It's a Tuesday night in New Orleans, about a year ago.
I'm on tour with my band, and we're heading into the final week of shows in a three-week run. The other bands on tour have loaded in, sound checks are done and we're sitting around at the bar doing what every responsible touring musician does: furiously refreshing the Facebook event for the night between shots of cheap whiskey.
The online event page states that doors open at 8 pm, the first band starts at 9 pm sharp, with DJs in between each set. I scroll to the Facebook invites:
Two people are there at doors, my best friend and her partner. The DJ starts at 8:15, after a bit of a technical issue.
One more person filters in.
By the end of the night, we've played to a room of five disinterested goths, and sometime during the evening, I hear from one of the faithful audience members:
"I'm sorry more people didn't come out, I wish more people supported the scene."
The show ends with a whimper.
I recognize that this probably sounds like a sob story of a band that bit off more than it could chew, but there's an unwritten joke that every seasoned touring musician knows: Regardless of turnout, there's always that one person who's going to tell you it would be better if the variables were different—if it weren't raining, if it weren't a Tuesday, if only some bigger band hadn't played there last week—or that nobody supports the local scene anymore.
I never hold it against someone for stating the objective truth of the matter. Weather can be a blessing or a curse. Sometimes schedules just conflict on the road. We don't have any control over the day we play because our booking agent handles the routing. But the second part of the joke always feels weird to me. Why is the sentiment of support always a rote point of conversation, and why does it feel so off?
"In general, I tend to not like the word 'support,'" says local vet Augustine Ortiz of metal act Dysphotic. "It's hard because [it is] such a wide encompassing thing. And I do ask for people's support, but I don't like the word because it makes me feel like we're a charity. I feel like a lot of local scenes suffer from that mentality. You feel guilty because 'I need to go and support the scene or whatever,' and you go in already expecting to have a bad time."
Ortiz has promoted shows in Santa Fe for years, generally working with metal. Further, as a musician, he's uniquely positioned to understand the scene from all angles.
"I was seeing the same things in Santa Fe, like people would be bitching and saying 'no one supports the scene, people don't show up,'" he says, "but then I would go to a show, it would be super last-minute that I would hear about it, and when I got there, nobody would be at the show."
I ask Ortiz about Dysphotic's live show and how it ties into the local scene. He responds that he wants the shows to "look good, sound good, and be well promoted. I want people to come out and actually feel like the money that they spend at a show was worth it. I'm thankful for support, but I want it to be worth their time."
And there it is. For all the talk of supporting scenes, it isn't really about support, but rather live music as moral obligation. The underground mantra of support starts to sound less like a rallying cry and more like some Sarah McLaughlin-backed ad guilting you for time. For just 30 minutes a week, you, too, can support a starving artist.
When we entrench ourselves into a scene as fans or creators, we dream that simply being in a band or a scene merits interest, or that scenes expand and grow solely because people routinely attend every event, but the fact is that music scenes don't owe musicians—or scene die-hards—anything. Music owes itself to exist, and the rest is coincidental. We can try to give the most blood we can, but it's 2019.
"We're competing with Netflix, other live shows, YouTube, and people's couches," Ortiz explains. "How do we be good enough to earn that support?"
I don't know that there's any satisfying response to this question. No matter what we think, I do know that underground music and underground music scenes will continue. This isn't to say a scene will support itself, or that you should stay home; you should get to shows, listen to local music and buy merch. But don't do it at the gunpoint of moral obligation. Do it because your favorite band happens to be local. Do it because it's a good way to spend your night. Do it because you want to.
Do it because you gave a band a chance, and they were worth your time.