How Scenes Work, with Jim O'Shaughnessy


Hey everyone, I’m happy to share this week another podcast chat with Jim O’Shaughnessy on his show, Infinite Loops. (Feels like this might be a recurring thing.)

The main topic we talked about was scenes. How music and arts scenes work, how venues work, and how tension between mutual love and rivalry that is their perpetual energy source. We talked about how startups are a scene, and why designing a local innovation economy from scratch - even if you think you ‘have all the incentives correctly’ - never works. Finally, we talk about the common ingredient of all creative scenes, which is their sense of purpose.

Here’s a condensed, and somewhat edited transcript - I took some liberties for clarity and brevity for the newsletter’s sake; if you want the real unedited conversion, the podcast is where you’ll find it.


Alex: Let's define for the show first: what do we mean by a “scene”? What is a scene? I first started thinking about this not in the context of investing or in business or anything, but somewhere buried in my past, when I was in a ska band. We went on tour for a couple of years; we were on a record label. And so we were a part of the local ska scene in Montreal. It was a really great time.

And it's really interesting being in a band and getting to learn how the scene works. Because it is so intricate and multi-layered; different people trying to show off in different ways. The people in the bottom of the scene are always trying to move up into the top half and the people at the top half are trying to simultaneously lord over the bottom half, but also trying to break away and disassociate themselves. There’s tension there.

Once you learn how one of these scenes work, you start to see them absolutely everywhere, because these are fundamentals of human behaviour.

Jim: Exactly. And your most recent piece on NFTs and CBGBs is a good one to kind of explore this through. So CBGB was the preeminent kind of club scene in Manhattan that started in 1973, but a couple of things that are interesting about it. So CBGB stands for country, bluegrass, blues and gourmand? I don't know. But basically none of those made it famous.

Alex: I thought it was Country BlueGrass Blues.

Jim: No, no, I looked it up actually. And there was a third one.

Alex: What?

Jim: Gormandizers. […”And other music for uplifting Gormandizers” was the other abbreviation; C.B.G.B. / O.M.F.U.G ] Anyway, I had a chance to go there and didn't take it and I really regret it. But what's interesting is: so founded for country, bluegrass, blues, but then famous for the Ramones, Blondie, The Talking Heads, Patti Smith. So it was a great scene, but you made a really interesting comment that I want you to talk about a little bit, which is the floor plan of CBGBs. Tell us about it.

Alex: So, David Byrne from the Talking Heads has a book called How Music Works. It's an interesting book. It should more accurately be titled “How My Music Works” because it is by not exactly an inclusive discussion about how music works generally, nor how to be a musician in today's world. This is a 400 page book which mentions selling merch zero times; which is how you make money as a musician, to be clear.

But it’s still a very interesting book, because this is David Byrne talking all about how to create art, how to create this new and interesting type of music that found its stride in the eighties, in places like CBGBs, that are these very physical, grimy, focal point locations for a certain kind of magic to come together and people to realize that they're interested in something.

There’s one chapter that’s explicitly called How to Create a Scene that goes into detail about the type of venues that you need and the specific kinds of gathering places that have to exist and the rules around them that are conducive to scenes actually forming. And he goes into some detail around like, ‘the floor plan really needs to look like this and not like that’.

He talks about how they did this remodel of CBGBs at one point, and changed the floor plan. By that point CBGBs was already well established, but it ruined some of the original magic, because it put too much emphasis on the band. You had to watch them; whereas before you could hang out in the back with the pool table, and that was essential for reasons I’ll get to in a minute.

It's fascinating to hear masters of a craft talk about the micro details of what matter, with absolute proficiency. This is what's great about this book is you hear David Byrne talking about the mechanics of how you circulate around a room like CBGBs. And if you've ever been to venues like this, these are these long and narrow buildings where you go in the front door and the coat check is on one side and there's a table where you get tickets. And you squeeze by, and then the bar's on the right hand side, and there's a stage on the left-hand side. And you can squeeze through that and then get to the back where there's a pool table and then there's stairs to go down to the bathrooms. Finally, there's a door to the back in the alley and there's a door to the front, which is how you go outside to go smoke now. So this is the basic setup of these venues.


And so he's talking about the importance of the physical layout of the venue, to how the social dynamics of the scenes get created. And specifically how there's a critical kind of layout that leads to the good kind of mixing that is, new bands being able to play and people be able to pay just enough attention to them. Because again, of the floor plan being critical, that you're able to get new music out there in a way that is just imposing enough, but not too imposing that people will not want you there. The scene regulars can still play pool, they can still hang out, but they’ll still come into contact with the musicians at some point. So the ideas can mix; new bands get heard.

So there's all these tiny details about what it takes to create these little incubator environments of cool new culture and cool new things. So this is obviously fascinating to me for a number of reasons. One, as a former musician who has played in a lot of these types of clubs and spent a lot of time in a lot of these back rooms and just hanging out generally with other musicians, you get a sense for when scenes are working well. How do people simultaneously have a good time, but also be striving for something, is the essential element of these scenes.

There has to be a concept of forward progress; navigating your way through the scene, both in terms of growing your band and your presence and your music. There is some degree of jostling and jockeying and status-ing that goes on between all these bands. Because you don't really know who's going to make it big. You never totally know. But also, it's not a zero sum game at all, in the sense that overall you are trying to grow everything.

I'll tell you a fun story. We were playing a show in Toronto, at a venue called the Opera House, opening for a psychobilly band called The Creepshow that were good friends of ours. (Great band.) We played with them a bunch. And their lead singer Sarah was also in this tiny, crappy band that had opened for us a couple times called Walk Off the Earth.

So, this is a band where it was like, they'd opened for us, so we didn't pay any attention to them. She had this bigger band The Creepshow, and that’s who we wanted to be friends with. And then over the course of that night, around maybe 7:00 PM, was where Walk Off the Earth's viral video, you know, the one with five of them playing the one guitar, that was the night it went viral.