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Remember: Bringing the Music Back to Allentown? Really?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Bringing the Music Back to Allentown? Really?

What really happened to the music in Allentown? Occasionally it appears as if there may be music in Allentown but just as quickly it disappears. I know there are some good local bands playing at MayFair. But, after MayFair, where are the shows?

I know what Bethlehem has going on. I know that Emmaus, Northampton and Reading are starting to make waves across the sonic landscape of the Lehigh Valley with an increasing number of venues and booked concerts. Allentown however seems to be growing ever more stagnant with limited venues and exclusivity at the venues that do exist.

We are the third largest city in Pennsylvania behind Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has a pretty good music scene and Philadelphia has one of the best scenes in the country. Philadelphia obviously has major arenas and concert halls that attract national acts but the scene in Philly was truly revitalized and set on fire by a do-it-yourself movement that has set the example for developing a vibrant and exciting music scene.

There have been attempts over the last few years by people in the Valley to bring this D-I-Y scene here and for brief instances a localized but vital scene has in fact existed in the shadows of Allentown. More often than not, the fire hall shows, the house shows, the limited venue shows are ended by increasing rent costs or the inability for a few individuals or one individual to do everything themselves.

The city establishment has not helped cultivate these movements; and for the most part has been ignorant to them entirely. Every once in a while, a city official, with what I imagine are dreams of Castle Gardens and King Arthur’s Court dancing in their head, decides that they can bring a real scene back to Allentown. It hasn’t happened yet.

This isn’t a difficult thing to do on. You get a venue. You charge a cover under ten dollars but enough to pay the artist and whatever costs are incurred. You promote the shows both the old fashioned way with flyers but you use modern social networking tools like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter to reach literally hundreds or thousands of people and expose them to what is going on.

That is truly all it takes, trust me, I have done it myself for 50-100 person events at different coffee shops here in the Valley. I could easily get near to a hundred people to come out to an event to see artists they had never heard of, just because something was going on the city. Here is what it looks it if you have never seen it:

There are venues asleep and never utilized across the city that could sit shows for as little as 50 people and as many as thousands. Trying to run shows in these particular venues, like the three available in the Fairgrounds or Union Terrace or J Birney Crum or etc, is like trying to draw blood from a stone. There is opposition at all levels of ownership and eventually at city levels.

I was down at the historical library last week reading about Deep Purple playing the Parkway in the early seventies. Deep Purple when they were a new band with a lot of interest; this isn’t like booking Deep Purple at MayFair or Musikfest now and taking up the spot of a good local band trying to go regional or a bigger new act in favor of a band past their prime because the people who book these things must not know any better.

I write all this today because I have been made aware of a campaign trying to “bring the music back to Allentown”.

First, there is music here. There are great local bands with very talented musicians struggling to find venues in their home city. They are playing in Bethlehem, Reading, and Philly weekly but have not played yet in Allentown.

Second, the will and drive exists to make a real scene like the one in South Philadelphia happen.

Third, the things that stand in the way of that don’t seem like they will ever change and like so many ideas and spirits in this city the talent will leave. It will be lost.

I, for one, know how to get it done. I know others who do too. I will be in those other towns and cities seeing the bands that practice in Allentown and add culture somewhere else. A few months ago an Allentown band named Sports for Kin played a live score to a classic movie at a theater in Jim Thorpe. Jim Thorpe! They had to go all the way to Jim Thorpe to share that amazing performance and experience with an audience.

I look at this bizarre minor league training camp of musical talent in Allentown and I almost laugh. We provide everyone else with great musicians and experiences while our city grows ever more stagnant and silent.

We are on the edge of a true possibility. Allentown is rife with talent and potential. If the city really wants to bring the music back I suggest they check out to see how it is done or send me an email.



Anonymous Monkey Momma said...

The music scene in Philly is a primary reason why hubby and I want to retire there one day.

We used to go to the Shanty to hear the blues. I felt safe parking the car there and hanging out. I never go down to Croc Rock, because I just don't feel safe! I had to go see the Red Elvises at the Sterling, and (again) I didn't feel perticularly safe. I'm grew up near big cities, so it's not that I'm scared of non-white people. It's just that A-town's thugs really unnerve me. I know your piece is mostly directed at younger folks, but folks in their 30's and 40's (and beyond) also like cool music, and we usually have more money to drop on a night out on the town.

A night at the Shanty used to be such a total blast. I really miss that scene. I don't think the demand for that type of venue has disappeared, I think it's just currently unmet in Allentown. The old Mananas site downtown and the brewworks are good central locations for music, and a security presence would be much appreciated for the suburban visitors.

I think there's some real potential here in Allentown for a good arts/music scene. But, the potential lies in the residents, not the local government. Any plans for development must rely on private dollars and must be in response to actual market demands. If government subsidies are required, it's probably not a viable business idea in the first place.

Good luck with your efforts to bring some cool music to the area. I will support your efforts as best I can - and I look forward to future shows.

May 17, 2009 at 6:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see the problem within the city officials and such being too hard to turn on allowing venues to be open for live music. But another deep problem is within the music venues already available. Sterling is probably the best one in Allentown for a local band to play at but its location, advertising, and run-down look don't allow it to draw many people. The places like Croc Rock and others are extremely bad to the music scene, while yes they will allow nearly anyone and everyone to play there the amount of tickets you have to sell and the low name head-liners do virtually nothing to propagate the bands status.

May 17, 2009 at 8:17 PM  
Anonymous Capri said...

I also think that the readily available venues hurts the LV Music scene because it gives the illusion that there's nothing lacking.

Other great "non-venues": Symphony Hall's upstairs room; Civic Theatre (both the main stage and theatre 514).

I went to one Sports for Kin show in the courtyard of the Silkwerks building and it was amazing, I wish the city had embraced that property and shows had recurred there on the regular, it really was a great spot.

May 18, 2009 at 8:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This topic keeps coming up lately. I know some people who would like to start up a grassroots music venue. The biggest problems being zoning and funding. I agree with Capri that there are many venues out there not in use that really could be.

May 18, 2009 at 5:17 PM  

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