For original local music, Ann Arbor is reaching a critical mass not seen since Laughing Hyenas, Big Chief, WIG and Club Heidelberg put Tree Town on the national post-punk map in the late '80s. It's the place Nirvana and Mudhoney would play long before Detroit and the rest of the country discovered grunge.
Now bands like Getaway Cruiser, Butterfly, Tribe of Zoe and Transmission have rebuilt the Ann Arbor scene from the inside out, filling clubs and releasing records to a supportive local scene.
What typifies today's Ann Arbor bands is an unashamed careerist attitude. Says Butterfly vocalist-guitarist Neil Dixon-Smith, a Syracuse, N.Y., native, "Music is what we want to do with our lives and if that means if we play to 50 people in Detroit and 10 of them buy CDs, then it's worth it."
Besides their various original sounds, these Ann Arbor bands have the machinery (managers, promoters, marketing plans, record companies, studios and, most important, a market) to make things happen. And things have.
* Getaway Cruiser is Ann Arbor's biggest draw and is signed to Sony/550; the band's 40 oz. Studio has become the hipster studio of choice.
* Butterfly is Ann Arbor's second biggest draw and has spent the summer expanding its fan base into Detroit with aggressive gigging.
* Morsel tours incessantly, finding pockets of support for its jagged post-rock.
* Tribe of Zoe has anchored a scenewide compilation record of Ann Arbor bands (Compositions from the Hand, Vol. 2 ), and awaits a move to California with record company interest and outstate management.
* Transmission has become the favorite sons of Ann Arbor-based promotion company Prism Productions, playing this fall's prestigious Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival and getting key opening slots for Detroit shows by bands such as Chicago's Mighty Blue Kings.
Not to say that Detroit doesn't have its share of interesting new bands, and indeed there are many. But if naysayers can dismiss Ann Arbor bands as byproducts of a younger, easier-to-nail market, it is exactly this market that keeps these acts more, well, current. As Tribe of Zoe's Jason McCauley Berry says, "Ann Arbor bands are just more up to date."
Berry, himself a veteran of Detroit bands, says the Ann Arbor bands' proximity to their audience makes for a more vital scene.
"Here you know whether you're hitting after two or three gigs, whereas in Detroit, I'm not sure bands know any better. I know some of the bands I was in didn't," he laughs.
In a secondary market like Ann Arbor, promoters such as Jason Tolzdorf of Prism can make unsigned local bands a priority; he regularly gives bands key opening slots -- when he can. "One thing that's hurt all bands is that there are no more slots opening for touring national acts, because all these tours are package tours, where five years ago, a local band could get on a bill and play in front of a headliner's crowd," he points out.
"But Ann Arbor bands do reflect a more eclectic, original style in a market that responds to that, while, from what I've seen, Detroit bands get smaller crowds of their friends who drink a lot."
Getaway Cruiser's Chris Peters is more blunt. "Your average demographic here is a student with money looking for a scene to get into, while in Detroit it's an older guy with a brew looking for chicks."
Detroit bands seem to function almost in spite of hometown indifference; Ann Arbor acts are more positive. Says Peters, "For us, it was always about fliering around town and filling up the Blind Pig, selling records in our own town," he says, where a lot of Detroit bands and labels (indies Third Gear and Small Stone, for example) will tell you that they do better outside of Detroit.
Despite being a more user-friendly scene for its bands, Ann Arbor is producing some of the most interesting and promising music in southeastern Michigan. Though definitely critic-friendly, with its nod to electronica and non-rock orientation, the A2 scene mixes hipster buzz-sounds with smart pop sensibilities. Or at least in the current music business, smarter pop sensibilities.
As Mio Vukovic, the vice president of A&R at Sony/550, who signed Getaway Cruiser, says, "I've always been such a fan of Detroit bands like the Stooges that I thought it was my destiny to sign an amazing group from Detroit. Maybe it's just one from Ann Arbor. After all, the Stooges were really from Ann Arbor, right?"Hobey Echlin is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org