"So…are we in Detroit right now?": How ska/punk is hobbled in Michigan’s underground music culture and what can be done
When I started this blog over five years ago, it was to develop as a critical writer, expend a wealth of free time, and explore the ska/punk genre, which I was pretty unfamiliar with. It was the presence of “a scene,” a confluence of art and community, that really made getting involved seem productive. Michigan Ska functioned as scene-via-website where local artists, national touring acts, and consumers could organize their efforts for mutual benefit. This isn’t about the fun we have had doing that and all the cool and not so cool people involved. This is me providing some insider commentary (as an broadly experienced local music fan, educated media/culture critic, and Michigan Ska “insider”) on a self-contradicting direction in Michigan Ska, as it primarily manifests in southeast Michigan, that has been affecting local and touring acts and my fellow ska/punk consumers. This direction has been developing for years with no single responsible party but it has been facilitated by various unknowing promoters, bands, and patrons.
People contact Michigan Ska most often for opportunities in or around metro Detroit. Whether it’s fellow Michiganders looking to get involved with local happenings or out-of-state ska/punk folks trying to reach new people, Michigan Ska is the most visible organizational entity for a ska scene inclusive of Michigan. Considering how Michigan’s populated, Detroit is an essential part of this, both in the past as home to a number of known ska bands and, still, as the major music market in Michigan. I spent years directing inquiries for shows to play and bands to play with to people who I had seen best help inquiring artists reach an audience here. This did not and does not dominate how Michigan Ska performs as a scene since others, especially one or two that I have felt uneasy explicitly calling incompetent, were more active on the booking end.
The way bands and fans, who I hope both read this with an open mind, almost unconditionally end up accomplishing this interface evokes a geopolitical problem in southeast Michigan. Detroit’s reputation as a grief-stricken wasteland/post-city has organized ska-punk activity in a way that isn’t obvious to those that don’t have a direct relationship with the city’s culture like very few of those who have represented Michigan Ska in the past six years have.
Everyone visible in Michigan Ska is a suburbanite or exurbanite and so are practically all of their peers. To most, this doesn’t present as a massive factor but how the scene operates is affected by it and the location of ska/punk events comes into question for those of us with experience with local music as metro Detroiters or musicians from other local, urban-centered scenes.
For example, here’s a conversation I have absurdly often:
Touring artist: So…are we in Detroit right now?
Me: No, this is <suburban city>. Detroit is over there.
Touring artist: Oh, I thought this was Detroit. Is it safer here or…? Like, is it better here?
Me: No. This is just where ska/punk shows happen lately. Whoever booked this put you out here because they figure you’ll get paid here. Detroit’s technically not as bad as its reputation makes it seem.
Touring artist: Oh. We were kind of curious about Detroit and figured this was like part of it.
And then, more often than not, they express some interest in playing Detroit as that’s “the big place for this area.” Sometimes I will explain something that the other Michigan Ska figures will, at best, touch on but more often not understand to the extent that it seems important.
The truth is that metro Detroit, for Michigan Ska, functionally excludes Detroit.
Plainly, this is a consequence of Detroit’s racial/political tension. The ska/punk fans that constitute Michigan Ska are all suburbanites, raised around the persistent prejudice against Detroit as a place unfit for oh-so virtuous, conservative, mostly white cultural agents. Our antecedent generations, especially those further away from Detroit’s formal boundaries, will happily live and die knowing nothing more than half a mile of the city that confirms their indoctrinated perception of a blighted, threatening remnant of a city once resonant with their xenophobic, proletarian-in-denial, rightist prejudices. As cultural attitudes do, this rubs on us in a variety of ways.
Despite some earnest efforts since the 90s, ska/punk isn’t apolitical yet and there is still an allegiance to its radical leftist roots*. Michigan Ska’s problem isn’t active participation in the urban-suburban political divide. Michigan Ska, at its most tangible, is, at worst, blindly leftist with a few embarrassed right-leaners and, at its best, extremely literate, critical progressives. Michigan Ska’s connection to this conservative suburban character is very visible in contrast with other local art communities, which is something most ska people don’t examine.
Michigan Ska’s problem though is notactively resisting the idea that Detroit is dead and those whose prejudices perpetuate this idea. I’ve spent time all over the state, especially where there are shows, and Detroit is absolutely the cultural center. Everything that facilitates a creative culture in other major cities is, despite the “burby” beliefs otherwise, absolutely present in Detroit. Any perception otherwise is observably a result of the local, suburban prejudices rubbing subtly or less subtly eroding whatever open-mindedness that person had about the character and security of Detroit. This pressure to socialize in a way that satisfies prejudicial relatives and peers truly wears some local kids down but they will adapt their rhetoric vehemently to justify their uncomfortable prejudice and resulting choices.
Lansing, Flint, Mt. Pleasant, Wyandotte, Troy, Howell, Rochester, and wherever else ska/punk shows get booked work because a few people who live around the region are willing to drive to shows and then the rest of the crowd, if there is one, are very-nearby locals who are there because it is a convenient place to waste some time or their friends are playing, not because they have any distinct interest in creative ska/punk efforts or even participation in any music culture.
Grand Rapids works as Detroit’s satellite campus. A significant, vocal number of consumers out there are suburban or exurban Detroit people with the aforementioned eroded perception of the city who figured that GR was where they could express their creative/social interests as burgeoning adults without the threat of Detroit’s storied crime and cultural decay. So it’s cool for bands to be able to play to those kids and their similarly prejudicial local peers in the couple miles of “bobo” ghetto where young progressive people can feel like they aren’t surrounded and ultimately organized by basically rural conservatism. But Grand Rapids shows, especially as they pertain to Michigan Ska, depend too much on talent and audiences from the other side of the state without an equal exchange of these components for Grand Rapids to be considered an inarguably significant market independent of Detroit. Basically, playing in Grand Rapids often means one plays with bands “from Detroit” who will draw out there but will draw better on the other side of the state, where there are more people anyways. (To be fair: I do very honestly admire Do It Together Grand Rapids as an open-minded, informed support for creative interests out there and, if you’re looking for a really great, constructive art community out there, I fully encourage you to contact them.)
For those outside of Michigan, this is intrinsic to your audiences and shows as well. Touring acts I’ve gotten to know through Michigan Ska activities frequently remark that it’s impressive that their core group of friends and fans all drive to a city virtually none of them live in or very nearby but that the rest of the faces are new and hardly ever recur. They also wonder why people once considered in their local fanbase gradually disappear, not often being told by those absentees or those of us that know them that driving out to whatever obscure place has been lazily designated as the suburban home of Michigan Ska for that year or season, in the most plain way, sucks and, if one wants to go to a show, it’s much easier to catch an awesome one in Detroit.
"Nah, dude. There’s no way I’m going all the way out there to see <band>. There’s a sick show in Detroit where I won’t be the only one there and I won’t have to see the same clueless local ska ‘bands.’ Tell <band> to play Detroit next time. I know a ton of people that will show up just because it’s something to do and they’ll probably dig <band>."
As such, Michigan Ska people like to think there’s a crisis for ska/punk. More bands break up than form. More kids are leaving for other music scenes than are joining. They’re disappointing each other and our hard working friends by not having more to offer them.
To me, it sounds like ignorant, older relatives and neighbors absurdly lamenting over how under-represented they feel as white, Christian conservatives in a region allegedly (ie: absurdly believed to be) threatened by diversity. Diverse taste in music threatens Michigan Ska, the community of people using the name online and off, in the same way sociological diversity threatens suburban “Detroiters;” out of closed-mindedness.
Those of us who actually treat our area as a unified entity including Detroit don’t see a crisis. With Detroit in view, one can see that local/underground music, as a culture, is thriving. Detroit, not the suburbs, is home to nearly endless music fans, venues, and other opportunities which make creative ventures viable. You know, as it goes in cities. You won’t really have exclusively ska/punk shows in the city as in the suburbs but, in the city, you will have a show where art is displayed and interacted with, rather than a secluded coven for only the very dedicated and quickly disinterested to see out in some unknown hall or dive. That quotation two paragraphs up is a synthesis of so much of what I’ve heard from people who have matured into dynamic music fans (such as many of the artists that have been limited by suburban Michigan Ska shows for years) and in doing so have necessarily found the exceedingly rewarding opportunities in Detroit.
So, where this leaves us, those with any connection to Michigan Ska, is with two worlds dictated by the same polarity between urban and suburban. One is the safe, conservative, suburban one where you have a sense of a ska/punk purity, a clearly coded Michigan Ska. The other is the comparatively radical, urban, challenging one where ska/punk fits into the regional art culture and is then subject to criticism and other forces that contextualize creative output as a social, artistic product.
The truth is that Michigan Ska cannot withstand the latter as it only exists by the insular grace of the former.
The most recent rash of Michigan Ska activity very successfully made Michigan Ska’s artistic hyper-irrelevance visible to a growing number of social and cultural bystanders. A Brazilian touring band with solid material played three Michigan shows. The non-promoting exurbanite promoter saw fit to put his band and/or his friends’ bands on every show and not promote, as has been standard practice in his and others’ (whom it works better for) tenure as de facto Michigan Ska “promoter”. There wouldn’t be much point, of course, as promoting bands that have no relevance outside of an exurban pocket and little relevance within won’t draw anyone in using an exurban Michigan ska/punk vocabulary, as has been demonstrated for years by numerous promoters in at least as many different corners of this bloated metropolitan area. So, instead of playing to some number of the abundant local music fans with and via bands visible in local music culture like one would in any other urban area, creative folks bold enough to tour an expansive foreign country depended on an irrelevant “shitty Big D cover band” instead of a band that would have brought new, receptive audience members or even a band that isn’t empirically unsuccessful at doing so. (It’s pretty funny when a ska-punk fan/occasional promoter and a local Detroit music journalist who don’t know each other feel the need to warn their friends about such a band which they saw at different shows, using the same terms, and I end up warned twice) Two of the three shows were at venues that would have worked well if the shows had been properly promoted or had bands that have an experienced perspective on our local situation and some remotely relevant place in it. All of this because of where people grow up, how they think of parts of their region, and how they then try to organize creative activity to suit themselves.
Meanwhile, the people who make metropolitan Detroit a rad place for music were devoting their resources to booking and populating events that maintain and expand a fertile, local creative environment full of opportunities that even such a genre non-grata as ska/punk could capitalize on. I’m sure those that attend events like the one described and the unassuming touring acts would describe their experience as fun and professionally satisfactory but the ultimate goal of Michigan Ska; the development and proliferation of ska/punk and its related artistic efforts in the Michigan market; was once again filtered through the political division of our area to the point of sustained long-term failure. Any single show can be described positively but it is very obvious that these individual, inoffensive events in obscure spots around our region are not productive since everyone who’s been around for a few years sees that local ska/punk shows is, in every way, dwindling.
Compounding this example involving touring artists, it works similarly for local acts. Michigan Ska promotion perpetually demonstrates, and has for years, an inability to separate interpersonal misgivings from its impersonal, pro-creative purpose. Most of the bands that have constituted Michigan Ska have broken up, shuffled, and changed courses as happens in any community but those most active in booking sustain grudges that, for everyone else, arise and resolve away in this creative ebb and flow. Michigan Ska artists who have new, less ska/punky bands aren’t afforded opportunities by people representing Michigan Ska because they “aren’t ska” and didn’t gel with the one or two show bookers’ visibly inadequate understandings of the social and professional challenges in any proactive creative community. For example, one of the better drawing bands right now won’t get shows related to Michigan Ska because they don’t want to play audience-less shows in the middle of nowhere (the suburbs and exurbs Michigan Ska shows inhabit) and, on top of that, one member had to drop a couple of shows with his previous band because of very common, mostly manageable psychiatric issues*. Having a working relationship with such a person would allow greater success at suburban venues since they have a viable, mobile draw but they, like other vital acts, are missing from those shows because a couple predominant figureheads want to remain bitter over something they don’t understand.
The result of this tension is the tenure of a single central promoter using the Michigan Ska name and the few people who support him continuously disabling Michigan Ska and, on the other side, a larger number of active people viewed as threats because of our counterparts’ naivete. Some of us have been actively learning, developing, and therefore making mistakes to become effective artists and consumers because we give a shit about music culture while others were too closed-minded to join us but still work on seizing opportunities to play, promote, and participate in Michigan Ska. The latter group are the ones who you, as fan and/or artist, have seen most recently as the faces of Michigan Ska and they explicitly disapprove of us “deserters” and “hipsters.” Metropolitan Detroit’s geopolitical tension matches Michigan Ska’s in this. Enthusiastic participants in a diverse culture are decried by conservative “peers” and people on the outside don’t immediately have the tools to discern who stands where. Where this more concretely leaves us is with a majority of ska/punk patrons (containing pretty much every local ska/punk-related band with draw or crossover appeal) who most often attend events and all get along despite a couple of more conservative peers who most often represent Michigan Ska online and in booking actively trying to avoid us while still trying to foster a scene.
As such, the shows getting promoted on the Michigan Ska facebook page or in the ridiculously rare physical promotion of Michigan Ska events are mostly collections of bands representing a disconnected, paranoid, uninformed perspective which is extremely problematic. Bridging this gap is something a lot of us have worked on but, lacking the direct experience and drive for new artistic challenges, the more conservative Michigan Ska people are opposed to this understanding. Their approach means that the static Michigan Ska audience is unmotivated to attend events and no one new, ska fan or otherwise, finds an exciting opportunity to consume underground ska/punk-related music. There obviously isn’t a firm beginning to local bands and fans being excluded or excluding themselves from this insular Michigan Ska but what follows informed, productive, hard working bands’ exclusion is audience exclusion and then a building cycle of promoters booking less and less inclusive, accessible events under the Michigan Ska name to returns only understood as diminishing by bands and audiences alike who have gotten involved with Detroit’s culture and where Michigan Ska fits into the local underground music zeitgeist. In other words, Michigan Ska shows have basically become private parties for suburban conservatives because those booking them are clueless about local music culture and, coincidentally due to trivial interpersonal misgivings, out of touch and often combative with bands and fans more vital for their local music competence.
Before I synthesize all of this into a prescription for action, I want to address a few significant reader responses that will almost certainly come of this. First, I’m not doing this out of spite for a young “local promoter” whose unchecked ignorance of the local music culture has kept hard-working, talented bands from the significant local music audience for years. I’m sure he, in his capacity as the more visible representative of Michigan Ska, will try to discredit this to save face and maybe even try to say that I have it out for him. Second and similarly, a couple others will say this is part of a pattern of misanthropic behavior by an uninformed, shit-stirring dilettante. Considering this recurring whimsical portrayal of me, using the Michigan Ska facebook page to publicize this guide will probably be tricky as those same people will probably try to delete it and remove me as an administrator (haha).
So, if you see taking Michigan Ska seriously as an important part of your promotion and/or consumption of ska/punk-related art in Michigan, consider every perspective and even seek out radically new ones. If you have past involvement, consider how close examples I’ve used has been to your experiences.
I’ve had awesome, positive experiences with almost every one involved in Michigan Ska and I’m not doing this to attempt some pitiful coup against friends and acquaintances. I know a few will think I am because they frequently have trouble remembering and even imagining a version of me that isn’t cartoonishly malicious/extrapolated from Michigan Ska message board trolling years ago. I am providing all of this information for the same reason anyone has acted under the “Michigan Ska” header but now with so much more experience within Michigan Ska and, unlike other Michigan Ska figureheads, the regional music culture. Isn’t it absurd to feel any need to punctuate this already lengthy post with a ward against Michigan Ska’s pervasive back-biting? I think so and I also think that it’s essential to the ultimate point of this:
If you are a ska/punk band or fan and you want to get involved anywhere near or in Detroit, don’t go to Michigan Ska. If you want to promote or consume ska/punk and related art in this area/market, Detroit is the fertile environment that you are looking for, just as any urban cultural center in any other state is. Michigan Ska, as a small collective of active people regulating state ska-punk activity through a Facebook page, is compromised by our area’s geopolitical tension and therefore mostly unqualified to make ska/punk relevant outside of the fragmenting, insular suburbs.
Even if you have an ongoing relationship with Michigan Ska or its representatives, keep being friends with them (obviously) AND take a minimal risk by capitalizing on far more abundant opportunities in Detroit. There are a lot of unflattering statements regarding Michigan Ska people in this but they are uninformed and generally self-interested, not evil. Even accounting for personal feelings tied into music business feelings, there’s no reason aside from bold local prejudice that local and touring acts can’t take a minimal risk in breaking new ground in Detroit without losing the minuscule core audience. My fellow Michigan Ska figureheads have no rational way to feel truly slighted by bands wanting to play shows with authentic, drawing bands that promote effectively and competently in the area’s best market, at venues that naturally have crowds, and to people that inhabit an ongoing live music culture (rather than haphazardly try to construct one in the suburbs and exurbs.)
While the wording is personal, the understanding and motivation behind it isn’t. As such, I cannot stress enough how important it is to challenge one’s understanding of this area since, in the local ska/punk community, most understandings are rooted in a relatively amorphous prejudice against our primary city. Michigan Ska should be as relevant as it presents itself for the sake of our present and future friends and peers and its degenerating efficacy is evidence of a problem. Not all of us can be a promoter, musician, or regular patron but those that help bring ska/punk into the region’s major cultural market, especially without depending on any singular Michigan Ska figurehead, are essential to making ska/punk even remotely relevant again.
So, if you’re an artist or fan and think this makes sense, let me (or an even more active person) know. My email is at the top of this page. At the very least, I will check out your material and put you in contact with venues, bands, and promoters that will help you but I would love to do more if that’s what’s needed to get you better established in our local music scene, especially since there are nuances such as sparse, temporarily viable inner-rim suburb venues and the finer variables in venue/promoter/band choice. Ska/punk and ska/punk-related music is frequently worthwhile and should have an audience here if it wants one (especially that made by those lurid provocateurs that play and enjoy music that isn’t conventional ska/punk). That’s why a major music market such as Detroit is undeniable.
For a quick read to better illustrate the suburban Detroit character, here’s a pretty decent one. (Note: the “suburban mom” rhetoric is truly not limited to suburban moms. Anyone around here can verify that it permeates virtually every circumstance. For example, punk shows held out in the middle of nowhere are full of kids talking like this.)
To address the couple asterisks (*):