Could Denver Have a Better Music Scene Than L.A.?
Which music scene is better? You might be surprised.
When you live in Los Angeles, you don’t really think about music scenes anywhere else. Why would you? L.A. has it all. Sure, you might occasionally give a passing nod to cool shit going on in other places. Kudos to Seattle for that grunge run way back when. And, yeah, the scenes are supposed to be solid in spots like Nashville, New Orleans and New York. But you can get all of that and more in L.A.; moving to another city would only limit your options when it comes to music.
At least that’s what I thought when I moved to Denver. Now I’m not so sure.
Having covered music as a reporter for both LA Weekly and Westword, I can tell you that it’s actually a close call when determining which city boasts the better music scene — so close that the scenes warrant a point-by-point comparison.
Angelenos, just hear me out; I know this is coming out of left field for you, but you may learn a thing or two. Denverites, I’m sure there’s nothing you’d enjoy more than to be compared to Los Angeles — by a transplant, no less (gasp!). So buckle up for a friendly competition as I take you through the scientific facts. And just for fun, at the end there will be a point tally to show which music scene comes out on top.
May the best city win.
Best Touring Acts
Angelenos are entitled when it comes to concerts. There, I said it.
You can expect any artist worth his or her salt to play L.A. on a tour. Hell, it seems like half of the industry’s full-time musicians already live in L.A., so it’s a natural place to catch a show, whether it’s at a DIY venue or an amphitheater like the Hollywood Bowl.
As for Denver, staked out on the high plains? Nearly every major tour stops here as well.
For one thing, it helps to have a plethora of festivals and an amazing venue like Red Rocks Amphitheatre to draw recognized artists here. But beyond that, Denver ends up hosting most nationally touring acts for a simple reason: geography.
Just look at a map. Denver is the only major metropolis for hundreds of miles, making it the cultural capital for a huge swath of North American territory. It’s the same reason that Broncos fans come from six different states: Denver has an expansive cultural footprint. There’s little competition, and you’d have to travel long distances in every direction before finding another significant music market.
There are the occasional instances when large tours skip over Denver, as Beyoncé and Radiohead did this year, but for the most part, you can expect artists large and small to come through Denver on any national tour, if only for logistical reasons.
While Denver may not be the seat of the music industry, there are certainly acts based out of the Mile High City that the rest of the country knows about. For proof, look no further than Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats.
But does Denver — or even Colorado — have a unified sound to boast of? The jury is still out. Indeed, Westword music editor Katie Moulton recently wrote about the search for a distinguishable genre emerging from Colorado, and the results were inconclusive. Yes, there are a lot of jam bands and EDM acts out here, but many would say that they’re neither unique nor representative of Denver. So then you might consider John Denver as a historic example, but he didn’t really represent a movement. The best argument, it appears, is for a genre that emerged in the 1990s called Gothic Americana, which included bands like Slim Cessna’s Auto Club.
Los Angeles, on the other hand, has had multiple genres to claim as its own. The alternately sunny and psychedelic vibes of the Beach Boys, the Mamas & the Papas and the Doors in the 1960s gave way to the homegrown folk-rock scene of Laurel Canyon in the ’70s, which included the likes of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, the Eagles, Graham Nash, Roger McGuinn and the band Love. The ’90s brought the West Coast hip-hop sounds from South L.A. and Long Beach, giving rise to artists like N.W.A as well as G-Funk artists like Snoop Dogg.
Even now, L.A. is still killing it with a resurgent jazz scene, not to mention a beat scene pioneered by Low End Theory. Both have cleared the way for groundbreaking artists like Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar and Kamasi Washington.
Point: Los Angeles
It’s best to work with the law of averages on this one, folks. Because I do realize that, even within a city, different genres and artists bring out different kinds of crowds; you can’t really compare an LCD Soundsystem audience to those who pack a venue for James Taylor.
That said, I’ve been generally blown away by the enthusiasm of audiences in Denver.
It’s not always pretty, mind you. For one thing, Denver crowds tend to be way more fucked up than those in Los Angeles. Much of this has to do with the fact that drinks and ticket prices are almost always cheaper in Colorado (According to the web index Sterling’s Best Places, the cost of living in L.A. is 34.7 percent higher than Denver.) Denver is also just a boozy town. And, oh, yeah, legal weed....
But I’m also convinced that it’s more than intoxicants influencing Denver fans.
I can’t tell you how many shows I went to while growing up in Southern California (and later reviewed for LA Weekly) when a band, DJ or MC was absolutely kicking ass on stage and all they could coax from the crowd was a head bob. When compared to Denver audiences, it seems that L.A. crowds are more self-conscious and reticent to let loose.
For dependable exceptions to this rule in L.A., I’d point to cheap and accessible shows: hazy nights downtown at the Smell, throwing down at Los Globos in Silver Lake and Low End Theory in Lincoln Heights, free Latin-music nights at the Levitt Pavilion in MacArthur Park.... Those crowds are fun.
Still, I have to say that audiences are just more wild at 5,280 feet.
Best Record Stores
Listen, Denver, as impressive and well-curated as Wax Trax and Twist & Shout are (hell, even throw in Boulder’s Albums on the Hill), there are just too many great record stores in Los Angeles for this to be a fair fight. In a city ten times the size of Denver, it can be difficult to even choose the best in L.A. Some notable favorites: Rockaway Records, Freakbeat Records, Amoeba Music, Mount Analog, Vacation Vinyl, Mono Records, Origami Vinyl, Atomic Records, Gimme Gimme Records, Permanent Records.
Point: Los Angeles
Of course, Red Rocks has to make multiple appearances in this discussion; the venue really is Denver’s ace in the hole. While not everyone agrees that it has the best acoustics, I’d counter that it depends on the type of show you see there. For the right type of artist, the acoustics can be unparalleled.
For you uninitiated Angelenos, let me describe Red Rocks: Imagine the Hollywood Bowl, except that it’s bounded on either side by towering and impressive cliff faces, wrapping around the amphitheater to create a natural surround-sound effect. The acoustics work perfectly for acts with a lot of range and dynamics in their music (not so much for bass-heavy electronic ones). When the Flaming Lips teamed up with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra this summer for a one-off performance of The Soft Bulletin, there were over one hundred musicians on stage playing at the same time, yet you could still concentrate on any one string section, rock instrument or choral section.
Ron Ruhoff/ Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau
Besides, the venue is incomparable in its beauty. Seeing the stars (imagine that!) and the Denver skyline from the top deck of Red Rocks is spectacular.
Even at the best venues in L.A. — the Greek Theater, Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, the Orpheum, the Wiltern, the Palladium, Henry Fonda — you’re just not going to have the same magical experience that you will at Red Rocks. And Denver still has plenty of comparable indoor venues, like the Ogden Theatre, Bellco Theater, the Paramount and the Bluebird.
This is surely going to be the most controversial point of comparison, but it’s one that I feel strongly about: Which city has the tighter-knit music community?
By this I mean the level of support and collaboration between artists, the openness of interactions between fans and performers, and the sense that musicians are promoting each other and the scene as a whole. These are all important attributes of a music community.
Wheelchair Sports Camp worked around a power outage by performing on the sidewalk at Westword Music Showcase.
And I’ve got to say, L.A. — and this is coming from a born-and-raised Angeleno who still has a deep love for the City of Angels — you’re really lacking in this department.
Honestly, a huge part of it is L.A.’s layout and transportation nightmare. Because L.A. has no real “center” and traffic gets worse with each passing year, L.A.’s musicians end up getting fractured into smaller communities. The result is smaller sub-scenes that, within themselves, may be tight-knit — like East L.A.’s beat scene and South L.A.’s jazz and hip-hop communities. But you don’t get the sense of an all-around, cohesive L.A. music community.
In addition, the two cities just operate on very different philosophies. Angelenos are known to be hustlers in a way that, generally, people in Denver are not. This applies to more than just musicians. L.A. is a place to dream big, and so the focus tends (on average!) to zero in more on the self rather than the community as a whole.
Since I began reporting on music in Denver, I’ve been impressed by how many musicians from all parts of the city know each other and constantly collaborate to throw events that promote artists across genres. There’s always cool stuff popping up — like, for instance, bands playing on the first Friday of each month from the roof of the Denver Tool Library. What makes Denver different from L.A. is that these kinds of events are readily accessible and attended by residents from across the city, not centered around a sub-community or particular neighborhood, which is what you often see in L.A. (the way that Echo Park, Silver Lake, Highland Park, among others, tend to become their own, separate musical pockets).
In Denver, there’s a feeling that the city’s musicians and fans are all in it together, and they continually make an effort to know and help one another.
Final Point: Denver
L.A.: Three points
Denver: Four points
Before half of you go apoplectic on me, remember that it’s possible to have an affinity for two cities at the same time. I certainly do, and it extends well beyond music. I'm also not trying to condone antagonism between cities; this point by point comparison was mostly for fun. But I do think that what’s been most surprising for me as I’ve explored the music scene in Denver and met the extraordinary individuals it comprises: I don’t often miss the music scene in L.A.
More than anything, that’s been an eye-opener. To my former colleagues at LA Weekly, who recently opened an article with the line “There’s hardly any debate that L.A. has the best music scene in America...”:
Yeah, you might want to think twice about that...
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