Music journalism in a diverse Denver arena
JOURNALIST EMBRACE COMPLEX MUSIC SCENE
The music scene in Colorado is a niche-filled landscape, pocketed with gritty punk rock, grungy synth-pop, the latest alternative indie-folk, and psychedelic EDM. Classical cellos fill the halls of the DCPA and the botanical gardens while hard metal bands shake the rocking chairs on Morrison’s front porches. With a local mosaic of music taste and a constantly-shifting roster of touring bands and festivals rolling through Colorado, it’s challenging to comprehend the trends and growth of music culture in this fine state. The Sentry spoke with a few Denver music journalists about how they document and engage with a multi-faceted music scene.
First off: what is actually going on in the Denver music scene? Though Denver’s musical roots are planted in country and indie-folk, recent years have seen the city morph into an epicenter for electronic dance music (EDM), as well as indie-pop, punk rock, jam bands, and a bunch of cross-pollination between the genres. Denver houses dozens of smaller venues perfect for small, live shows, and the whole state boasts an active, loyal fanbase that’s willing to listen to nearly anything.
Dylan Owens, editor of The Denver Post’s music blog Reverb, described the Denver music scene as jointly stratified and communal. “The scene here is fractured in some ways,” Owens said. “It’s fractured, yet collaborative. There’s definitely an electronic strain running through, but in Denver the mainstay will always be jam bands.”
As chief editor of Reverb, a blog that attracts more than a million monthly viewers, Owens encounters a wide range of bands that have different approaches to their local involvement. “We’re just starting to get bands that are striving to get bigger in aggressive ways,” Owens said. “The Denver music scene is a pretty comfortable place for many bands because it’s collaborative. It makes them happy to play here, but there’s a few bands who are aspiring to be rogue warriors and bust out of the scene.”
Denver native Maddie Casey, the music editor for culture publication Ultra5280 and a CU Denver recording arts alum, loves the diversity and works to represent it in her coverage. “I think we’re more diverse than major cities that are considered music meccas,” Casey said. “We’re stuck in the middle of big cities like Seattle, LA, the whole east coast versus west coast music debate, and so we see all those music varieties come through. A lot of people probably think we’re a bunch of hillbillies who love country, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
“Music may be the medium, but people are the target”
While managing the vibrant music section of Ultra5280, Casey also travels nationally with different bands doing tour management and works with several companies selling merchandise for bands when they come through Denver. “Denver loves live music,” Casey said. “Music festivals here in Denver have grown like crazy just over the three years, and that really speaks to Denver’s eclectic music taste. People will go out of their way for live music and show up at Larimer Lounge not just because a specific band is playing, but because the whole lineup is performing live. If they want to have the live music experience, they’ll go to whatever’s happening right then and go listen to it, regardless of the genre.”
Bethany Ao, an interning journalist for The Denver Post and a rising senior at Northwestern, moved to Denver two months ago, and her first impression of local music was that it was active and rollicking, but seemed to crowd out genres that didn’t already have a following.
“When I first moved to Denver, there seemed to be a lot of indie rock, indie pop, and psychedelic rock, definitely EDM,” Ao said. “Other genres don’t seem to be as popular or as common.” In a July 22 article, Ao showcased Denver-grown R&B singer Povi who chose to move on to LA after unsuccessfully striving to find a foothold audience for her R&B soul music.
However (for better or for worse), part of that reality could be that the Denver music scene isn’t a cutthroat-competitive one that requires enormous diversity in every genre in order garner a loyal public following. “Not everyone’s idea of success is becoming the biggest band in the world,” Dylan Owens said. “A lot of bands here in Denver just want to play for their friends.”
Given the unpredictably eclectic, kaleidoscopic nature of Denver music, covering and discussing the activity in and rising members of the scene presents its own challenges, perhaps most notably how to respect and handle music as art that both resonates personally with certain people and reflects specific subcultural values.
Maddie Casey described music journalism as personal opinion with its reflections rooted in reality. “It’s funny: music journalism has nothing to do with what you like in music,” Casey said. “Music journalism is entirely about having an opinion based in fact. Understanding music as an artform is really important, especially understanding the technical parts of it: key signatures, timing, genre conventions, and musical tradition.”
One enormous challenge in covering an active music scene is acknowledging the artistic essence or meaningfulness of a music piece without stumbling over its aesthetic appeal.
“The challenges with any type of criticism is acknowledging the value of what you’re writing about,” Denver Post journalist Bethany Ao said. “Like if psychedelic rock isn’t something you’d listen to outside of work, how do you critique that fairly? Just because I have a platform to share my opinions or judgement doesn’t make it them any more valid than another person’s. Music is extremely personal, maybe more so than other mediums.”
That subjectivity is a tricky thing to work into a piece of music journalism. An album review or a description of a show is still a writer’s take on the experience of listening. If a German-opera-loving journalist covers a death metal steampunk band giving a concrete-shattering performance at Ogden, the review itself will read very differently than if a punk enthusiast wrote a description of the event.
Nevertheless, providing critical and intelligent commentary on the artistic strength, innovation, or value of a music style is fundamental to effective music journalism. Maddie Casey discussed the necessity of finding the root reason for the show, the music, or the album: ultimately, it was created to say something to a specific audience.
“In the world of music journalism, it’s kind of an added perk that bands need press,” Casey said. “So they’ll ask me to go to their show, and if they’re the kind of band that will drive a lot of traffic to our website—even if it’s something that I don’t love—I’m willing to take that chance of reviewing that show because I know that other people are interested. In situations like that, my focus is to figure why people are interested in stuff like that. Just watching the hundreds or thousands of people around you and asking why they’re here, what they see, and why they’re willing to pay money to experience this.”
Music may be the medium, but people are the target. Music journalism requires an understanding of the audience’s shared sense of community, and journalists in Denver tend to prioritize bands who are gaining following through musical-artistic innovation and local involvement. “We try to review bands that we think are significant, producing music that is good, interesting, and engaging, or whose artists are involved in work in the community in some way,” Reverb editor Dylan Owens said. “Since we’re here in Denver, we definitely focus on local bands in our coverage. We prioritize bigger bands since most people tend to care about them, but we also prioritize breaking smaller bands.”
To some extent, music journalism explores why. Whether music-lovers troop to Larimer Lounge to howl along with the punk rock band The Screaming Females or fill the halls of Buell to witness a cabaret musical performance, music carries a specific power to resonate deeply with the audience and create community, inspire hope, and give voice to some sentiment or experience. In that sense, music journalism is about transcribing a specific experience and its effect—either transcendental or off-putting—on a group of people.
“I started writing about music because I wanted to connect with people I didn’t know about an experience we all kind of had,” Bethany Ao said. “I think music has a power that a lot of other artforms in the world don’t have.”
Stay plugged into the Colorado music scene
Pitch a story, read a review, find tickets, watch a performance, and listen to the latest hot tracks on the following Denver music sites:.
Reverb music blog:
Ultra5280 culture blog:
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