Warm light radiated off the exposed brick of Kleur, a boutique in Winston-Salem’s Big Winston complex, as the small space filled with a veritable Sgt. Pepper’s-esque collage of the city’s musicians, artists, barkeeps and journalists — Laura Gardea, Danielle Bull, Eddie Garcia, Tori Elliott, Eric Swaim. A row of five figures sat patiently at a table along the wall: scene veteran Saylor Breckenridge, Estrangers drummer Drew Braden, Katelyn Allivato of the Genuine, Foxture frontman Marlon Blackmon and weirdo-garage-noise purveyor Anthony Petrovic.
Kleur filled even further, the crowd outgrowing the number of chairs provided, a front row forming before the quintet, sitting cross-legged like kids ready for storytime. A small group crowded around a table holding wine and charcuterie; the former was already nearly gone. The quiet din of anticipatory conversation hummed through the shop.
“I wish I could get this many people to my show,” Jacob Leonard of Dark Prophet Tongueless Monk remarked to a friend.
In a way, that’s why everyone had gathered in the little boutique.
Sound Ecology was billed as a community discussion on the “local music ecosystem.” The forum served to broach subjects affecting Winston-Salem’s music scene and proffer possible solutions on how to engage with challenges facing the town’s web of talent.
The discussion was organized by local impresario Philip Pledger and Kleur proprietor Molly Grace.
After the slight tension in the room was broken by humorous fake coughs, Grace took the time to thank the attendees.
“This is not the first, but it is the best-attended community discussion we’ve hosted on this issue,” Grace said. “Part of my vision for this space was a discussion like this, so I’m so glad y’all have turned out like you have.”
Following further introductions, the panel, moderated by Breckenridge, launched into the most significant questions facing the Winston-Salem music scene: How does the community get college students to better engage in live music? How do colleges figure into the equation of increasing audience sizes? Where can bands rehearse? How can the music community best embrace a diversity of musical genres? How can the scene prevent stagnation?
The panel addressed these big issues as best they could.
On the topic of college engagement, Foxture’s Blackmon had mixed opinions.
“If we play directly on college campuses as venues, kids might feel more obligated to go when they’re already there,” Blackmon said. “They feel safer and more welcome.”
Later, though, he did acknowledge the sizable time during which students disappear.
“In the summer, you’re screwed at that point,” Blackmon said.
Allivato got even more pointed.
“It’s strange that we’re a college town, because it doesn’t feel like it at all,” Allivato commented. “It’s not like Chapel Hill. Even Appalachian [State University] has a student-run music venue.”
Petrovic added that, in some cases, college students seem completely divested from the local music scene.
“School of the Arts blows me away,” Petrovic said. “A lot of those kids are prodigies, but they don’t seem interested.”
Even these opening topics positively engaged the crowd.
“I’ve heard at NCSA that they are told, ‘Do not be distracted by outside projects,’” one attendee stated.
College kids, no matter their attendance, did bridge into another subject: venues.
“There’s a lack of venues for college students,” Allivato said. “Lots of undergrads are under 21; some are still under 18.”
Of course, many venues in Winston-Salem and elsewhere are bars, either 18- or 21-and-up establishments. And, naturally, alcohol sales represent an important revenue stream making music venues viable.
Approaches to this problem brought up varying opinions.
“Can we do this without an all-ages venue?” one attendee asked.
“I’m old now; I don’t want to hang out with a lot of kids,” Petrovic scoffed, drawing laughs from the forum.
Age wasn’t so much of an issue as it was figuring out where to play. DIY spaces like Kleur, record stores, galleries like Delurk and SECCA were suggested. One inevitable answer — going underground with house shows.
Then, that question led to others: Does the community move more towards free shows? How would bands promote the shows? How would they get paid?
Hurdles jumped leading to taller ones.
“Despite passion, hard work and success, our music scene is not growing,” Winston-Salem Arts Council member Devon Mackay said after the event. “A lot of that might be a lack of opportunity beyond a certain level of success.”
Not every sensitive, relevant issue was addressed.
“The lack to racial variety within the music scene… in my opinion, could easily deter people of color from feeling welcome at shows,” Blackmon said in a follow-up interview.
“We want our culture to be bordered by a permeable membrane, not a wall,” Mackay commented in a similar vein.
But the point wasn’t to arrange an omnibus plan to vitalize the scene immediately; it was but a beginning.
“I realize some people may have been frustrated by a lack of concrete, actionable items or takeaways, but sometimes before those can come, it’s important for there to be dialogue,” Pledger said in an interview. “It was successful as a safe space for people to let their voices be heard, which doesn’t happen too often in that kind of setting in Winston.”
One plain takeaway: People in Winston-Salem care about bolstering the city’s beloved but unstable scene.
As people filed out of Kleur at about 9:30 p.m., someone announced with much ado, “There’s a show at Test Pattern right now.”