Take Carey Sargent, for example, a teacher, musician and sociology graduate student at the University of Virginia. Sargent, 29, has been working for more than a year on a dissertation about local music scenes. This situation has allowed her to hang out, play drums and interview plenty of musicians from Charlottesville and Richmond.
"Both cities are small, but there are so many people making music, it's really unbelievable," she says, admitting that she started out naively thinking she could talk to every local musician but quickly realized that was impossible. Instead she decided to look mostly at rock, hip-hop and experimental music genres, popular music forms that were thriving in a grassroots way.
Being a female drummer, she was first interested in gender issues in music but wanted to expand her scope. In 2005 she went to a mixer in Richmond held by 804noise, a local collective of artists and enthusiasts dedicated to experimental, noise and avant-garde sound art. The idea of [area code] noise actually started in Philly, but 804noise focused on local networking and trying to build a community of experimental musicians who might never have discovered it on radio or elsewhere. Many of the people who spearheaded the group have since fragmented, but its influence is still felt.
"They were inviting people to come in and make funny noises with circuits, trains, mixing boards, with the idea that anyone could do this. It was communal and participatory," Sargent explains. "804noise adopted the Philly program and made it more a model for other cities. It's since spread all down the East Coast, across the country, even internationally -- all this from Richmond."
Although it wasn't her intention, Sargent soon began playing experimental music as well.
When it came time to focus on her dissertation, she couldn't give up that side of her life: "The approach I take is participant observation or participant ethnography; I don't come in with a certain hypothesis about what I'm trying to find. I just go in and engage with and interview people and find out what they think is going on."
So she began interviewing local musicians in Richmond and Charlottesville. "That's what got me into thinking about technology and geography," she recalls. "You go online and realize that [as with hip-hop] there are tons of these performers in your area that really have no venue to play but they get all these hits online."
She soon realized that cities across the country, especially college towns, are actively trying to promote their music scenes as a way to redevelop downtown spaces. She found it interesting how, in the age of MySpace and music downloading, musicians have become their own entrepreneurs.
"They don't just make music in a bar hoping to get signed," she says, "but they're really very active in promoting themselves and trying to create communities and scenes with other people as a way to get their music out. It's interesting to see the time and money people put into following their passion."
Sargent feels that Charlottesville has a tighter, more positive local music scene, although it's always in flux, with students coming and going. Richmond seems to have an aesthetic of "alienation and frustration" that can make for relevant music, she says, but reflects a lack of communication across not only genres, but also class and racial groups.
Sargent sounds hopeful when she mentions the work of Billy Nguyen and Richmatic in building the hip-hop scene (which many feel is stereotyped and persecuted by city officials because of the behavior of a few wannabe gangstas), as well as that of Richmond Roots Revival, Gallery5 and RVA Magazine, which have been interested in promoting multimedia events that bring different people together.
"The city may feel having punk and hip-hop clubs may not be the best way to redevelop downtown, so they've invested in 'higher' arts," she says. "But that's also why Richmond has a lot of active people making things happen in their houses or businesses."
Sargent can't mention too many specifics of her project, because she is just starting to write Chapter 1. But she teaches both at U.Va. (Cultural Power) and Virginia Commonwealth University (Sociological Theory), and you can check out her experimental music at MySpace under HzCollective or at http://hzcollective.blogspot.com.