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Indie music scene has plenty of talent, but can success be Alaska-grown too?

Suzanna Caldwell
Lestat (Jan Mehlich)

When it comes to its burgeoning music scene, Anchorage is still a baby. Ask which bands make up the scene and you'll probably hear the same handful of names tossed around: The Modern Savage, Meg Mackey Band, The Sweeteners. But with such a small, dynamic scene, is it possible for bands to break out without leaving Alaska?

There have been a few local bands to make the leap. Both alt-rockers The Builders and the Butchers and metal-men 36 Crazyfists have signed with impressive indie labels. Wasilla's Portugal. The Man signed with Atlantic records in 2010 and spent last winter opening for The Black Keys.

But all of those bands found success after they left their Alaska homes. Last week, SPIN Magazine posed the question to Anchorage bands in a travel piece that divided musicians and fans in Alaska's largest city, some of them happy to be noticed by the national music press, and others peeved at a pre-conceived treatment as fluffy as fresh snow.

So is it possible in the era of hyperconnectivity for an Alaska band to break out without going far from home? Is the interconnectedness of the Internet a help or a hindrance? Those are hard questions to answer, especially in a state with bands as geographically diverse as the land they inhabit.

“A lot of noise”

Seth Boyer described the Anchorage music scene, the state's largest, as a “cul de sac with miles of woods to Portland.”

There are only so many venues and places to play. Helping offset that can be the Internet, which can “break down barriers” for musicians. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media are free. Music sharing sites like Bandcamp have zero barriers to entry. Any musician can put work up, and Bandcamp only takes a small percentage of each sale.

But with no barriers comes “a lot of noise,” according to Marc Bourdon, Historian bassist and agent with Monolith Agency, an Anchorage-based booking and publicity company.

“(The Internet) just increases the amount of competition, really,” he said.

Some Alaska musicians have taken the Internet and harnessed it. Singer-songwriter Marian Call is currently touring Europe on a Kickstarter tour. Along the way she's using her impressive fanbase (14,000 Twitter followers and almost 6,000 Facebook likes) to build momentum for the re-release of her 2011 album “Something Fierce,” asking fans to complete a series of tasks to raise her already impressive online profile in hopes the album will get noticed by national media.

Bourdon looks at Call as a great case study for Alaska bands. He said bands should follow her lead and keep it simple, honest and consistent.

Boyer agrees. The Anchorage-based musician, known for his acoustic-inflected, self-described “bummer jams,” said fans will tell him that they can correlate specific social media posts he's written with his songs. They're usually spot on.

He said the Internet is just another tool to connect with fans.

“It doesn't mean pandering or sacrificing anything on the artistic front,” he said. “They're just going to feel appreciated, and if they feel like a part of something, they're going to like it that much more.”

Starship Amazing and success

Derek Alexander and Calvin Hansen started making music as just a hobby in 2007. Five years and eight albums later, they are on their way to being full-fledged Internet music darlings.

Their band, Starship Amazing, might have a relatively quiet Twitter and Facebook following -- with about 1,000 follows and likes on each platform -- but it's a dedicated bunch. Those fans and others have downloaded a combined 25,000 copies. Currently, their albums “The Robot Trilogy” and “Y'all Stop Bloggin'” are the third and fourth most popular Bandcamp albums under the Alaska tag (Marian Call has spots one and two.)

The duo has taken an Internet-first approach to making music. While they released their eighth album in March 2012, they only played their first show this summer.

Their success is part of a slow and steady word-of-mouth campaign. Alexander, a gamer, said a lot of Starship Amazing's music has been nabbed by the gaming community, specifically fans of “Minecraft,” who often use the Starship Amazing music to embed under YouTube videos of the game.

While both musicians have day jobs, Alexander said the money they make off the music is more than just “pizza and beer” funds. He's able to pay car insurance and cell phone bills, plus all of the band's equipment has been paid for with album funds.

“I don't know that it's about becoming a millionaire or being Justin Bieber big,” he said. “But it's nice to find an audience and get a couple bucks on the side.”

Hard work still counts

But Starship Amazing might be an exception. Local musicians reiterated that the Internet isn't just enough. Bourdon said for a musician to make it, it comes down to four things. They've got to have a unique sound; be good, professional musicians; have a steady web presence; and, maybe most importantly, they have to stay interested.

The last part might be the biggest challenge for Alaska musicians. Tyrell Tompkins, lead singer for laVoy, a Wasilla-based band, said it's easy to saturate Alaska's music scene. Local media can only write so many stories and playing the same venues over and over again gets old. Getting out and interacting with a new audience can make all the difference.

“There's a confidence boost,” about getting out and playing new venues Tompkins said. “It's something (an outside) audience has never seen, never heard before.

“That's something that bands are missing here.”

Brandon Ballin, event manager at The Anchor Pub and singer in the Anchorage metal band Shifter, said if bands want to get signed with any sort of label, they need to prove that they're “responsible.” Having a strong Internet presence can be a quick way to do that.

But he pointed out that the cold Alaska wilderness almost forces bands to come together to practice and play. And if a band is going to be successful, it's going to have to play plenty of stages.

“You have to do it regardless, whether it gets you famous in Alaska, who knows,” he said.

Ballin noted that indie scene is just one of many in Anchorage. Each section of the Anchorage music community has its own strengths and weaknesses, desires and wants. The whole “breaking out” aspect could just be part of one sub-scene.

“(Indie bands) are too cool for wherever they're from,” Ballin said. “That's just the irony of the whole thing.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna@alaskadispatch.com