The 6 Elements of a Scene

In December, The Bushwick Book Club did a show of music based on “How Music Works” by David Byrne. I was honored to be there, because I like the book a lot. I respect and admire Byrne, whom I consider to be a sort of Professor of Rock, so much that at the Bushwick show, I attempted to affect a somewhat professorial attire with mixed results.

In one chapter, he talks about the elements of the club CBGB and of the broader environment of New York in the late 1970s that helped foster the explosion of influential music that the time and the scene are famous for. However, Byrne chose to focus specifically on the rock club culture in his chapter, and I think that his ideas could be applied to the much broader idea of a Scene as a place where any kind of movement takes place in any kind of art form. The following elements are extrapolations on David Byrne’s original concepts.


1. Original Work

The scene should encourage new and original works. Cover bands have not traditionally been at the forefront of exciting artistic movements, though lots of groups started by playing covers, and copying artists is a great way to train oneself. Healthy amounts of new work, however, is the sign of a vital scene. Trying things that haven’t been tried before is the only way of moving culture in directions it’s never gone. An emphasis on original material is vital for other manner of arts, not just music, but also dance, theater, literature, all of it. As it is with cultural communities, any body of water that doesn’t have a few rivers flowing in or out is going to stagnate and attract flies.

2. Peer Access

photo by Melissa Thompson |

photo by Melissa Thompson |

If you’re involved in the arts and you can’t check out what your peers are doing, you have no idea what has or hasn’t been tried, and access to other people’s ideas is a common spark for unexpected inspiration. However, most artists don’t have a lot of money to throw around, so it makes sense that vibrant scenes are often found in hole-in-the-wall spaces, cafes and galleries and bars that are easy for a struggling artist to afford entrance. CBGB is a perfect example of this, as Byrne remarks that the club would give free entrance to previous performers. To a smaller and more local extent, Cafe Racer, The Beery House and The Funhouse are also places that have (in various ways) granted peer access to up and coming artists.

3. Diversity

Even if an artist has access to the work of their peers, if those peers all come from the same background, share the same worldview and are creating similar works, it’s not going to count for much. [quote_right]”A healthy scene needs people who can push each other and each other’s works to be stronger.”[/quote_right]There has to be diversity, not just of ethnicity, but also of economic background, gender and sexuality, philosophy and politics and just a general diversity of ideas. Ideas are like muscles; they only get stronger after meeting some resistance and breaking a little. A healthy scene needs people who can push each other and each other’s works to be stronger. This is why major urban areas and college towns, two kinds of communities marked by domestic and international immigration, are more often marked by artistic culture than that of their more inland, isolated cousins. The influx of ideas is a vitalizing force. Again, think about that stagnation metaphor I used earlier. It still applies.

4. Social Space

All of the diversity won’t mean much if there isn’t a social space in the scene (here, meaning the more tangible, physical space where all of this stuff takes place). Even if you have a room full of diverse geniuses, they’re not going to exchange ideas if no one creates the time and place for it. There should be a central meeting place, and within that meeting place, a time and a space for free socializing. A poolroom of a bar, the kitchen at a living-room show, the lobby of a theater. These can be social spaces if you let them. The space can be digital, too! Forums, Reddit threads, the comment section of this blog and any other sort of place where people can intellectually interact can be a fertile ground for exchange.

5. An Affordable Lifestyle

If an artist has to work three jobs to scrape by in a city, they won’t have the free time to spend on their artwork and to let it develop. And if works of art do not gain the artist fair pay, said artist will have to day-job that much harder to get by. Cities without affordable living and fair pay will either never give rise to a vibrant art scene, or else they will slowly lose any arts culture that it once had (I’m looking at you real hard, New York).

6. An Uncommon Community

Byrne’s ideas of social transparency (when the restrictions of the space force a mingling of artist and audience) and a sense of being alternative (where the scene views [quote_right]”If the crowd gets too big, if the community goes pop, the artist can’t get to know their fans. The fans can’t get to know each other.”[/quote_right]itself as outside popular culture) both help foster a sense of community. How? Well, social transparency encourages that exchange of ideas thing. When the artist and their audience get to meet each other, it becomes more than just a conversation. The audience-person gets to feel closer to the human being who makes the music that they emotionally respond to; the artist get to meet the people who are emotionally responding to their work and such meetings always leave a mark. Additionally, by declaring yourself or your community to be “alternative,” “counter-” or “anti-” to popular culture, you’re establishing a niche, or a smaller community. Niches are by nature more tightly knit than large groups, because you actually can get to know more of the members of the niche, and can establish a stronger relationship with them and the ideas that connect everyone. If the crowd gets too big, if the community goes pop, the artist can’t get to know their fans. The fans can’t get to know each other. The niche gets absorbed (co-opted, sometimes) and that gives rise to other smaller niches. Being alternative staves off the pop culture absorption thing, at least for a little while.


That chapter, “How to Make a Scene,” made me think a lot about the unique niches and communities that I have been a part of in my life, as an adult and when I was a student, and it allowed me to reflect on what made those scenes unique and emotionally important to me. And maybe someday, someone out there will write a book about how OF COURSE this bar or gallery was going to be the place where so many great creators made their best work, and OF COURSE these places were bound to be influential.

But in the moment, the artists and the venue owners, the fans and the volunteers and bartenders, no one will have a clue what their Saturday night shows will mean to folks five, ten or twenty years from now.

So, are you a part of a scene? And if not, would you like to try and make one?

Aaron J. Shay is a featured Bushwick artist and a constant contributor to the Seattle arts and music community.