Detroit music in review: Highlights from our passionate panel discussion at Magic Stick

The Magic Stick was the perfect venue for a panel discussion about a central part of Detroit’s cultural identity--music. Dim lighting and a sleek set-up formed a fitting backdrop for an evening of captivating insights and ideas. This month’s Speaker Series drew a diverse and opinionated crowd, eager to hear the unique perspectives of our numerous panelists and share their own expertise. 

Whose perspectives were we hearing? Moderator Jon Moshier of WDET’s Modern Music generated passionate discussion with his questions. The panelists were Carleton Gholz, professor at Northeastern University in Boston; Josh Epstein, member of the band Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.; Nadir Omowale, musician, producer, writer; Sam Fotias of Paxahau; Piper Carter, co-founder of Women in Hip Hop, photographer, co-owner of 5E Gallery; PJ Ryder, owner of PJ’s Lager House; and David Feeny, owner of Gangplank Records, and member of bands Blanche and American Mars.

So what is the Detroit sound right now? Ryder described the music scene as "incredibly diverse." In addition to the "wide breadth of all different kinds of music," he mentioned the depth of different genres -- rock, techno, hip hop and much more. Moshier emphasized the music scene’s openness and receptiveness, and how this allows bands to "do almost anything." As Carter put it, the "Detroit sound is diversity." She described Detroiters' exposure to many different types of music, which Moshier concluded, affects "lots of bands that wouldn’t normally have been influenced by such divergent sound."

But the city’s broad and unique sound also spreads farther than local talent. Fotias described Detroit as a "cradle of influence for so many different types of music" on a global level.

While the panelists agreed that the breadth and diversity of Detroit’s sound has a unique influence on bands, Gholz brought up the problem of seeing "the usual suspects" at shows. So how can we encourage people to add more variety to the shows they attend? Omowale said there should be more "cross-genre shows." The responsibility for increasing variety in shows is "not only on venues, but on us," declared Carter. She said, "It’s up to us to tell our own stories." Moshier urged concert-goers to "get out of their comfort zone."

The question of how to get the word out about local bands and shows sparked much debate. WDET itself was named as a possible source for highlighting local music. Ryder said "WDET is the best venue for getting the word out," but that the station "doesn’t have incredible diversity" and "could do better." Moshier said WDET is taking on a "major role in trying to fill the gaps that commercial radio leaves behind." Omowale expressed the panelists' universal "disdain for commercial radio," and said while WDET does a good job, one station can’t do it all, and it’s a problem when NPR is "best in the market."

Feeny commented on the overwhelming amount of music available. He said commercial radio "used to be the gateway" to discovering new sounds, but now the Internet is "taking away the boundaries." Music blogs were also mentioned as a potential tool for discovering local music, but Josh Epstein expressed his concern about negativity appearing too frequently.

How else has Detroit’s music scene changed over the last decade? Epstein spoke about bands having "bigger crowds in other cities," which is likely a result of the depressed economy and Detroit’s lack of a "concentration of people in a small area," which forces concert-goers to drive. Audience members also voiced concern about the lack of reliable public transportation to and from concerts.

So how sustainable is Detroit for musicians? Omowale described the economy’s effect on musicians. He said "clubs and festivals are paying less money and having fewer acts." Although the economy has taken a major toll on musicians and venues alike, Epstein pointed out a major benefit for musicians in Detroit--it’s simply "more affordable to live here."

Fotias described a global "reverence for this city," and explains how Detroit is a "focal point in musical history" that exerts a deep influence on many artists. He spoke about Movement, Detroit’s impact on electronic music, and how many artists "come back to pay homage" to their Detroit-nurtured sound. This perception of Detroit creates huge possibilities for attracting audiences. Music festivals like Movement and Jazz Fest garner national and worldwide attention and attendees, but how do musicians fare year-round?

Feeny said the trick to navigating Detroit’s diverse music scene is to find a "series of niches" and "think regionally" by playing shows in surrounding cities and developing an audience. Carter encouraged musicians to "reach out to venues in the region" and beyond, and cited London and Japan’s positive reception of Detroit.

Despite the energetic interest in Detroit’s music scene, internal politics and bureaucratic red-tape present huge obstacles to musicians, venues, and audience members. Carter described how hassles with getting permits and "pushback from DPD" has a hugely negative effect on events, and can deter both musicians from playing in Detroit and potential audiences from attending concerts. Omowale spoke about "political stumbling blocks" that prevent venues from getting business permits.

Although the relationship between the music scene and local bureaucracies needs work, Gholz said we "can’t give up on institutions," and that we "have to find allies in the city." Ryder said regulations need to be changed, and it’s "up to us as Detroiters" to push for improvements.

What else can we do to build a stronger infrastructure to promote and support local talent? Carter -- co-founder of the Foundation, a group that celebrates women in hip hop -- reiterated the importance of "unification" within the music scene. She said there is a need for a "unified force, committee, or coalition to deal with issues everyone has." The panelists all agreed on the need for a more effective way to communicate about local music and shows, as well as the need for audiences in and outside of Detroit to show support for musicians, concerts and festivals.
Detroit’s music scene remains a point of global interest, generating many possibilities for artists, audiences, and the city itself. Perhaps Fotias summed it up best: "music is a very strong foundation for the city to move forward."

Audrey Armitage spent the summer interning at Model D. She now heads back to the University of Michigan, where she is a sophomore studying creative writing and Chinese.

The Model D Speaker Series is sponsored by MSHDA and WDET.
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