Over two years ago, after spending my freshman and sophomore years of college at Montana State University, I decided to wave goodbye to my inaugural institution and move to Missoula. Check off all of the usual reasons your average twenty year old chooses Missoula: progressive town, outdoor access, vibrant arts community, small population. Collectively great, yet there was still an underlying factor that ultimately finalized my decision to transfer here. A factor that I normally downplay while explaining my reasons behind moving. It’s a juvenile, irresponsible, and almost certainly unsustainable pursuit, but the deciding factor in my choice to come here was to be with a group of four other guys and play in a band. Everything else equal, I wanted to maximize my time spent playing music without having to sacrifice my education or proximity to mountains. The combination of Missoula as a great college town coupled with its opportunities for playing music led me to pack up and give it a try.
Now, before continuing, I have to preface the remainder of this article with an observation. As far as music in general goes, Missoula’s local scene is somewhat similar to being the skinniest kid at fat camp. It’s doing well and making progress for sure, but there are still (obviously) numerous other cities that outperform Missoula at every corner. Seattle, Austin, Portland, Memphis, Asheville, Nashville, Chicago, and Minneapolis among a vast array of others have some of the most explosive local music scenes in the country. Missoula juxtaposed next to any of those is frankly, unimpressive. We just don’t have the population or infrastructure to churn out artists at the same rate. Still though, if you view Missoula by the context in which it sits (which is in the relative middle of nowhere) you gain a better understanding and appreciation for its worth. If you look statewide, Missoula without a doubt has the most thriving local music scene of any of the cities and towns scattered within it.
Fast forward to as I write this and I can recall all those shows I participated in early on. All of the great bands I got to listen to and share a stage with. The people I met whom I never would have encountered in daily life. Listening to different experiences from people who had performed across the country. Excuse the nostalgia, but times were good. And they still are, but things have changed since those first couple months of gigging. The music scene still has an abundance of people wanting to get out there and play. Problem is, the number of places that can accommodate these creative folks as well as their patrons has started diminishing.
Depending on your level of familiarity with Missoula’s local music scene, it’s possible you’ve already noticed this problem. If so, you’ve almost certainly noticed the pair of venue closures that recently hit Missoula. This past year saw the closure of The Palace Lounge, previously one of Missoula’s most welcoming venues for small to medium local and touring musicians. They closed their doors in February, freeing up space for a billiards/arcade bar. Before that we had Stage 112, another great venue that put on local and touring shows with regularity. Their Facebook page indicates they haven’t hosted a show since Dec. 2016. Whether or not the bar still serves drinks remains a mystery to me.
In conjunction with these disappearing venues, some of the ones sticking around are getting into similar problems. The VFW, Missoula’s own punky, dingy, and dusty cantina; known for the ease with which smaller musicians can get a gig, has started drastically reducing the number of events they host. I find this especially dismaying because, without a chance to get your foot in the door, artists who lack gig experience are going to have a harder time finding welcoming spaces. Without innovation from newcomers like these, I’m fearful we could end up with the same few sets of local bands controlling the majority of the music circuit.
With that in mind, lets take a look at the remaining venues that continue to prop up local bands. Excluding large venues that bring in almost exclusively popular touring bands, we have: Monks, The Badlander, The Union, The ZACC, Freecycles and (if you’re lucky) The Top Hat. If you want to play or listen to local live music, these are the places that are picking up the slack and making it happen on a regular basis. It should also be stated that house shows were excluded from the list for the simple reason that they’re hard to track down and record.
My biggest concern while writing this is whether or not Missoula will be able to bounce back. Granted, the “back” I want to “bounce” to is completely subjective in regards to what those “good ole days” were actually like. Someone else could look at the same situation through a different lens and conclude it’s fine the way it is. Maybe those past experiences weren’t really as stellar as I thought they were. Regardless of these personal interpretations, the point I’m trying to make is that if you enjoy good local music and want to see it last, you should start/continue giving it your support. Sure, it’s entirely possible that Missoula makes it through this perceived doldrum unscathed. There’s always the possibility of new venues popping up and bringing in more artists, helping strengthen our musical community. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
But imagine instead, we lose another venue. Now we’re even more constricted. No more seeing your favorite bands as frequently as you used to. After a month or two, musicians in competition with one another will begin fighting tooth and nail for spots to play. Venues that remain in business will be able to lowball performers, exploiting the disparity between musicians supplied and stages demanded. This will only exacerbate feelings of communal discouragement, all the while forcing our poor musicians to find work by filling cracks in the general labor pool. With this flood of new workers to the job market, employers all over Missoula will be able to underpay employees, increasing the economic burdens facing our city and by extension, the nation itself, steadily adding mass to an already monumental snowball of despair and destabilization…
Well that was certainly hyperbolic. In all seriousness though, there’s still the potential for continued decline. So in recognition of that potential, I say we err on the side of caution and invest heavier in local music. Buy that weird band t-shirt you saw at the last show. Pay the $2 to $5 the door guy asks for. Bring your friends to shows with you. These are a lot easier than building a brand new local music infrastructure while simultaneously having to compete with a slew of freshly renovated barcades.