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Sound Values

A musician and teacher is finding interesting things by data mapping the local scene.

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Like everything else, Richmond’s music scene is dealing with the great pandemic of 2020 by doing the best it can under the circumstances.

If anyone knows this, it’s Andy McGraw, an associate professor of music at University of Richmond as well as a musician and director of Community Gamelan Raga Kusuma and co-director of the Rumput ensemble.

McGraw has been studying the music scene through data journalism for nearly a decade and will be featuring some of its particular issues and demographics as part of an upcoming book about music and ethics.

“Our music scene is being especially impacted by this,” he said a few weeks ago by email. “That’s partly because it was so sensitive to begin with, for reasons I’ve been looking into. … If folks want there to be a local music scene at the other end of this, they should be buying an instrument from a local shop (they will ship it) and taking online lessons from local musicians. There are also plenty of lessons to be learned from the guys I work with at the jail and prison about music’s role in surviving incarceration.” 

Tentatively titled “Sounding the Commonwealth: Music, Sound, and Ethics in an American Community,” the book illuminates how local musical genres such as rock and indie have thrived over others, such as hip-hop, due to official and de facto policies that govern the region. Or as he writes, “mapping Richmond’s musical genres, venues, and performances against US census information and the city’s noise complaints have made these inequities increasingly obvious as the city’s boundaries of musical production align with physical and ideological borders that continue to divide residents by race, age, and class.”

You can check out his large data sets as part of a free public archive that McGraw and his classes are analyzing at audiblerva.org and audiblerva/map, though he warns “it’s wonky ArcGIS so you need to really play around with it.”

He is also conducting a survey on the impacts of the coronavirus on local musicians, which you can find here.

McGraw is seeking funding to further develop the ongoing research and Style spoke with him by phone about the project. This interview has been edited and condensed for print.

Style Weekly: Tell us a little about your background.

Andy McGraw: I’m from Kansas City, grew up playing a lot of jazz. Then went to New England for school and back to Kansas City. … Went to grad school, did all the ethno-musicology stuff. I had lived in Boston, spent time in New York then lived in Indonesia and spent time in West Africa, mainland Southeast Asia, Cuba. So I tend to think of music scenes comparatively and anthropologically. I tend to see them as integrated systems that are a product of history and society, not something static or given.

Your original interest in exploring the noise ordinance issue in Richmond was sparked by Style Weekly stories in 2011?

When I started facilitating a [music] studio in the Richmond jail in 2013, I didn’t ask guys what they are in for, that’s verboten and irrelevant. We’re there to focus on music and make time go by differently. But sometimes guys will bring things up on their own and sometimes noise has been an issue. Cops may have come to where they were for a noise complaint, then they run names and find outstanding things, or search someone’s car. So people don’t get busted for noise, but sometimes it’s a proxy or first step that leads to that interaction.

I started looking online and found all the Style [coverage] and I started doing [Freedom of Information Act requests] to the city and surrounding counties and found that the ordinance rewritten in 2011 was in response to this 2009 case the [American Civil Liberties Union] brought against Virginia Beach and this venue that would have hip-hop acts. … There was no mention of decibel or zoning or hours of day, so it defaulted to the whims and biases of police. The state Supreme Court found in favor of the ACLU.

I found that police departments farther out from Richmond are happier to talk to you, they have more time. In Richmond they don’t want to deal with you. When I called Hanover, I found out they proactively rewrote their ordinances fearing similar cases as Virginia Beach. What Richmond did, and Style outlined, was write an ordinance so low: 55 decibels at night, 65 daytime measured inside or 65 during night, 75 daytime outside. [For context] Austin is 85 and it’s a logarithmic scale, so those are really big differences. What this means is you’re specific and not unconstitutionally vague, but you keep the threshold so low that it can, if needed, operate the same way as Virginia Beach.

What were your big take-aways with how sound and race intersect in Richmond?

We’re still dealing with the aftermath of segregation. It’s a limiting factor on the abilities of venues to develop and diversify their paying audience. The marking of space in Richmond by social category, race, gender, age, style, is really stark and it often lines up with how the city was historically segregated. Other venues around the world, you see all kinds of people show up, that’s not the case [here]. You tell me the venue and I can predict with a reasonable certainty what kind of people will be there. Currently the scene is pretty white and male, which is out of proportion with the city’s demographics. … We also have this evidence of explicit restrictions on certain kinds of music and dress that are racially marked in specific venues, issued by the [Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority] in coordination with the city, that are clearly civil rights violations.

I talked to the ACLU and they are interested but they need to see more evidence and its hard to FOIA the ABC because they’re in an ambiguous structural relationship with city government. It’s not clear to me how many, if any, of those racialized restrictions are actively in place or enforced right now. But the message has been sent. More subtly, people know what places don’t serve Hennessy and what that means. … There are things happening in all-black private clubs which I think a lot of people don’t even know exist.

We’re so habituated to a state monopoly on alcohol. They de facto run the music scene because they run the restaurants [where a lot of shows happen] and they have their own police force. It’s a special challenge.

How did Audible RVA come about?

It is a way of seeing a scene as indicative of the overall health of the city. I use this metaphor of a stethoscope. … We’re thinking of this project as a kind of stethoscope to understand the city as a civic body. Through that we can listen for systemic problems and maybe imagine solutions.

It started as mapping soundscapes with UR students. What you quickly realize after a couple years: You’ve really made a map of where people feel comfortable going in the city. So I made a map of where mostly well-heeled UR students, mostly not from Richmond, feel comfortable going. That starts to correlate with the legacy of the old homeowner’s loan corporation, the old redlining maps.

Then we looked at noise ordinances and how those correlate with race and space and class. To drill deeper we started doing ethnographies, in-depth interviews with people like James “Plunky” Branch, who I think knows the most about the history of music in the city … interviewing public schools, the symphony, Lucas Fritz [of the Broadberry] and people running venues.

There are lots of challenges and thorny issues, but there is a lot to celebrate too. We’re right on 95, less than a day’s drive to larger scenes, rent is cheap, its not hard to find a place to practice and we have a comparatively diverse scene for our size. I’ve heard Richmond musicians envying “real music cities,” like Austin and Nashville, Baltimore, etc. But if you control for population, Richmond looks a lot better than a lot of cities in terms of availability of infrastructure resources per resident – it’s got more music stores, instruction and recording studios. The number of venues is harder to track because of ABC. In most cities, it’s really the bars and they’re not listed as venues. Austin has 235 bars, a lot of which function as venues. Richmond doesn’t have bars.

The scene here is structurally dependent on restaurants, which hits demographics differently. If a couple wants to see music, they may have to pay for a meal and not everybody can afford that.

When you studied 40,000 noise ordinance complaints between 2007 and 2019, you found there were only 33 citations from the noise. Were you able to compare that to other charges to see how much it was being used as a proxy?

Yeah, I’m in the process of requesting more data from the Richmond police and it’s interesting what they provide to you. They don’t give you anything you don’t really specifically ask for. Hanover sent me not only complaints but the transcript calls from the police, the word-by-word, which includes the race of subject, specific complaint, whether it escalated, so you can control for race and you find all kinds of interesting things. So Richmond has this stuff: I want to see which are officer-generated and which lead to an arrest.

NASCAR races are the loudest events of the year, yet there are no noise complaints in the largely black neighborhood where the track is. What do you attribute that to?

There are hot spots around there, but if you control for race days, they don’t line up. Its clearly a sanctioned event, people probably think there’s no point in calling the cops. But if you look at the historic placement of NASCAR there, adjoining spaces zoned as blacks-only in the 1930s, I think its about exposing certain populations to noise, that there’s a racialized right to make noise without legal consequences.

Chesterfield has more complaints per resident, and I think that’s connected to the expectation that suburban life brings with it – the expectation to silence.

Where do you see hopeful signs?

[Plunky] Branch pointed out that something like the Folk Festival and its social role – you see all kinds of people there. It’s a lot closer to the demographics for the city than any venue. He pointed out the programming, and where the space is, he talks about the island as neutral space. He says: “White people know they can come and not get mugged, black people know they can come and not get arrested.” That’s a special place. It’s also free, which gets to another issue I’m going to dig into, the dependence of certain parts of the scene on tobacco and fossil fuels, which is a conversation in other cities. There are arts organizations in Richmond that are existentially dependent on Altria and Dominion.

I think Stephen Lecky does good work with Friday Cheers, which has a long history back to June Jubilee, and the Folk Fest, they are models for how a community can come together in a way that does a better job representing the community.

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