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Buffalo's summer concerts: Diversity, gentrification and the meaning of local

Jeff Miers

I’ve been a cheerleader, and often, I admit. But this year, even though my personal calendar is overly stocked with concerts, festivals and club shows I’m incredibly excited about, I’m just not feeling it the way I once did.

My past cheerleading was genuine, earnest and offered in good faith. It really all came down to a sense of hope.

I hoped that the Buffalo Renaissance was more than a marketing catchphrase. I hoped that we had moved from tertiary concert market status to primary market status, in the process, offering the population of dedicated music lovers who live here an abundance of choice. I hoped that our concert scene would reflect the diversity of our population, and that population’s interests, passions, concerns. I hoped that the rising tide would save all ships, which in this instance meant that I hoped local musicians living and working here would benefit from the frantic concert activity happening all around them.

Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen, as the Bible (and James Baldwin) would have it, and hope is faith’s seedling.

That seedling is not flowering for me this spring so I would like to help it along. In the interest of doing so, I’ve assembled a few questions that require honest, good-faith answers before any true claim of progress can be made.

[Related: Jeff Miers offers his top 10 concerts of the summer]

Buffalo is diverse. So why is our summer concert season predominantly white and male?

The last census found that Buffalo’s population was 45.8 percent African American, 50 percent white, 10 percent Hispanic or Latino and 4 percent Asian. So why is the face of most of our summer concert season that of a white male? Major venues like Canalside, Darien Lake Amphitheater and Artpark have all assembled impressive summer rosters.

But the lineups for the three venues only have three female headlining acts in total. And if only two of 20 shows at Darien Lake, for example, feature black artists, it seems reasonable to wonder if we’re getting a summer concert schedule that will both reflect and appeal to the diversity of our population.

A pre-concert crowd at Darien Lake. (News file photo)

The end of the Thursday concert experience. Who cares?

The Canalside Live concert series will now take place not on the traditional Thursday evenings, but whenever it wants to. There a few upsides to this (see below). But there are also significant downsides.

Musicians, bands and venues – many of whom book their summers around Canalside – were largely caught unaware of the move from Thursday to various days of the week. The decision appears to have been a somewhat carefully guarded secret. How will this play out? Too soon to tell. But as someone who has been involved in the Buffalo music scene for 29 years, I can make an educated guess that at least some of these musicians will lose their gigs.

[Read more: Thursdays will never be the same as Canalside switches gears]

Canalside is more a venue than a community gathering space now. What does this mean?

It means that we’ve moved much closer to creating a functional concert venue on our waterfront. It means that we can attract more acts and artists than in previous years, because we are no longer hampered by a Thursday-only booking policy. It means a further boost to the waterfront. But it also means a move away from a series that boasts a local, community-based vibe, and toward something with a decidedly more corporate feel. Some will see this as progress. Some will see it otherwise.

A 'Thursday in the Square" concert at Lafayette Square in 1997. (News file photo)

If opportunities for local working musicians remain stagnant, can we truly claim to be growing?

The crowd at Canalside Live. (News file photo)

This year’s summer concert schedule is jam-packed. You’ll be able to find a show worth seeing seven days a week between now and the end of September. This speaks of a healthy music scene. But how truly healthy is that scene if local bands and artists are seeing a commensurate increase in work and profit? How many of the major stage shows this summer will have local openers?

From a regional artist’s perspective, it’s hard to feel the increase in concert activity in any meaningful way. That’s a problem that should be addressed.

Are we becoming a cookie-cutter culture?

My friend and colleague Colin Dabkowski captured my attention with this tweet: “Now that Thursdays at the Square has completed its metamorphosis from community festival to corporatized behemoth, is it time to reactivate Lafayette Square on Thursdays as a public gathering space? I say relaunch it, bring it back home, put local performers back at center stage.”

Dabkowski’s point encapsulates the fear that, with an increased “one size fits all,” approach to culture in general and summer concerts in particular – where one city's concert schedule is virtually indistinguishable from another's – we will lose some of the localness that makes us who we are. Perhaps relaunching the dormant Thursday at the Square series as a community-based hang featuring local performers – which is how the series started – would spread some of the love (and wealth) around.

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