Local music experts find lack of venues is the scene's biggest problem
Musicians and music fans gathered at Alexander Library last Friday night to hear five expert panelists talk about the condition of New Brunswick's music scene and its struggles in the city today. The panel was moderated by Frank Bridges, co-founder of Alexander Library’s New Brunswick Music Scene Archive and doctoral student at the School of Communication and Information.
The panelists included Bob Makin, Dennis Diken, Andrew Spina, Audrey Rose and Sharief Hobley: all of them connected to the historic New Brunswick music scene — but in different ways — with opinions on how the scene has changed over the years.
“There is no place to play in New Brunswick right now, even the basements,” Makin said. “There’s no place to play from Thursday to Sunday every week whereas you had The Roxy, The Melody (Bar), the Court Tavern. Four nights a week you could go out at one point, there was like a dozen places. Before that, when New Brunswick was more of a jazz town there were 25 jazz clubs in this town back in the ‘50s and ‘60s.”
Makin is a music journalist with almost 40 years experience. He has worked for the Home News Tribune, Courier News and wrote a regular column called “Makin’ Waves” for MyCentralJersey.com.
Diken co-founded and drummed for The Smithereens, a band originating from Carteret, New Jersey, in 1980, making him no stranger to local venues.
The Smithereens played frequently at the Court Tavern in the early 1980s as well as a club called Patrixx, which has now become Destination Dogs. They also played at a club called The Ledge, which is now the Student Activities Center on the College Avenue campus.
Spina is the owner of Spina Records, the only record store in New Brunswick, and, like the rest of the panel, feels the city’s need for an above ground venue.
“There is such opportunity if somebody just got it together and opened up a legitimate for-profit venue in this town,” Spina said. “Before I opened the store, every weekend I was sick of people talking about ‘Why are there no music stores in New Brunswick? How come there’s no record store in New Brunswick?’ so I did it. The same is good for a venue. I wish somebody would just do it but no one seems to want to stick around long enough or put the time and money into it.”
The decline of shows and venues throughout time seems to be correlated with the amount of police presence in the area. Makin said that the walls of Brower used to be covered in flyers, and that an ideal world would have Spina Records loaded with flyers for basement shows.
When police officers find out the locations of underground basement shows, they are shut down, Makin said.
“It’s really sad because it’s actually a great community and it’s a great way to foster creativity and positivity and there is this network and this sort of social organization going on taking care of itself,” said Rose. “Instead the police are making these sting operations on the internet to shut down show houses and that to me is a ridiculous waste of the resources in New Brunswick.”
Spina said he believed that shows used to be put on at Scott Hall in the mid-1990s but they were soon shut down because of liability and insurance.
“I used to get messages back when Myspace was still a thing from undercover cops looking for show house addresses,” Spina said. “I mean, I understand … why they have to do that. They’re worried about fire codes and liabilities and people dying, but I’ve gone to hundreds of shows and I don’t think anyone’s ever gotten hurt at a single show. People really do look out for each other and there is a real sense of community in the truest sense of the word. I can’t think of any time that someone got hurt besides maybe just getting a little banged up from dancing too hard.”
Spina said that while it is a good thing that there are open mics and shows being hosted around the Rutgers campus through organizations such as the Rutgers University Musicians Guild, Zimmerli Art After Hours and even Hidden Grounds’ monthly coffeehouse shows, they will never and should never be a replacement to the basement show scene.