ome musicians say "What scene?" when asked about the state of original rock and urban music in greater Youngstown. That's the perception in a city that's learned to live with low self-esteem.
Just as a cactus blooms in a desert, music has found a way to thrive here. From clubs to record studios to local radio, people agree that the area is rich in talent. These performers represent a wide spectrum of styles; they are learning how the music business works; and they are using computer technology to record and sell original songs.
Youngstown isn't a musical oasis, either. Clubs are in short supply. It's not easy to be heard on the mostly corporate-owned radio airwaves. Moreover, Valley people are "dogmatic and perhaps a bit conservative" in their tastes, said urban musician Sirius Thots, who's recorded two CDs with The Woody Wood Sound.
"New York is easy," says Soul of One drummer Joe Reda, riffing off the late Frank Sinatra's signature song, "New York, New York."
"Youngstown is very difficult."
The artists alone can't change the scene, singer-songwriter Leanne Binder says. The power is in the public's hands.
History of quality: Youngstown's reputation for solid musicianship goes back many decades. Frankie Halfacre, president of WRBP-FM Radio 101.9, and Cedar Lounge owner Tommy Simon rattle off a list of locals who have had regional or national success -- Glass Harp, Left End, Maureen McGovern, The Edsels, The Human Beinz, the Bell brothers from Kool & amp; the Gang.
Justin Arroyo, bass player for blues-based rock band Raul, says the scene has also benefited from quality programs at Youngstown State University's Dana School of Music.
Pete Drivere, a musician who owns Ampreon Recorder studio in Youngstown, offers another reason for such wealth. Traditionally, there has been less for people to do here, "so teen-agers may have a bigger propensity, more drive" to be musicians, he said.
Producing performers is one thing; supporting them is another, murkier, issue.
Musicians network with their peers nationwide and exchange opening slots at hometown gigs. "You'd be surprised at the out-of-town bands that want to play here," Via Sahara drummer Matt Colla said.
Many of them pass through Cedar Lounge in Youngstown, where Simon has been booking acts for 20 years. Hugh Pool, a blues rock guitarist from New York, likes the immediate response he gets from listeners here.
"The ones who are involved don't miss a beat," Simon said of music supporters.
Other musicians say tried-and-true cover tunes get a bigger reaction.
"We limit ourselves here by doing originals," said Brian Peebles, guitarist with Soul of One, a classic rock band that's about to press its first CD.
Binder, another classic rocker who grew up in Canfield, performed in Phoenix, Ariz., for six years.
Musicians there were focused on originals, since Los Angeles and the promise of recording contracts were so close, Binder said.
When Binder migrated east again, she settled in Pittsburgh. She likes Youngstown. She still performs here, but she has to squeeze her songs in between Janis Joplin tunes. "Here, you almost feel like a record player," she said.
"The saddest thing is, the best musicians I've ever met are from Youngstown, Ohio, and they're playing 'What I Like About You' because they're making money at it."
Defying description: The Youngstown sound is harder still to define. Today's bands have a wide array of influences, and it shows.
"The Grain" was referred to as a hip-hop album, so Thots followed with "Art of the Cadre," an album of mostly instrumentals that encompasses everything from hip-hop to acid jazz. He doesn't like labels.
"Then when you try to do something else, people say, 'He's a hip-hop person; why is he trying to do this?'" Thots said. "Idon't want to get myself pigeonholed."
Variety also keeps the musicians fresh. "We try to change it up if we find ourselves sounding a certain way," said Raul guitarist Erik Hendel. "We don't want to burn ourselves up."
Eclecticism is just as important for club owners. New Orleans has a history of supporting jazz, but "there's nobody here that would survive" as a theme club, Simon said. "You limit yourself to a small crowd."
If there was a Youngstown sound, Soul of One would defy it. "Individualism is what made Youngstown great," Reda said. "We want the freedom to be ourselves."
Rock and jazz bands still have some clubs in which to play. Rap and hip-hop acts have some radio exposure. Each would like a little more of what the other enjoys.
Radio conglomerates dictate stations' play lists now. The only way local rockers can get time on big radio is to buy 30-second spots, Binder said. One exception is Casey Malone of WNCD-FM 93.3, "an incredible supporter," Binder said, who plays her music on a Sunday night blues show.
Radio -- specifically, WRBP -- is the only continuous exposure for urban musicians who have burned many CDs. "The following is there," says Tazwell Franklin, host of "Planet Black" on Saturdays. "It's just finding a place to mobilize." Without clubs for hip-hop and rap, those musicians can't hone their live performance skills.
This is how the backlash against rap and hip-hop, based on the misdeeds of a few high-profile performers, has been felt here. Local rappers are "really diverse" in terms of topics, Franklin said, and "everyone has a right to get their point across or have their message heard."
The rewards of recording here aren't financial. Today's grass-roots bands are self-sufficient, forming their own labels, financing studio sessions and distributing CDs at shows and on the Internet. They have also found shelf space at CD Warehouse, a national chain with a Boardman location, and independent stores. Money from CD sales usually goes toward future projects.
"It's more expensive to play in a band than the money you make playing," said Jon Reider of New Castle, Pa., guitarist and vocalist with Coinmonster.
For some, the decision to record is personal. "You play a live show, and the music is for the universe. You put it on a CD and it's forever," Raul's Arroyo said.
Is this music scene at a crossroads? Some of the artists are, anyway.
People are more open-minded about music than they were five years ago, Via Sahara guitarist Tim McNickle said. Bass player Joe Kent, who just joined Via Sahara, believes it's because they have been exposed recently to good mainstream music and now have "finer palates."
Soul of One guitarist Michael Johnston is encouraged by the success of Radiohead, the English band that sold out its summer tour without the aid of music videos or radio exposure.
Disillusioned rappers and hip-hop singers have seen what Jay-Z and Puff Daddy have accomplished in the last few years, and "They take the attitude that 'if they can do it, I can, too'," WRBP's Franklin said.
It's time to realize the potential of local talent, Halfacre said. People travel to Cleveland and pay big bucks to see someone such as Patti LaBelle. Ask those same fans to pay $15 for a concert by hometown performers and they balk. "People want to see big names, not thinking they're seeing big names," he said.
Binder and band mate Rajma have started a singer-songwriter night on Tuesdays at Plaza Caf & eacute; in downtown Youngstown. Binder is encouraged that as many as 70 people are showing up to participate or support their friends.
Thots is ready to take his music in a new direction. He's wondering if he should do that in another community -- maybe Dallas or New Jersey, where he has relatives. He's not getting gigs in local bars. "I go in professionally. ... They don't take me seriously. I find that displeasing."
He just wants to do what he loves and make enough money at it to support his family.
"Cars and jewelry aren't first on my mind," he said. "My dream is to not go somewhere else to start my career."