Many great St. Louis musicians have fled this river town in search of greater success. Those little town blues mixed with rock'n'roll dreams have inspired many moves to the great American coastal cities. I myself, as a young songwriter, journeyed eastward and later westward, ultimately making my peace with music in my hometown of St. Louis.
I moved to New York in 1990 and on to San Francisco in 1995. I had similar experiences with music in both cities. I moved to these cities to be closer to the industry as well as for artistic inspiration. My hope was to increase the visibility I had achieved in St. Louis and to seize the professional opportunities that only these cities had to offer. The industry did not fail me nor did I fail to be inspired. What I feel failed me was the music culture of these cities.
When I played music in St. Louis in the '80s I was troubled by the lack of musical outlets. There were too few clubs, too few good bands and no record labels. The problem with New York and San Francisco was the exact opposite. There was too much of everything and as a result, the music scene lacked focus. There were too many bars, dance clubs, concert halls, raves and underground parties. Too many record labels, and too many bands to even know where to simply begin. I was determined, patient, and yet eager to take on the new challenges that lay ahead.
New York was obviously much more industry-driven than San Francisco. Everyone in New York seemed to either have a record deal, was in the midst of negotiating one or at least had traded business cards with an A&R person. I tasted the intoxicating effect of feeling like I was making positive inroads with making what they call "industry contacts." I quickly learned that being on the periphery of the record industry is the worst place for a musician to be. The perennial carrot is always dangling, seemingly so close... There's this endless waiting to simply be given a chance.
San Francisco was less industry-driven but rich with rock culture. Rock'n'roll subcultures existed with an almost religious fervor. It is a city forever lost in a Bohemian daydream. San Francisco has the big-city beat of New York mixed with the come-as-you-are California lifestyle. DJ culture dominated the music scene, and the most popular local bands were gimmick-oriented or tribute bands. I was in San Francisco during the Internet boom of the late '90s when real estate had reached astronomical proportions. By 1999, my band was playing at only one club in the city. The other clubs we played had either closed or found it too costly to continue putting on live shows. The San Francisco music scene was forced to go underground with private parties at art lofts and galleries. I decided in 2000 that it was time to pack my bags and head on home to St. Louis. At this point I just wanted my musical life back, the life that had become silenced by the punk rock angst and electronic clatter of the big city.
Moving back to St. Louis has allowed me to simply exist as musician. In New York and San Francisco, I had lost all sight of what it meant to have an audience of any sort. The audience was sacrificed for more professional pursuits that I thought would ultimately allow me to function on a more global level. An artist of any making can only endure so long without an audience.
Upon my arrival, I noticed how different the role of music was on the St. Louis landscape. Music is driven by a more folksy tradition than the promise of rock'n'roll fame and glamour. It's made up of not-necessarily-beautiful people playing heartfelt music. There is no record company hysteria and little refuge for the culture of the hip. Musicians are more inclined to play whatever they feel, as opposed to guessing what pop culture wants. Trying to guess pop culture can turn into a game of second-guessing.
St. Louis music is concentrated in a few clubs that have built-in audiences. Musicians can get an immediate reaction in this type of environment. They can go to Frederick's open mic and play to a packed house. If their music is magnetic and charged with emotion they will get instant results. These results are the heart and soul of the music industry. I emerged on the St. Louis music scene the same time Uncle Tupelo did. They were living proof of what can happen when you stay on your turf and allow your community to empower you. No record company exec would listen to their music and see dollar signs. They subscribed to no modern rock formula or model. Yet, a record company exec could walk into their packed shows at Cicero's and recognize their potential from their public support.
I think artists can get ahead of themselves and make big plans without accomplishing a modest, self-made success. It is difficult to separate how you perceive your music from how the general public perceives your music. With or without a record deal, the general public ultimately defines your place in popular culture. In New York and San Francisco I had no place in the culture. My only place was in the waiting room of a record company with a demo tape and a tale of Midwestern glory. An artist with no place in the culture loses all sense of ground and gravity. Coming back to St. Louis has allowed me to rediscover the simple joys of music while putting my professional aspirations behind me. Ironically it was these professional aspirations that pulled me away from this city and ultimately my true musical self. Whoever said, "You can't go home again?"
David Simon is the bassist, vocalist and songwriter of The Ambassadors.