Sunday, June 24, 2007

What can "Children Of Men" teach us about the US Ska scene?

In the Alfonso Cuaron thriller, based on the novel by P. D. James, ”Children of Men” shows a world dissolving into ruin as women have been infertile for 18 years. I feel that the American ska scene is suffering a similar fate. As fans and musicians grow older, fewer and fewer young people are coming into the scene. And that path, if not reversed, can only spell ruin.

Simply put. Ska music cannot be the domain of guys in their 30’s and 40’s.

If you look at the American ska scene in the late 80’s to early 90’s, you see musicians getting together in their garage, or basement and forming new ska bands. What is more common today is to have veteran musicians forming new groups out of the ashes of old groups.

If you were to take the number of American bands formed from 1990 to 1997 and compare it to the number of bands formed from 2000 to 2007, there is no comparison. And if this downward trend continues, I shudder to think at how few bands will be around in the next decade.

I feel that the core of this problem is that many schools around the US are either scaling back their music programs, or eliminating them all together. Ska music cannot survive if kids aren’t learning to play saxophone, trumpet, or trombone. A simple way to fix this would be to have ska musicians and/or fans of ska music revisit their middle schools and high schools from time to time and make sure that their alma maters have a band program.

Another problem aggravating the situation is the slow erosion of regional ska scenes and their websites. When Nick Hardy pulled the plug on, the consequences were rapid and many bands, without a regional way to network and book shows, soon folded. Other regional websites like Planet Ska, Oregon Ska have also folded in recent years. And I certainly hope that DC Ska will soldier on, lest a 1/4th of the nation go without any regional ska website.The solutions, though not easy, are fairly clear.

Ska bands must show an eagerness to perpetuate ska music.As I’ve stated elsewhere, it would probably be beneficial to join the organization, “Save The Music” to keep school music programs running. Tomorrow’s ska musicians are learning to play an instrument today.

I’m always amazed at how many ska bands don’t have a single song on their My Space page that people can download. Giving away music for free often leads to paying customers later. You wouldn’t buy a car without test driving it, would you? Play at a county fair, or a high school prom, even if for free. New converts will pay to see you another time.

I remember a PSA from the 80's in which a drug dealer gives away free drugs to kids. His dope-dealing padawan asks him why he's giving away drugs for free. "Once they're hooked, they'll pay." Well, as much as I hate to say it, that's Marketing 101. How many times have you gone to a grocery store and they have free samples set up? The same is true for music. Let your consumers try for free. They'll pay later.

You cannot go to a newsstand and pick up a magazine about ska music.
You cannot turn on an FM radio and hear ska music.
You cannot turn on MTV and watch ska music videos.
So ska bands have to be creative in getting their music out there for free.

Street Teams. I used to street team for Johnny Socko. They’d send me flyers in the mail; I’d pass them out; they’d put me on the guest list. Simple, free, word-of-mouth advertising. Don’t like to street team the old-fashioned way? Fine. Use what ever electronic means works best for you. But every band should have a bunch of kids telling other kids about your band, your music, and your shows.

Podcasters. All four of us bloggers also have a podcast. And all four of us have listeners around the globe. If you know someone who is a podcaster, send them an mp3 or two. It’s FREE ADVERTISING.

Work with promoters. Chances are, they are there to help you. Find out who promotes shows and develop a business relationship with that person. Madonna makes more money from concerts and merchandising than from cd sales. As a band, your goal should be to get people to show up to your shows. Why? Because people who see you in concert are more likely to buy your cd or t-shirt. And that's where you're going to make your money.

Finally, fans of ska music have to participate as well.

It can’t be left solely to ska bands to perpetuate the genre. If there’s a band you like, take a friend along to a show. Buy a cd for a friend, brother, sister, neighbor, etc. Need a band for a high school dance? Ask a local ska band to play. Or, if you play an instrument, see if some people want to start a band. (That’s pretty much how every band in your collection got started.)

Ska music is a fantastic and colorful genre that can be enjoyed by people of all ages.

Its survival is up to all of us, musicians and fans alike.


  1. Ska has always been an music trend that has always been underground... then a few folks get big.. then the hardcores get pissed off because their favorite bands go mainstream.

    Then the mainstream find something else new to like.

    Then Ska goes underground again. and the cycles repeats.

    Just look at the albums of these SKA heavyweights.

    Madness-- One Step Beyond then the U.S. "Madness" album to the Maxwell House Commercial to the new stuff which I kinda like.

    The Specials to Fun Boy Three to where the hell are they now.

    Old No Doubt to Kroq No Doubt to Gwen Stefani Solo..

    Even the Clash (not really ska but they work for this example)... it had to go from "the Clash" to "Cut the Crap" to BAD until Strummer got his stride back the Mescalaros.

    Fishbone keeps evolving.. just wait until their movie comes out next year... They will back, yet again.

    Ska is cyclical.. it will be back again...

    Once the kids rediscover it.

  2. about the school/music issue...
    I was blessed to have Brian Wallace as my high school band director, and I wish more people would follow his example even though he's not teaching anymore.

    At my high school we didn't have just a jazz/big band.. we also had a ska band offered as an ensemble class. I remember seeing the Aggrolites and Chris Murray as a junior or senior in high school about maybe 6 years ago, when they played a show at our high school -- the thing I remember most about that show is how all the kids there seemed to be so happy/excited, like "what is this amazing sound and why has it been missing from my life for so long!!!" ...something like that, haha.

    Even after Brian wasn't teaching anymore he still hooked up the high school kids by bringing in bands like Westbound Train and Go Jimmy Go to do workshops ("ska camp") at the local recording studio.
    I think more bands should do stuff like that... and I think bands would be willing to do it, as it would be more than worth it (if nothing else, to help kids stop listening to Suburban Legends, thinking it's ska..) it's just a very rare occasion that you can go to a school and find a ska band to educate.

    Anyway, i guess my point is that Brian Wallace is the MAN. Who knows what the hell i'd be doing now if it weren't for him, haha

    -Joanne/Penny Reel

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