It's easy to throw up your hands and say, "it's all because music nowadays sucks, and it was so much better when I was your age, before everyone sold out." But to do so you would have to ignore a lot of great bands. While the mainstream has regressed back to ultra-sexist cheese metal (and let's face it, that's what Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock, and their ilk really are), there are a lot of bands putting out music that holds to the ideals of feminism and independent music. And almost all of it was recorded in the Northwest.
I live in New York, the so-called entertainment capital of the world, and most of the records I've bought in the past year are from Seattle, Portland, and Olympia. Sleater-Kinney? Built to Spill? Quasi? Cadallaca? All from the Northwest. Sebadoh? The Make-Up? Marine Research? The Rondelles? Sub Pop and K. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (who live in my neighborhood!)? Recorded in Olympia, produced by Calvin Johnson.
Did I buy any records this year that didn't come out of the Northwest? Yes -- Kristin Hersh's latest and the Rock*A*Teens. But two examples don't make much of a case for the rest of the country; it's more like the exception that proves the rule -- all the good bands are from the Northwest. And they don't just happen to live here; they're all part of a scene that's dedicated to the same things the rest of the music world has given up on. More than just sharing a sound, most of the bands have members in common, play on each others' records, and form side projects at the drop of a hat (see map).
Why are there so many bands in the Northwest? Part of it has to do with the fact that there are just a lot of musicians in the area. If you're in your 20s, either your friends are musicians and you're part of the scene, or your friends are computer programmers and you work for Microsoft. In a city like New York, there are so many large corporations in so many different industries (publishing, stocks and bonds, the garment trade) clamoring for your attention, none really dominate outside of their particular neighborhood.
But while Seattle is big enough so that there are plenty of musicians, and small enough that you can know most of them, neither of those things guarantee they're all going to get along. In most places, music scenes seem to be a temporary proposition -- either the major labels step in with big money and everyone moves to L.A. and starts a drug habit, or no one steps in with any money and everyone gives up. And within any social group, as time passes everyone's more likely to run into someone they were in a band with, lived with, worked with, slept with, got into a drunken brawl with, toured with, or promised to love forever until.... Eventually too many bridges have been burned, and people get fed up and leave.
But the Northwest music scene avoids this law of diminishing returns. It's certainly not for lack of ex-bandmates or ex-girlfriends. What makes people so into this scene that they don't run from their pasts like any sensible person would?
The thing that holds the scene together is also what sets it apart from nearly every other music scene in the country: a set of ideals. Two factions -- the riot grrl movement and the lo-fi scene that would in part lead to grunge -- have fostered an independent scene that's politically active and grounded in feminist ideals. In a day and age when sexism and apathy are strongly in vogue, and in an industry where they were never out of vogue, these two ideologies give this scene a sense of significance beyond simple geography or even musical style.
Another reason the girl-friendly, anti-corporate scene rules the roost in the Northwest is less admirable: by default. All the money-hungry boy bands signed after Nirvana hit and left town, and the gals are what's left over. While the scene's adherence to independent principles and a sense of community is admirable, a lot of these bands don't have a whole lot of other options. While I'm sure Sleater-Kinney have fielded more than a few phone calls from Sony and Warner, most of the bands are on small labels because they have no other recourse, and the labels' output certainly reflects that. For every vibrant, important band like Sleater-Kinney or Team Dresch or the Make-Up, there are plenty of bands whose records were born of incest -- because they knew the right people.
This is true on just about any label and in just about any scene. Fact is, that's what a scene is: a handful of influential, important bands and their imitators and hangers-on. And there's nothing wrong with that -- every record K puts out doesn't have to be a landmark. Did you buy the Dub Narcotic/Blues Explosion record because you thought it would be a work of art, or because it seemed like a cool idea? It is a novelty, and a forgettable record. But the whole reason to run your own label is so you can put out whatever you want. That may be the scene's most defining characteristic: novelty. Besides just supporting hard-working, stable bands, the scene supports ad-hoc groups who record stuff just for the fun of it. And fun is just as important an ideal as any.