Everyone’s Watching

Eau Claire is in a unique position as the music scene hits another high note

Nick Meyer, illustrated by Erik Christenson

I’m officially burned out on all the Bon Iver buzz – for the time being anyway. But this letter isn’t really about Justin Vernon (or the fact that the new EP Blood Bank was officially released this week); so if you’re burned out, too, stick with me. For all the over-the-top awesomeness of the whole situation, for all the local pride, all the best-of-2008 lists, and all the beard-love going on around here – I need a break.

Of course the international media doesn’t care that I’ve had my fill; that flame continues to burn brighter for Bon Iver with each passing week. And now we’re basically at the point where it wouldn’t surprise me if the New York Times reported Bon Iver was playing a lunch-time set for Barack Obama in the Oval Office (right after a round of one-on-one in the new basketball court).

But what’s of interest to me is the explosion of local buzz, attention, and news coverage (yes, fueled in part by this very publication). It’s as if the Chippewa Valley finally woke up to the fact that there was some artistic talent in this town. Throughout December the Leader-Telegram featured several front-page articles, and TV-18 had multiple stories featuring local fans. (Which frankly, was just kind of weird. Of course they both did a great job, and I’m all for more such coverage, but didn’t they have a house fire or car crash to report on?) By the end of the year, thousands of local Bon Iver fans came out of the woodwork to join in on the chorus of praise.

All of that has been great, deserved, and important. But what I can’t get over is that Vernon is not necessarily any more talented today than he was four years ago – when people used to pack into the Stones Throw or House of Rock to see his band DeYarmond Edison, or when Volume One had stories about his efforts three or four times before dating back to 2002. Back when it was tough to get anyone outside of the rock-club regulars to pay all that much attention. Though he may have found a new voice, he’s the same talented musician, just now viewed through a shiny new lens.

Suddenly everyone is paying attention to the success – which has finally brought into focus the quality that was there all along. It just took all this fanfare for locals to realize what they had. Every famous band is somebody’s local band. And in many music scenes it wouldn’t be hard to pick out a local band that is probably better than half of the world’s famous bands.

This is the curse of local music. Not just here, but everywhere. Right now it seems the collective radar for buzz about a local artist is turned so far down that the artist needs to make it on national television (like two or three times) before most people will pay attention. It’s not good enough anymore if you hear about a great band from a friend, see cool posters around town, or even get invited to a show on Facebook. So what if they’re local? If their music isn’t on a huge TV show, or if dozens of high-profile blogs or magazines haven’t authorized it’s importance – who cares?

But there’s good news here. Now that Mr. Vernon has blazed a trail, suddenly all sorts of people – both locals and non – are asking a few more questions about Eau Claire’s music scene. Here at Volume One, we’ve been getting calls and emails from all over the world. A couple from New Orleans called to say they were coming up for the December 22 Bon Iver show at the State Theatre and were wondering if there were other local bands they should be aware of. A woman in the UK requested we mail her the issue with Bon Iver on the cover, excited to read more about the hometown culture of one of her favorite musicians. A producer from Wisconsin Public Television contacted us to see if there were other Eau Claire acts that might be good for his statewide program, The 30-Minute Music Hour. (This resulted in a performance from The Daredevil Christopher Wright last fall, and it’s rumored Meridene might also be featured soon.)