Graphing a Music Scene (Boston & Surrounding Areas) (orig. published Nov. 7, 2010)

01Jul11

This is a paper I wrote for my Intro to Sociology class.  We were told to identify a network of nodes and flows and analyze it.  I analyzed the Boston punk music scene.

And yeah, I realize that the Dropkicks’ original drummer is Jeff Erna, not Joe.  It was 3:00am and there were quite a lot of Joes to graph.

 

In the past decade or so, Boston has been a training ground for many mid-sized punk rock bands gaining national prominence.  Long known primarily as the hometown of Aerosmith and keeping the rest of their music scene a well-kept secret, since 1997, bands from Boston .  The Mighty Mighty Bosstones broke out first with their hit “The Impression That I Get” which reached #1 on the Billboard Alternative charts.(1)  Since then, Boston local boys the Dropkick Murphys, a large Irish-punk band, routinely sell out venues with a capacity of 4,000+, played at Fenway Park, and had a single featured in the Martin Scorsese film The Departed which subsequently went platinum.(2)  Other bands to emerge from the area who have gained national popularity include the Amazing Crowns, Four Year Strong, the Street Dogs, Far From Finished, DYS, Slapshot, and Blood for Blood, among others. (3)

The Boston music scene has long been characterized by cooperation and mutual support amongst its many bands.  The Bosstones have cited Boston’s supportive music scene as a reason for their national success, and paid it forward by bringing Boston bands on tour with them whenever they could.(4)  Other bands—including the Dropkick Murphys, whose first national tour was opening for the Bosstones—have continued this trend.

In a closely knit music scene, the various bands can be thought of as nodes, and the flows are characterized by several events: when one band member leaves one band and joins another, for example (as when Al Barr left the Bruisers in 1998 and joined the Dropkick Murphys); when a band opens for another or when they tour together; or when bands share producers or songwriting credits.  According to Scott Richter, host of the “Give ‘Em the Boot” radio show on WWPV 88.7 in Burlington, VT, and amateur New England punk rock historian, “the Boston punk scene has been a very tight knit group of people (with the exception of the emergence of FSU within the hardcore scene and boneheads running the scene for a bit in the mid 90’s).  Musicians often form multiple bands; they tend to have one band that will regionally or nationally tour, but will sometimes have two or three bands that rarely, if ever, leave the Boston area.”

I selected this population partly because it is a scene I’m already familiar with, but also because Boston’s music scene, being based on cooperation rather than competition, is rare to behold, and not just in the music scene.  An interesting side note is that the Boston punk community manages to maintain social cohesion while also maintaining stylistic uniqueness, with no band sounding quite like any other.  The bands also have, in the vast majority, maintained their independence and DIY (Do It Yourself) work ethic.  The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are the only band who spent a significant amount of time on a major label.  I believe that the bands’ social cohesion and commitment to each other is a major reason why they are able to do business this way, and why the Boston scene has been relatively insulated from some of the more exploitative aspects of the music industry.  Because they can all support each other, nobody is tempted to go outside the group for support (like to a major label).  (5, 6)

The Boston scene is ever-evolving, and only time will tell if the Boston scene maintains the unity that is currently evident.  New bands may carry on the trend of helping each other out in a close community, but the community could just as easily close itself off and become a clique, with band members only helping those they already know, and not nurturing new talent, and new bands may have a hard time finding a relatively solid “lily pad” to jump off from when they’re trying to make the leap from local act to nationally touring one.  For a band trying to make this transition, landing an opening spot on a tour with a well-known headliner can be a godsend; but if the tightly knit bands only ever tour with each other, it gives new bands no chance to join “the club.”  In addition, the effects of the digital revolution on this community, though agreed to be a watershed moment in the music industry, still remain to be seen.

Most of the information for this diagram came from my own music collection, combined with informally surveying people I know who are well informed about the Boston punk scene, confirmed with checks in discographys and production notes.  Any errors are of omission, rather than commission.

The graph is coded as follows: nodes (that is, bands) are in red, with individual band members in black.  The various arrows are flows.  It’s worth noting that not every person in every band is on the diagram (for example, the Bosstones have eight members, and the Dropkick Murphys have seven).  I limited inclusion to individuals who were involved in two or more projects, and even then was forced to limit the data (Matt Kelly, the drummer for the Dropkick Murphys, has two other bands).

The purple lines indicate a permanent migration of an individual from one band to another.  The directionality of the arrow indicates the final destination of the person.  Johnny Rioux’s roadie duties are included in the “band member” category because he was the bass tech for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones for more than ten years, and this connection allowed him to network with many other bands, including the Dropkick Murphys, which would lead to him joining the band the Street Dogs (also, it was Johnny’s connection to the Bosstones through other, earlier, Boston bands that got him the gig as roadie in the first place).

Guest appearances on albums, or temporary loaning of band members, are noted in light blue.  Touring together is noted in green.  Though this appears to be the least common flow, it is more common than I was able to depict on the graph—the Bosstones and the Dropkick Murphys have toured together at least twice; the Bosstones have taken several other bands not on the map (because I could not graph their members’ movements) on tour.  In addition, tour information is the hardest to document because it is the most likely to be either inaccurate or lost.  But playing a show together is probably the most common and most effective way for bands to get to know each other, network, set up future shows, talk about upcoming albums, trade information, and so on.

The quality of my data is, I believe, sound, though woefully incomplete.  In talking with people familiar with the scene and reading music industry articles, I realized that even a relatively small scene like Boston’s quickly becomes overwhelming to quantify.  And I learned that, as much as I know about the Boston scene, there is enough material just on the musicians of the past fifteen years to fill a book.  I restricted my analysis to half a dozen bands and their members (and did not have the space to even list every single member in every band), and still could not include relevant bands and individuals (and local Boston favorites) like Sinners & Saints, the Lost City Angels, or the Kings of Nuthin.  Just mapping out the flows between the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, the Dropkick Murphys and the Street Dogs can be daunting, and raises the question of when, precisely, weak ties become strong ones.

I think the Boston scene will remain an interesting one to remain aware of, not only to listen to the new bands that come out of the scene, but also to see how the dynamics in the scene change.

 

Compact Discs Cited

 

Big D & the Kids Table.  Fluent in Stroll.  SideOneDummy, 2009.  CD

Big D & the Kids Table.  Strictly Rude.  SideOneDummy, 2007.  CD

Dropkick Murphys.  The Gang’s All Here.  Hellcat Records, 1999.  CD.

The Kickovers.  Osaka.  Fenway Recordings, 2002.  CD

Street Dogs.  Savin Hill.  Crosscheck Records, 2003.  CD.

 

(1) http://www.billboard.com/artist/the-mighty-mighty-bosstones/chart-history/11295#/song/the-mighty-mighty-bosstones/the-impression-that-i-get/655130

(2) http://www.dropkickmurphys.com/about

(3) It should be noted here that “national prominence” is defined, loosely, as a band that can tour the continental United States and draw an audience large enough to allow them to play in a venue with a capacity of 800+.  Another way of looking at it would be a band whose members do not need day jobs and can spend a large amount of the year on tour.  Because of the way the punk scene is structured, bands can be nationally known in that scene and yet not break out into a wider (non-punk) audience, or attract the attention of Billboard’s sales charts.  Most punk bands tend to make their money from playing shows, not selling albums.  The digital revolution is changing this trend, but for the purposes of gauging a “popular” punk band, it is still a workable indicator.

(4) Burton, Tim.  Interview with Patricia Ricci.  Marbles E-zine, 1997.  Online.  http://web.archive.org/web/20010903171021/www.comcat.com/~beaudk/bosstones/articles/inter20.html

(5) Richter, Scott.  Personal interview.  12 October 2010.

(6) The FSU he speaks of is Friends Stand United (originally “Fuck Shit Up”) a racist hardcore street gang with chapters all over the Northeast that ran amok in the early 1990s.  They caused so much havoc and violence that many scenes disintegrated completely, including Boston’s.  Says Richter, “[The scene] fucking died, there was no one but Slapshot, from 1985-1995.  They [new Boston bands] built it from the ground up, they started from nothing and built it to where it is today.”

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