Rock lives—or so I’ve heard.
But let’s face it: Original rock ’n’ roll—and all alternative music, for that matter, from pop to punk, emo to electronic—is as good as dead on the Yale campus. Naming even a handful of Yale bands (or Yale rock shows, or Yale alternative music venues) is harder than getting into Yale. That’s not to say that Yale is a silent campus. Concerts featuring classical music ensembles and a capella groups crowd Yale’s extracurricular calendar. So whatever happened to rock ’n’ roll?
It might be tempting to blame inherent flaws in our generation for a decline in campus music, much as our parents have pinpointed everything from our ambition to our apathy to explain today’s supposed lack of campus activism. But look no farther than Yale’s Connecticut cousin Wesleyan, whose Middletown campus is an experimental music hub, to dispel this theory. Wesleyan junior Ben Bernstein describes a “climate…[of] appreciation and openness to new music.” Bernstein transferred to Wesleyan from Colby College—where he says he had formed “basically the only band on campus”—specifically because he had heard “how great [Wesleyan’s] music scene is.”
The most recent Wesleyan posterchild was the duo MGMT (The Management), whose catchy but fresh synth tune “Time to Pretend” was this year’s de facto indie anthem. The indie afro-pop sensation Vampire Weekend, formed two years ago at Columbia University, just found mainstream success in the ample airtime their song “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” enjoyed during the Beijing Olympics. As Wesleyan and Columbia prove, elite college campuses can—and should—be sites of musical experimentation. And Yale College, with its creative student body and its world-class music school, should be no exception.
Enter Michael Waxman, Timothy Dwight junior, the singer-songwriter-entrepreneur who very well may be the change Yale’s alternative music scene has been waiting for. Waxman is the founder of the imaginatively named Yale Music Scene, a new organization committed to promoting original rock music on campus. The organization’s most significant contribution is its website, Yalemusicscene.com. The site launched in early spring of 2008 with deliberately little fanfare. “It’s sort of a strawman,” says Waxman of the current site, meaning that it is a blueprint of sorts for his burgeoning ideas for Yale’s music scene. But Yalemusicscene.com shows no outward signs of being a work-in-progress. The site not only looks professionally rendered—it is. Waxman convinced buddies from Silicon Valley, where he relocated for 18 months after his freshman year in order to co-found an internet startup company, to design the site. “It was a low key deal because this is their passion,” he says.
The result is a website that is arguably in better shape than the music scene it promotes. “It makes the music scene look more legitimate than it really is,” says Ted Gordon ’08, co-founder of the music magazine gunslinger., which was recently rechristened and reimagined as the glossy-fronted Volume. The site features cheeky band biographies, photos, a forum for listing upcoming shows, and even a music player that allows users to download Eli originals. From the logo’s iPod-ad-esque silhouette of a badass with a badass guitar down to the trendy font of even the smallest headings, the site’s graphics are flawlessly professional. But bells and whistles do not a music scene make. The fact that, in order to populate his site with content, Waxman had to organize events—such as last spring’s Party Like A Rockstar, which featured performances by several of the ten bands included on the website—is a case in point.
It’s fitting that the home of Yale’s music scene should be on the World Wide Web, not only because of the central role the Internet plays in music distribution in the 21st Century, but also because of the centralizing role cyberspace can play to compensate for fragmented physical space. In fact, the website’s most promising potential is as a common forum where a scattered music scene could achieve some degree of unity, however small and however cyber. After all, the essence of a “scene” is a group of people coming together because of a shared interest. A music scene demands the interaction of musicians both with one another and with their fans. But at Yale, alternative music is disjointed by a residential college system that can make the logistics for staging a show—or even just a rehearsal—prohibitively burdensome. “You can try to get into the DMCA [Digital Media Center for the Arts] or try to get into a college that has whatever equipment you’re looking for, but there’s nothing centralized,” Gordon laments.
During his freshman year, Waxman also experienced the frustration of Yale’s fragmented music scene. After succeeding in reserving the Silliman common room for a show, he learned that finding a venue was only half the battle. “It was such an ordeal,” he remembers.
While every college has a music practice room equipped with a piano, only Calhoun, Silliman, and Timothy Dwight have drum kits. (A handful of others are home to students’ personal drum kits during the academic year, but whether any old Eli can use them is at the discretion of their owners.) Silliman and TD are the only colleges with recording studios. Though the studios can be reserved by students from any college, Yalies are denied access to the equipment and practice spaces of any but their own residential colleges. So if you want your rock band to have percussion, make sure you get a drummer in Calhoun, Silliman, or TD. Speakers are another issue. “The only sound system is in Calhoun’s basement, and getting it out is basically the bottleneck for setting up concerts,” says Waxman. The Undergraduate Organizations Funding Committee owns a PA available to any student group, but it’s a coveted resource. “It’s really hard to reserve—every organization wants to reserve it,” says Gordon.
While residential college red tape is a perennial problem for bands at Yale, construction tape will prove an additional stumbling block this year. The one dependably accessible venue for alternative music shows is the Calhoun Cabaret, an intimate space in the basement of Calhoun which can open up to incorporate the Buttery space for larger, louder shows. It’s a favorite partly because a drum kit and PA system are housed just down the hall in Calhoun’s music practice room, and partly because it’s managed by the inspiring David Kant, a senior musician whose band Lady Lovelace and the Calculator Death Machine is the most prolific and prominent current Yale band.
During Calhoun’s renovation, the experimental music scene will be exiled from its only reliable home and will have to improvise. College common rooms and dining halls are potential venues, but hosting shows in spaces not designed for them is a logistical nightmare, and it’s often a bureaucratic one, too. “People don’t want to have rock concerts [in their colleges] because they assume there’s going to be beer and it’s going to be loud and destructive,” Gordon explains. House shows are another possibility; Wesleyan’s music scene, for instance, is intimately tied to off-campus houses. However, because off-campus housing at Yale is anything but institutional, there’s no guarantee that houses that have been hosts to the alternative music scene in the past—109 Howe, for instance—will fall into the hands of tenants who want to have the responsibility of carrying on a tradition of loud music.
That’s not to mention the fact that off-campus shows do not benefit from Yale’s protective stamp of approval. On the Friday that the class of 2012 moved in, the semester’s first rock concert—a performance by Great Caesar and the Go-Getters at a house on Elm Street—was shut down by the cops only two songs into the setlist.
But Waxman has faith that the music scene will ultimately secure the institutional infrastructure it needs. At an event last year, he wound up brushing shoulders with Peter Salovey, Dean of Yale College and a musician himself. Waxman broached the subject of Yale’s nearly non-existent music scene with Salovey, who was effusive about the effect of Stanford’s music scene on his own college experience. From Salovey, Waxman learned of a proposed music café at the site of the new colleges. Waxman was delighted, but hardly satisfied. “That’s a 2015 thing,” he says. “Their time frame is on a much larger scale than mine.”
In the meantime, the music scene could benefit from even the most modest shared space and equipment. Forget, for now, a concert hall: The Yale music scene needs a closet. Indeed, Wesleyan’s music scene thrives in part because of such a closet—”a little shed,” in Bernstein’s words, that stores amps, speakers, and PAs. The shack also serves as the humble headquarters of Wesleyan’s Sound Co-op, a group that exemplifies the type of centralized and institutionally supported organization that Yale’s music scene lacks and that Waxman hopes to create. The Sound Co-op is exactly what it sounds like: a team of students trained as technicians who run sound at all student shows, alternative and otherwise. What’s more, the administration—at a school whose endowment is a mere 3 percent of Yale’s—pays the students to do so. Such administrative support exists at Yale for other undergraduate artistic endeavors. Theater thrives here and the a capella scene is, if anything, a little too vibrant.
Perhaps alternative music is simply too lowbrow for an institution as historically elite as Yale. The three R’s of the alternative music ethos are Rock, Rebellion, and Revolution. Rock ’n’ roll has always identified as the enemy of the establishment, and Yale is, well, the establishment. It’s not surprising, then, that, excluding Buddy Holly, rock’s nerdiest founding father, the purveyors and promoters of alternative music have looked very little like the four-eyed, penny-loafered types who end up at Yale. Three-fourths of the Beatles didn’t go to college, and 100 percent of them never graduated: The coursework that earned Sir Paul’s honorary degree from Yale last spring was a lifetime of creating rock music. In fact, perhaps the most famous alternative singer, songwriter, and innovator to come out of Yale made nothing more than a pitstop on campus: David Longstreth, the mastermind behind the experimental group The Dirty Projectors, dropped out of Yale before completing a B.A. in music in order to launch his successful indie career. Hence the argument that Yale’s lack of support for alternative music is exactly what the scene needs: “Would you really want it that the administration would embrace an alternative music culture?” Waxman asks rhetorically. “You can’t have a superhero without its foil. It’s a relationship created out of contrast.”