Making scenes

3 men on stage - a guitarist and 2 men with headphones round their necks sat at computers on a table

Hive Festival, courtesy of Hive Collective

According to some scholars, of all the art forms with a link to media industries, popular music is exceptional in terms of its ability to nurture and sustain active local music scenes (Straw, 2003). Why is this? One reason is likely to be the social nature of music - the ability of so many people to participate and join in music activity, and music's ability to accompany collective activities such as dancing and special celebrations. Popular music is also by its nature accessible. It invites people to participate. It has also been suggested that music as a whole is widely regarded as something special and is "among the most valued and profoundly human of practices in our society" (Finnegan, 1989: 339).

Music scenes are created through the activities of people who share similar interests, often in a particular style of music. Involvement usually requires hard work and commitment. Local rock, folk or choral scenes, for example, depend upon the activity and commitment of many people. They require efforts to contact musicians, organise rehearsals, book rooms, purchase sheet music, hire equipment, attract funding and sponsorship, recruit audiences, provide refreshments and so on. This activity depends upon collaboration between many people and an elaborate division of labour.

When Ruth Finnegan studied these kinds of music scenes in Milton Keynes (1989) she found all these elements were present. She also found that the extent of participation in this kind of scene activity varies. Some people become so immersed in a scene that it becomes a way of life. For others their involvement is more part-time or sporadic. They may dip in and out of the scene or become involved with several scenes, whether consecutively or at the same time.

With almost all of the music scenes that Finnegan studied, including rock and choral scenes, she found that the people involved were surprisingly diverse in terms of social background. Another example of this is the new music scene that emerged in Birmingham in the mid 1980s through an alliance between two different social groups. The scene brought Southwest Asian youths involved with 'bhangra' music, a fusion of folk songs from the Indian state of Punjab with disco, pop, hip hop and house music, together with Afro-Caribbean youths involved with reggae and 'ragamuffin' - musical styles that had emerged from Jamaica (Lipsitz, 1994: 130).

Liverpool's barbershop music scene offers a slightly different example of diversity - a mixture of generations. The Liverpool Ladies' Barbershop Chorus includes different generations of the same family, with mothers, daughters and granddaughters as well as aunts and nieces singing together, side by side (Cohen and McManus, 1994).

Music scenes can therefore bring people together and overcome social divisions. They can, however, also reinforce social divisions by providing a focus for distinct groups and identities. Liverpool's rock band scene of the 1980s, for example, was dominated by men, with women actively excluded from it in various ways. During the 1990s the city had two separate hip hop scenes, one involving largely Black participants and the other largely white.

Follow the links below to explore in more detail some of the ways in which scenes are made.