and Deer Creek (later Verizon Wireless) Music Center - in other words, huge spaces viable only for major commercial tours, dominated locally by a single promoter.
Occasionally, independent promoters would bring edgier acts like Fugazi and Iggy Pop to such oddball venues as the Eastwood or Arlington theaters. Otherwise, the cool guys had little reason to stop in the Circle City on their way to and from Chicago.
Though I didn't realize it at the time, a major step for the better occurred in the late '90s when Sunshine Promotions, which I had often cursed for its monopolistic ways, redeveloped Murat Centre. Since then, the Theatre and Egyptian Room have been magnets for top singer-songwriters and alt-rock bands as well as some of the less laughable reunion tours. More recently, the Lawn at White River State Park has emerged as a great summer venue. Conseco Fieldhouse and Verizon Center, despite their flaws, remain available for the biggest shows.
On a smaller scale, music-loving entrepreneurs have proven that original material has a niche in Indianapolis nightlife. As a result, the scene has never been more active and diverse. Hometown bands can play alongside touring acts almost any night of the week at such venues as Birdy's, Radio Radio, the Melody Inn and the Vollrath Tavern. The Emerson Theater is still going strong as the all-ages home of metal and modern rock. Music cross-pollinates with the visual arts through organizations like Big Car and the Harrison Center for the Arts.
Not only do individual artists have social media at their disposal - building careers without need for record labels, radio programmers, promoters and retailers - but local social media sites like IndianapolisMusic.net and Musical Family Tree have become pillars of the community. My Old Kentucky Blog has developed its Laundromatinee video subsidiary while also becoming one of the city's busiest indie-rock promoters. Meanwhile, facing bravely into these same technological winds, Luna Music and Indy CD & Vinyl are still with us as hubs of general coolness and nationally lauded examples of what record stores should be.
Yep, it's been a long time coming, and we're still not Chicago. But comparing today's Indianapolis to that of years past, one could almost say it was worth the wait.
If only I were 20 years younger...