MUSIC SCENES are an ever-evolving thing. Growing up in New York, about 2 hours north of the city, the town I lived in really didn’t have much of a scene. There was even, at one point, an old noise ordinance that was being more heavily enforced that essentially limited where bands could play. It pretty much meant you had to drive at least 30 minutes to play at a venue, which was not ideal for a young original band like mine.
So after a few years of driving 45 minutes to Poughkeepsie or 30 minutes to New Paltz, we decided to move down south to Charleston to try and embed ourselves in what was happening there. It worked to an extent, but I ultimately felt like there was a lot of cliquiness happening in that scene and it was hard to get good gigs or get attention.
Moving to Savannah, which I did not for the band but for the opportunity to open a recording studio that is now sadly closed for a myriad of reasons (the pandemic being the nail in that coffin), I immediately noticed something I hadn’t in other places. Even seven years ago, it seemed that everyone in town played with each other, and there was a sense of camaraderie that I wasn’t used to. It was really cool to witness. People cherished their music venues—especially The Jinx—and though the circle was smaller because we’re not New York, L.A., or even Atlanta, there did seem to be some audience for original music and some desire for that to thrive.
This certainly was also the case in the world of local independent journalism, with a certain newspaper being for many years a trusted and cherished source of information that people actually cared to read. Again, this wasn’t something I’d experienced in quite the same way as a kid in a somewhat stuffy New York town.
There was a bit of a marriage of the two worlds here in Savannah, I noticed, so naturally I jumped at the chance to apply for a job as the guy who would write about the music and arts communities here. I knew it was my chance to get to know those communities more intimately and do my part in promoting them.
That hasn’t changed of course, though here at The Savannahian I no longer have a specific title or beat. I can write about anything I want, but at the end of the day I’m a musician so I do love to write about music.
That’s why I felt it appropriate to mark the momentous occasion of our one-year anniversary by gathering a few local musicians who’ve made their mark on Savannah and have an open discussion about what we have to offer, how things have changed, where things can improve, and much more. It being a Zoom call, I had to limit the discussion to a relatively small group of people to avoid Internet chaos, but there were others that added their perspectives later on and many more people I wish I could have included. So this was by no means the most comprehensive collection of Savannah musicians, but I have every intention of continuing this conversation with other people involved.
Two of the people I spoke to, Kevin Rose and Jim Reed, have been part of the scene here in Savannah since the late 80s. They’ve had front row seats, through their time together in Superhorse and other projects—as well as Rose’s work running Elevated Basement Studios—to the evolution of the Savannah music scene.
“More than anything, we have more venues today and more density as far as musicians. Even in the last year, so many people have moved here from New York and L.A. and other big cities, to where we just have a lot more people,” Rose says.
“What a lot of folks don’t know is that back in the 80’s we had Night Flight, which was an amazing club. We had amazing bands come through every night. We’d have Taj Mahal one night and 10,000 Maniacs the next night, Pylon; all manner of music. I don’t think there’s ever been a place like that since then.”
These days, venues like Victory North and festivals like Savannah Stopover are aiming to bring that back by providing opportunities for bigger-name touring acts to play here. Victory North, as of late, even seems to be doing something that venues in Savannah hadn’t done in decades—booking local bands to open for national acts.
“We haven’t had that in 20 years,” Rose says.
That said, getting your band on a bigger bill isn’t always an easy task no matter what the venue is or how open they seem to be to those types of scenarios. There are often politics at play, and I’ve seen firsthand from living in Charleston that there can be favoritism when opportunities for support slots do present themselves. This is an issue that still plagues Savannah artists, but it’s far from the only one. Reed says that Savannah’s tourist-driven market often makes it so that seasoned artists who have honed their craft get the same kind of gigs that musicians with less experience do. And those gigs, which are often the only ones that pay, don’t always emphasize quality.
“One of the issues that Savannah has always had, as far as I can tell, is that it’s sort of a double-edged sword in that a lot of the things that make it a really accommodating place for locally-based musicians are the very things that wind up inadvertently holding them back in this town,” Reed says.
“There are a lot of places in town where the people who are in charge of choosing who gets to perform there aren’t particularly knowledgeable about music, and they have been trained to view live music as a commodity much like someone would view a drink special. It’s a loss leader. It’s a thing to attract people, mostly tourists, in and hope they stay there long enough to buy some stuff and leave.
Because so many of them have been trained to view live music as another carrot to draw people in off the street, as long as you’re not saying ‘fuck’ on the microphone and all of your clothes are on, all that really matters to these people is that you can be there for three, four, or five hours and not cause any fights or make anyone leave.”
The inequity here, Reed says, comes down to—in large part—the dreaded cover charge.
“In other cities, even if it’s a dollar or two, there’s a cover charge. A barrier of entry. Having that barrier of entry where the customer understands that they’re getting in to see someone who’s doing an act, they can feel good about paying that because they’re getting something in return. But in Savannah, a lot of places don’t do a cover charge because of the to-go thing. If someone doesn’t want to pay, they’ll turn their nose up and walk on down the street to some other place. These venues don’t want to do that, but they also don’t want to embrace the New Orleans tradition of passing a tip jar. So without those two things, it levels the playing field and there’s no hierarchy.”
A hierarchy is something that was a central part of the discussion, especially as it pertains to making your way as a local artist in Savannah. With a hierarchy in place, that’s how people get chosen for opening slots on bigger shows.
“That’s a big part of the problem,” Reed says.
This creates a barrier for original music in Savannah, making it a bit of an uphill battle at times to get people to care about your work.
“Businesses are definitely hyper-focused on making money. It makes sense they want highly palatable music. Tourist season is where the money is for Savannah, but that has kicked back on original artists. With no real built-in venue for original local artists, the grind can be extensive. There is a hunger for original music, but when/where those shows are can easily get lost in the noise,” Sarah Poole, of local rock band Ember City, says.
Generally speaking, Poole says she's felt welcomed by Savannah and its small but mighty music scene.
"My experience with Savannah as a music city has been overall very welcoming. Artists here generally want to see each other succeed. I’m lucky to say all the artists I’ve spoken to here have always been more than happy to offer booking contacts and suggestions when asked. That sense of community makes our scene special," she says.
There is still the issue of, as Poole says, getting lost in the noise.
It's been a tough thing to navigate for original acts in Savannah over the last several years especially, and has created a bit of a barrier for exposing your music to a wider audience in town. It has started to get better in some ways, but it certainly isn’t a solved problem. There’s also a slight barrier of genre, in a town where it can be hard for some artists to break through more than others.
Steven Baumgardner, aka Basik Lee, has been in Savannah for two decades, and has been at the forefront of building a hip hop scene here. He hosted Hip Hop Night at The Jinx for an amazing 15 years, and along with Dope KNife and their collective/label Dope Sandwich spent years working tirelessly to establish a home for hip hop here.
“It’s kind of weird with the hip hop scene,” he says. “It’s been a weird fight over the years with hip hop in Savannah in general. Ever since Camoflauge died [in 2003] it’s been a thing of, ‘what is accepted and what is not?’”
“Even recently, it’s almost been like rebuilding from the beginning. It goes deeper than hip hop—it’s kind of a cultural thing. A lot of the hip hop acts would be like, ‘We’re not playing downtown, because that’s not where we go.’ And that was always kind of confusing for me. I will admit, it’s been nice seeing more of a spotlight, at least in some of the papers, on the hip hop scene. But as for seeing [hip hop artists] perform out a lot, there are honestly probably two spots that I can name. And one of them was in southside at the mall. I really haven’t seen too many hip hop acts come out and perform.”
Baumgardner says hip hop artists will approach him and ask him how to break into the scene, which can be frustrating given the fact that there is still very little hip hop presence in the downtown area for a number of reasons.
“But going back to the hierarchy that should be in place, that’s something that gets completely wiped out by not monetizing certain situations. As long as you just do enough—I even see that with DJing. Who cares, as long as the crowd is happy? It doesn’t build a standard of anything, and it’s kind of frustrating,” he says.
Baumgardner says his goal for Hip Hop Night was to train MCs to work a stage, but it became harder to do that because of the advent of streaming and online content. That, he says, enables artists to start creating without honing their craft in front of an audience.
The issue of artistry, and focusing on your own original material, is something that has plagued not just Savannah musicians but musicians nationwide. But here particularly, with the amount of work it takes to break through and build the kind of audience that might enable you to get good gigs, it’s often a balancing act to try and also focus on being an artist. That said, if you’re more inclined to spend your time honing art, Savannah offers a great home base that is much slower paced than big cities like New York or Los Angeles.
“Before I moved to Savannah, I played in so many bands and played a lot of different kinds of gigs. I was all over the place. But the slower pace of things in Savannah has definitely left me time to focus on my place as an artist. I don’t play in a lot of bands now, so that’s been different,” Veronica Garcia-Melendez of Bero Bero says.
For Bero Bero, an electronic and synth-pop duo featuring Garcia-Melendez and David Murray, the genre barrier has been an issue for them just as it has been for Baumgardner. This is especially true when it comes to opening up bigger shows, as the bigger bands that play here are often not compatible with certain styles of music.
“As far as what kind of music gets booked in Savannah for touring acts, things are changing for sure but the types of bands that are brought into Savannah are often not the kinds of bands that we, or Steven, could open up for anyway,” Garcia-Melendez says. “We wouldn’t even match.”
Murray agrees that the slow pace of Savannah has its perks, and makes a point that becomes a focal point of the rest of the discussion: Savannah can be an excellent incubator for art, and a home base for a more active touring schedule.
“Coming from Detroit, where there were shows every night and 20 bands competing for every show, it’s not that way here. In our band, we get to take the time to create our music here in Savannah and then we take it on the road as much as we can,” he says.
“We don’t really focus on the Victory Norths and places like that. There aren’t a lot of venues for us, but the city provides us with enough enjoyment of life so that we can create music and really care about it before we put it out.”
Rose, as a producer and studio owner, says he’s seen a lot of local bands make the mistake of not putting in the care and effort to create a stellar product before putting it out in the world. For some bands, it seems that the benefits of living here aren’t being taken advantage of. Instead, many rush things out to focus more on releasing as much content as possible.
“I’ve watched a lot of local acts do kind of half a record. I’m not talking about an EP. They get close, and then they release it to the world, and they never fully let it grow into the beautiful animal it can be. I wish there were more people here that were shepherding that. Not nurturing bands, but pushing them along,” he says. “And that goes back to being able to open for larger acts. Being able to see how things are presented and be on the same stage and in front of a crowd that didn’t come to see you.”
Though there’s no solid answer on what can be done to create a better environment for artists in Savannah, especially those working hard to create original music without stylistic or bureaucratic and economic roadblocks, one thing that everyone agrees on is that Savannah needs more options for live music venues that cater to local music. Currently, there is really one great option for that: El-Rocko Lounge. Aside from that venue, there isn’t much of a space for local artists to play and have the opportunity to be on a bill for a built-in audience.
“Losing The Jinx sucked, and on the indie circuit there aren’t a lot of venues. I remember at one time before the pandemic, there was a discussion about starting a collective. Everyone puts $5 in a hat and buys or rents some place, and collectively the indie scene could make some sort of venue together,” Garcia-Melendez says.
“Most venues here pay artists the same regardless of talent or draw,” Poole adds. “As artists we need to build our fanbase and then create a demand for supply. Doing this will help make a case for being a local opening act to a traveling bigger act.”
“For me, just looking at it from the hip hop [perspective], it’s nice to have a spot where you can focus on your craft. But the thing that I’ll hear from a lot of the artists here is, ‘You can’t really do it until you go to one of these bigger cities,’” Baumgardner says. “It’s good to have an incubator where you can focus on your craft, but the problem comes when you take it out into Savannah where we have a tourist-based economy.”
Reed says that there is also a lack of vision from venues.
“Savannah is a large enough city, I believe, to support [quality venues]. Savannah, for the past 25 years, hasn’t really had any real kind of devoted, dedicated place that is in large part devoted to original acts. At least one that was run well enough that hasn’t been subsidized in some way. And then when the going gets tough, or the subsidization leaves, those places crumble and fail,” he says.
“I think a lot of this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. These venues are trying to keep it safe and middle-of-the-road and never charge a cover, but that’s because they are ascribing their own limited vision on to a large swath of people. There are so many tourists who come here that if they were presented with a well-run, year-round, reasonably priced venue that was promoted outside of Savannah as the place to be for live local bands and touring acts, I am a firm believer that it would succeed if it was run properly and with vision. That would be a place where there would be a hierarchy.”