Spinning Local

when you're building a new radio station, the question "what is local music?" is critical

Scott Morfitt

For the last couple of months, I’ve been humbled to work on launching a radio station, Blugold Radio 99.9 FM. This station is a marvelous gift from Midwest Family Broadcasting to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation and the local music scene. (However, this article is inspired by this process and not meant to be a progress update. Once there are more details to tell, believe me, we will update.)

As we’ve been looking at crafting the playlists for this station, a concept which I’ve been wrestling with for the better part of 20 years has come up: “What is local music?”

In our case, we are building radio playlists mixing a plethora of Eau Claire music across genres with complimentary music from around the region and world. To top it off, we’re looking at the reality of broadcasting 365 days a year and playing local music in a way that doesn’t feel like we’re repeating the same songs over and over. Basically, we want to celebrate this very special scene and share its vibrancy and depth to all.

The question is, “If you’re not currently living here, but you’re from here and love here, are you still of here?"

So we’re focusing on inclusivity, which means spinning tracks physically laid down here in Eau Claire and playing tunes by people who have had an important role in the scene but have blossomed elsewhere.

This means that you’re going to hear some Pit Wagon and The Jaggernauts along with some Phil Cook and J.E. Sunde. (We’re also playing EC punk, electronic, metal, hip hop, etc., so don’t get judgey just yet!) And, for our radio needs, that feels very natural and frankly awesome.

But, I’m still not convinced that my existential question of what it means to be a local musician/band is answered by my own playlist decisions.

What does it mean to be a “local band”? Do you have to reside in the borders of our town? For Eau Claire, if you move to Elk Mound are you still “an Eau Claire band”? If Elk Mound qualified as “local,” then where is the border: Menomonie, Baldwin, or even the Twin Cities?

Even more deeply, if you happen to live in one of those cities but still play a few shows a year in Eau Claire and make the obligatory trip to The Joynt, does that count?

These are big questions – questions I mulled over before moving here, probably since before moving out of the eighth grade. They are big questions about object permanence and what it means to be a part of something. Very heady stuff.

Last year, a few of us decided to hash this out in the best public forum for discussing complex issues: Facebook.

What started the whole discussion was a flashpoint moment at last summer’s Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival.

In a time of admiration for this place, during Bon Iver’s headlining set, Justin Vernon said the following: “Eau Claire as a thing, it’s an actual thing now! And speaking of Eau Claire, this is my boy Josh Scott, he still runs this town though he’s been gone 10 years.”

This single comment fueled several very heated discussions about what it means to be local both from the perspective of playing locally and literally living here. This discussion happened among passionate people and – as these discussions tend to – resulted in the obligatory dust-kicking and light insinuations of another’s ignorance.

While that made me sad, it was also a very exciting discussion to have. We were, for all intents and purposes, discussing how a scene we all find precious is evolving and what that means in the long term. 

I can’t at all fathom if that was what Justin intended to say in that moment. But I also can’t fathom standing on stage while headlining a festival you conceived, which attracted tens of thousands of people to a place you find deeply beloved.

Whatever the intent of those words, this really does lead to the central themes of these questions, and that’s permanence. The question is, “If you’re not currently living here, but you’re from here and love here, are you still of here?”

Asking this question should lead us to looking at the fact that this scene has been propped up by amazing stalwarts, both the people performing here and the people doing all the work to make sure there is actually a functioning scene. When I come to this point, I want to list every name and frankly buy each of these people a present to show my gratitude.

After all, beyond building a vibrant music scene, long-running music stalwarts are also valuable community members. They are homeowners, committee members, volunteers, and patrons of this community; they are people illustrating the mantra of being local.

Turning our attention to those who have left, generally these are people who worked hard while they were here and influenced what Irie Sol calls “the Eau Claire sound.” When you look at these people, you see their impact through the bands they influenced and even the stalwarts they brought into helping with their pursuits throughout the world.

I’m not trying to equate the two groups at all; this is more a broad discussion of a pastiche and what defines it over time. This is a discussion I hope we continue to have, in person and respectfully on the interwebs.

The central and most beautiful thing to me is that we have a place worth discussing.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go make some playlists.

Scott Morfitt is station manager of Blugold Radio. If you want to hit him up and discuss the scene or radio in general, you can do so at scott@blugoldradio.org.

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