Has the internet killed local music scenes?

From Merseybeat to grunge, it is doubtful any major local music scene would have had the same impact in the age of the internet and the 'bedroom musician'. Will there ever be another Madchester?

Once upon a time, sounds were attached to places. Rock'n'roll travelled the Atlantic and docked at Liverpool, giving birth to Merseybeat. Manchester married raving and rock music, and spawned Madchester. Grunge formed under Seattle's gloomy skies and then took over the world. The local scene – the notion of several bands and musicians from the same area appropriating a similar style of records – would begin with friends listening to the same music and forming bands that would play in the same clubs, before record labels, DJs and writers would take note, at which point a city's bands would find themselves the centre of worldwide attention.

These local genres weren't always as definitive as legend would have it: many of them appeared by accident before being written into history. Phil Saxe managed the Happy Mondays before Madchester's heyday in the late 80s and early 90s, and went on to promote new music at Manchester's industry showcase, In the City. "When the Mondays first started, Mancunians weren't interested," he says. "It took off in London, particularly with the London journalism intelligentsia. But calling it Madchester makes it a local scene. If Madchester's music had been called 'ecstasy music' or something, would the link with Manchester be as strong as it is now?"

The idea of the local scene has always been an attractive prospect, playing on tribal mentalities and a very human desire for order. It has helped define emerging music, and in so doing, endowed places with certain musical characteristics that come to be seen as inalienable (play musical word association, and see what comes after Seattle). But recently, local scenes seem to be dying out. With the advent of the internet, the way we consume and create music has changed. We still turn to genres to help define sound, but these days these scenes are often built on artists who share nothing in terms of geography – disparate bedroom artists such as Washed Out, Toro Y Moi and Memory Tapes find themselves lumped together under the "chillwave" banner by bloggers and internet communities drawing parallels in sound, though their bedrooms are hundreds of miles apart.

Crucial to this process has been the slow death of physical music. Where scenes coalesced in the past, it was often round a record shop or a club where people could hear particular sounds. In the late 80s, for example, regulars at the Hacienda were able to hear the Chicago house and Detroit techno imports that underpinned Madchester. Right up to the mid-90s, people would ask their friends for recommendations and share mixtapes, even if those friends were obsessives like High Fidelity's Dick and Barry, championing anything obscure and ridiculing the ignorant. The internet, and all it entails – MySpace, social networking, file-sharing, blogs – has destroyed the importance of the physical ownership of music. Now, everyone has access to every kind of music, digitally and instantly. We no longer depend on other people and their imports, club nights and mixtapes to discover new sounds.

"When we were kids, we'd give our eye's teeth for a bootleg of an early Bo Diddley track," says Billy Childish, who has championed localism in north Kent as part of the Medway scene of garage rock bands and the Medway Poets. "Now, you can have everything you want just when you want it. We've got this massive problem where it's Christmas every day. It's difficult to find the edges."

Interestingly, we are still looking to people to help us find the edges, even if these people are posting their signposts online. Bloggers are the new Dick and Barry, doing the hard work for music fans in a new world of limitless possibility by hunting out and siphoning off new music according to taste. Blog aggregators such as the Hype Machine go one step further, acting as a bellwether for new trends.

According to the new tastemakers, the globalisation of music is no bad thing. "It's so much easier to discover every kind of music online that bands have more of a chance of falling in love with and being influenced by global trends, not just the ones happening within their community," says Taylor McKnight, one of the team behind the Hype Machine. "I view this as a wonderful thing. Being stuck in a town with only one music scene would be depressing to me."

Kev Kharas of the influential blog No Pain in Pop believes that new music is purer as a result. "There is no pressure to conform to any kind of scene etiquette," he says. "It frees up people to get closer to something they want to do, rather than making music that's responding to staid ideas." While the music industry has been panicking over lost record sales from file-sharing and free downloads, a quiet creative revolution has been taking place behind the scenes.

"A lot of the music we cover on No Pain in Pop seems to come from the same environment – the bedroom. You can actually hear that privacy and solitude coming through in the best music," says Kharas. If the internet has democratised access to music, cheaper home recording and production equipment has facilitated the realisation of new ideas, and the atomisation of local scenes.

Where local scenes were built on bands who had honed their skills in the clubs of their hometown before the wider world even knew of their existence, bedroom musicians are now finding success through the internet before they've even stepped outside their front door – presenting them with new problems. Tickley Feather is the moniker of Annie Sachs from Virginia, who signed to Animal Collective's label, Paw Tracks, almost before she'd played a gig. Though Sachs had built up a strong following online, she struggled to translate her dense, multitracked music to a live setting. "In some ways I don't mind taking the risk to try and translate this really personal, sometimes embarrassing thing live, but sometimes I feel like it's a kind of peep show," she says. "I'm not even sure if [playing live] is the best idea, but I appreciate the struggle of trying to figure out how to do it."

We now make connections and hold global conversations with such speed that local scenes might not have the time to develop and assume their own identity. It took the 20-year Great Migration in the early 20th century for Mississippi bluesmen to move north and create a distinctive Chicago style. Today, great migrations happen every second, via the internet.

Promoters of live music have had to rethink their game as a result. "Before, if somebody sent me that demo and I listened to that demo and liked it, no one else in the world would know about that artist," says Phil Saxe. "About 12 years ago I put Coldplay, Elbow and Muse on at In the City. Nobody knew about any of those bands or how to contact them, so they had to come to the convention in Manchester to see them. You can't do that any more. As soon as we mention the name of the band, people go on MySpace and make the connection straight away."

Where communities of musicians do still exist, they tend to be more diverse and short-lived, such as the group that coalesced around Way Out West, a DIY club night in west London that peaked around 2007 with gigs by Jamie T, Noah and the Whale, Mystery Jets and Laura Marling. Or they're even more specialist and insular. In Chicago, evolving breeds of inner-city juke music have led to the popularisation of footwork, a 160bpm house style created to soundtrack a competitive dance of the same name.

"Footwork is definitely a local scene," says DJ Nate, one of its youngest and most commercially viable artists. "It's mostly played in the city of Chicago and the neighbouring cities. It's been around for over a decade, but it wouldn't have grown to these heights if it wasn't for the internet. Since most of its followers are teenagers, they watch the videos and download songs on to their iPods from sites like imeem and MySpace."

Footwork is part of a mutating house music narrative in Chicago, and proof that places still have connections to certain types of music that are hard to ignore. "Where I live, in Gainesville, Florida, we have a larger than average punk-rock scene, and Brooklyn is still known for indie rock," says McKnight. "But they do seem like historical remnants. Both [scenes] have definitely become less pronounced over the past 10 years with inexpensive home recording and the ease of music discovery online."

Kharas agrees: "You can never get away from the decades of growing up steeped in the tradition of something, but all the local scenes now are just kind of heritage."

Even in a world in which everything is changing, some things are constant: we still want to hear musicians play live, and we still look to people to filter the proliferation of new ideas. Saxe is sure that even if the internet has made the death of the local scene possible, it's not inevitable. "The internet is all very well but it merely spreads information. People are still restricted because they haven't been digitalised. And its people who make the decisions, people."

Merseybeat to Madchester: Four local scenes that rocked the world


When and where: Liverpool, 1961-66.

Key bands: The Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Searchers.

How they looked and sounded: Men in suits playing melodic guitar pop with vocal harmonies.

The name: Coined from a Liverpool fanzine of the same name started by Bill Harry in 1961.

The scene: The first of the great geographically located scenes, quickly followed by Brum Beat in Birmingham. In Liverpool, an active skiffle scene and the infiltration of American rock'n'roll through the port led to the creation of a new sound.

Strange spin-off: The movie Ferry Cross the Mersey, starring Gerry and the Pacemakers, was released in 1965 under the tagline: "The big beat is back with the excitingest new pacemaking pack!"


When and where: Seattle, 1986-96.

Key bands: Green River, Soundgarden, Mudhoney and Nirvana on Sub Pop Records. Pearl Jam.

How they looked and sounded: Plaid-clad longhairs screaming about misery over guitars pitched halfway between metal and punk.

The name: Grunge was first used to describe the Seattle sound by Green River and Mudhoney vocalist Mark Arm in the 80s.

The scene: Sub Pop, founded by Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman in 1986, was modelled on earlier, regional independents such as Motown. Producer Jack Endino used quick and cheap recording techniques, giving key early acts (Mudhoney, Soundgarden) their distinctive sound, while Charles Peterson's photographs documented the first gigs and gave the scene a defined aesthetic.

Strange spin-off: Cameron Crowe's romantic comedy Singles, released in 1992, starred Matt Dillon as a grunge musican singing Touch Me, I'm Dick, a version of Mudhoney's best-known song. His band in the movie features members of real Seattle grunge acts.

The Paisley Underground

When and where: Los Angeles, 1982-87.

Key bands: Dream Syndicate, the Rain Parade, Green on Red, the Long Ryders.

How they looked and sounded: Sixties fixated. The Byrds and the Velvet Underground were key musical inspirations, and album sleeves show bands who looked like they had walked out of 1966.

The name: Credited to a joke by Michael Quercio of the band the Three O'Clock.

The scene: An unusually friendly cohort, with many different band members growing up in the same neighbourhood, and moving from one band to another. It formed as a reaction against the increasingly violent punk scene in LA, and generated intense industry interest, but most bands (with the exception of the Bangs, who became the Bangles) failed to achieve commercial success after signing to major labels.


When and where: Manchester, 1988-90.

Key bands: Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, the Stone Roses.

How they looked and sounded: Joe Bloggs gear, bowl haircuts, guitars and dance beats.

The name: Popularised by the Happy Mondays EP Madchester Rave On, 1989.

The scene: Balearic beats crossed over from Ibiza to the UK in spring 1988 and found a home at the Hacienda nightclub, owned by Factory Records. Madchester bands channelled the rave scene's influence, mixing Manchester's rock heritage with psychedelic, colourful sounds from the clubs, in a scene that exploded when the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays appeared on Top of the Pops together in November 1989.

Hazel Sheffield

The GuardianTramp

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