West Michigan Music Cycles

About 25 years ago, “The Freshman” climbed the charts and became one of the iconic hits of the 1990s.

This blow came from western Michigan. Verve Pipe’s hit song may be the region’s biggest hit, but with it came a host of other hit artists, like Papa Vegas and Knee Deep Shag at Troll for Trout, Karmic and Mustard Plug. The 1990s were a hot time for local music in Grand Rapids.

It’s an achievement the region hasn’t seen since, but that’s probably partly because that success hasn’t been seen by many local regions. The music industry has changed a lot over the past 25 years, mainly due to a change in listening habits and the world of internet culture where music fans learn their next act from Spotify recommendations. or social media.

For these bands of the 1990s, there was no choice but to become a star.

“You were spoon-fed by MTV and radio,” said Papa Vegas lead singer Joel Ferguson, who saw “Bombshell” soar to No. 20 on the Billboard Modern Rock charts in 1999. It is now the owner. from Planet Sunday studios in Rockford. “It was so important in people’s lives.

“Now it’s option overload with streaming services and it’s no longer a handful of artists picked by one label. There’s everything under the sun now, when there was maybe three to five kennels back then and you had to get in. There was just a lot less choice.

At the time, the bands supported each other, pushing fans to each other’s gigs, said Brian Vander Ark, lead singer of The Verve Pipe. Vander Ark said Michigan’s buzz grew as bands continued to order CDs, so manufacturers wondered what was going on in town. That’s when major record companies started “sniffing out” West Michigan, he said.

“All of these groups were in a pocket of the Midwest and really supported each other,” Vander Ark said. “It started in Seattle – it was really the beginning – but the local music was about seeing each other and playing gigs.”

Since then, the rise of the internet has dramatically changed the world of music. Gone are the days of listeners finding the next hit by listening to a local radio station or searching for concerts in this week’s Grand Rapids Press entertainment schedule. Flyers for weekend shows no longer cover the sides of telephone poles and billboards across town.

Artists now need to move forward in more digital ways to get their names – and their music – out to potential fans. Albums, while easier than ever to produce, are no longer a primary source of music and promoting them at a live show is no longer a viable source of income. A CD was also a way to easily “legitimize” a band at any given time.

The availability of music also caused a divide in the music community — for better or worse, according to Ferguson — as artists splintered into more genre-based groups. Instead of 400 fans going to a single concert, 10 different shows in different genres could attract 40 people each.

Vander Ark said he thinks part of the change in the local scene happened with the opening of several venues that brought in national acts, starting in the mid-1990s with Van Andel Arena. Since then, Frederik Meijer Gardens Summer Concerts and GLC Live at 20 Monroe have become major national touring stops. These can potentially harm local music audiences, Vander Ark said.

But these same venues also help push West Michigan music to new levels. Ferguson said there are many times when these national acts lead local bands to open, providing an opportunity like no other.

Longtime West Michigan entertainment writer John Sinkevics said the Van Andel Arena helped spur the massive opening of venues hosting local music in the downtown core, including the move from The Intersection in Eastown to its current location near the arena.

“(Van Andel Arena) popped up and kind of changed the character of the city center and made it a center for the region. It opened our eyes to the potential of what would happen,” Sinkevics said. statement came with a caveat about the pandemic, as many local venues have yet to resume local music as they struggle with cash from the closures.

Sinkevics is about to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his publication, Local Spins, which he launched after a long career at Grand Rapids Press. Local Spins is an invaluable source to help promote the local music scene. It has become a driving force for West Michigan artists and those seeking to support them. It highlights major artists who became national names that still call Michigan home, like Billy Strings, Lord Huron, and The Accidentals.

The 10th anniversary celebration spans six venues in Grand Rapids, culminating in an outdoor concert on May 21 at Studio Park. The week will feature over 20 artists from Michigan. It’s all a testament to the publication Sinkevics built, but also the scene he watched grow and helped shape into what it is today.

“I’ve seen the changes and the ups and downs that have happened,” Sinkevics said, reflecting on his long tenure covering the West Michigan music scene.

For him, the pandemic has upended the growth trajectory of the local music scene. By Sinkevics’ estimate, the industry was poised for a banner year in 2020. From its own publication to music venues across the city, all aspects of Grand Rapids music were buzzing. Then the pandemic arrived.

“When March came around, the rug was pulled out for everyone,” he said. “Grand Rapids and this area was about to become another version of Austin or Seattle, because it’s a collaborative music scene. That’s one thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of bands support each other and collaborate musically where a lot of other markets are disjointed.

With that in mind, he said, there will be more than 60 music festivals across Michigan this summer that will help make the state a draw for bands from across the country and an opportunity for them to perform. that West Michigan is a place to be for artists.

That said, the music world seems to be cyclical. The 1990s were a time of great collaboration for alternative rock bands, Vander Ark said, which is why bands like The Verve Pipe and Papa Vegas could have mega hits. While the current West Michigan scene has its merits and is thriving in its own right, a recent Facebook post from Sinkevics asks, “Which once-popular West Michigan band would you most like to see reunited?” resulted in over 300 comments, many reminiscent of local bands from the late 1990s and early 2000s.

In the early 1990s, bands had to play long, cover-packed sets in venues, slipping in perhaps an original song or two a night. Then, the places open to original shows. Vander Ark said The Verve Pipe could almost make a living doing a little monthly circuit around college towns in Michigan, driving from Grand Rapids to Big Rapids to Mount Pleasant to East Lansing, Ann Arbor, Detroit and Kalamazoo.

Now, many venues are back to cover sets, unless they are specifically music-focused establishments.

The music industry as a whole will come back, Ferguson said. Just look at the resurgence of vinyl and the fact that CD sales rose last year for the first time in nearly two decades.

“I don’t know if there’s one thing in particular that will bring out a new scene,” he said. “There is nothing left to do but develop. It must develop naturally to amount to anything. Look at Nirvana. It was such a shocking change, and their music went in a different direction. You will always have events like this and there will be something that will change the music again.

Sinkevics said West Michigan’s talent is palpable and as the scene continues to return to its normal post-pandemic pace, he believes it’s well-positioned to once again become a regional music epicenter that rivals with Austin or Seattle.

“We’re on the recovery,” Sinkevics said. “I am constantly amazed by the talent in this area. There are national caliber bands and solo artists. Some caught the eye and some didn’t, but it’s amazing to me to see the talent across multiple genres.

“The future is bright.”

This story can be found in the May/June 2022 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here.


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