State of the Central Iowa Music Scene

On April 30th, I attended a meeting at the Des Moines Social Club to discuss the current state of the central Iowa music scene. The main topics covered were 1) what’s going well in the scene and 2) what could be improved.

We’ve had similar discussions in the recent past – once at a Music University event put on by the Des Moines Music Coalition (DMMC), and another time at House of Bricks just before they switched formats from a music venue to a restaurant (Streetcar 209).

The difference was this time there was a much larger crowd representing much more of the music scene. People from all genres were present – including, but not limited to rock, punk, folk, and hip hop. There were musicians, venue owners, booking agents, promoters, music startups, ticket companies, music journalists, and fans. Some of the musicians were new to town and some have lived here their whole lives. Some were just starting out in music, some play locally on a regular basis, and some were parts of nationally touring acts.

When we started discussing what’s “good” or “not so good” in the scene, we quickly realized and pointed out that different people have different goals for the scene and have different ideas of success. Some musicians want to be the typical “rock star”, but others just want to make a living with their music, some just treat music as their hobby, and others want a community that’s supportive of a diverse mix of artists.

We ultimately didn’t decide on any specific actions to improve things, but I expect those discussions will come.

The biggest positive outcome of the night was that everyone saw how much support the local scene has from so many different angles and people in the scene got to meet each other – or finally put faces with names. I personally met and talked to a few people I knew of (and was possibly already connected with via social media) from the scene for the first time.

With all those introductions now made, the discussions will continue.

Here’s what we all decided is going well in the central Iowa music scene:

  • Show attendance is up (especially for shows headlined by local acts)
  • A recent study shows that there’s more local support for the music scene and more money being spent in the local music scene in the Des Moines metro on a per capita basis, than in other larger cities known for their music scenes – like Austin, TX, for example.

Here are some items people brought up as areas for improvement. These may be areas where all music scenes could improve:

  • People tend to only go to shows if they are already fans of the act.
    • My comment: this seems reasonable human nature and is one of the areas I’m intending to address with Locusic. Locusic makes it easy for people to get familiar with acts playing in their area and find new ones that they might want to go see.
  • Lack of artist development. Many people felt there could be more ways to help artists improve their craft, or obtain better production, etc. Some felt this would be better if there were more successful artists from the area who could help the up-and-comers.  But it could also just come down to artists reaching out more for support or criticism/feedback. It was pointed out several times that the people in this scene are all very accessible – you just need to reach out.
  • Des Moines’ age limits on shows. This was a big one. Des Moines has laws that make it very difficult for venues (which tend to be bars) to hold all-ages shows, so anyone under 21 years old gets excluded from participating in the local music scene. This hurts the venues and bands in ticket sales and merch sales. But more importantly it hurts the scene and Des Moines culture overall as we’re failing to encourage the next generation of music supporters.

Davo Wilkins, a veteran of the Des Moines music scene and creator/curator of the Iowa Underground Archives created a very thorough post, entitled “Where are the Kids Supposed to Go In This Town”, on the history of the Des Moines scene and cited the age restrictions as a key problem. Amedeo Rossi succinctly summarized at the meeting, “it’s the cops”. The Des Moines police have a strong influence over the city’s decisions and don’t seem to understand that the regulations are making matters worse for Des Moines and for the police themselves.

Some tips for musicians/bands that came up during the discussions:

  • Don’t be a typical Midwesterner – don’t be humble. Sell yourself and ask for what you want.
  • Work hard, tour a lot, keep up on your relationships, and invite people when you come through their town.
  • If you want to be selected to play a show or festival, the things they’ll look at when making a decision are:
    • Do you match the genre of the venue/festival?
    • Do you have a new album?
    • Do you have an upcoming tour – or are you currently touring?
    • Does it look like you’re working hard?
    • What does your website look like?
    • What do your social media presences look like?

Does this sound like your scene? What specific actions could we take to make our scene even better?


This entry was posted in Local Music and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.