Changing scenes

Old photo of 3 men in suits playing trumpets

Merseysippi Jazz Band, courtesy of Jasmine Lawrence

Music scenes are commonly linked to fashions and fickle tastes. They are therefore seen as fast-changing and as temporal or liminal forms that continually come and go. Some are short-lived and soon fizzle out whilst others are more enduring. These changes take different forms.

The kinds of people involved with scenes may change along with changes in patterns of social behaviour and public attitudes and tastes. During the mid 1990s, for example, the rock and dance scenes of Manchester and other English cities expanded and transformed following a dramatic expansion of higher education and an increase in the numbers of local university students. These students helped to support and develop local music scenes by spending their leisure time and income on music activities, whether this involved forming bands or attending clubs.

There may also be changes in style as scenes continually evolve and mutate, splinter and fragment. The term 'heavy metal', for example, became less frequently used to describe a particular music scene as the genre broke up into different styles such as death metal, nu metal and extreme metal.

These kinds of stylistic changes often result from the exchange of musical influences by those participating in different music scenes, a process that frequently gives rise to new hybrid (mixed) musical sounds. For instance, the famous Liverpool Sound and the Merseybeat scene of the 1960s were hybrid forms that developed through the coming together of musical influences from a number of different styles, including US rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll and country music, British vaudeville and Irish song. Similarly the historical development of the rock 'n' roll music scene of Austin, Texas, has been shaped by interaction and interrelations between different music scenes, including those based around honky-tonk, folk and rock music (Shank, 1994).

The sites and institutions that support scene activity also change. On Merseyside for example, jazz music emerged in the 1950s from grammar schools and rhythm clubs in areas such as Hoylake and Crosby. Gradually however, live jazz performance began to emerge in 'underground' venues in Liverpool city centre, including the famous Cavern Club. Today most performances of jazz take place in local cafés, restaurants and hotels. During the 1950s there was also a strong folk scene on Merseyside. Folk music performances and clubs were based in pubs in Liverpool city centre which helped to associate the scene with the working classes. Over the next few decades, however, the folk scene was displaced from Liverpool as folk performers, many of them from the middle-classes, migrated to outlying and more affluent areas such as Chester and Lancashire, and festivals began to replace pubs as primary sites for live folk performance.

Looking at these kinds of changes can tell us things about popular music and music scenes. For instance it can help to highlight a combination of factors contributing to change, including social, economic and musical factors. It can also show how scene participants respond to change coming from within or outside the scene, and in this way tell us much about what characterised the scene in the first place. For example the sociologist Will Straw explains how and why alternative rock scenes "function more and more as spaces organised against change. Within them, minor tastes and habits are perpetuated" (2001: 255).

Yet scenes are not simply affected by change but also contribute to change. Zouk music for example emerged as a hybrid popular music style from the Creole-speaking Caribbean. During the 1980s the scene based around zouk contributed to change across the region in various ways: by helping to generate new jobs in the music industries and create new music markets; by creating new opportunities for the development of music careers and institutions; and by overturning negative attitudes towards Creole, both inside and outside the Carribbean and promoting Creole identity (Guilbault, 1993: 204-208).

Follow these links to explore other examples of the way that music scenes have changed and find out about changing music scenes in Liverpool: