The independent news organization of Duke University

Who cares if you listen?

The Triangle is home to one of the nation's most vital-and legendary-music scenes. Even without the high profile of the early 1990s, the area is home to a slew of venues and dozens of bands. It's exactly the sort of scene you'd expect from an area with three major universities. Except those on the scene say students are a rare sight. With apologies to Milton Babbitt, here are some of the people who do care if you're listening.

Meet the impresario of the indie music scene at Duke. Bespectacled, wearing stylish European clothes and speaking in a clear but still thick Romanian accent, senior Corina Apostol isn't the most likely crusader for live music on campus.

But then her very presence at the University seems unlikely. After a year at a science and technical school in her native Romania, Apostol decided to leave and attend a new school thousands of miles away and study history and art history. Since hitting Durham, she's continued making left turns. Now she plays in a 25-piece ad hoc punk-rock marching band, the Scene of the Crime Rovers, attends the hippest venues from here to Raleigh and spends far more time than she would like speaking on her cell phone, trying to coordinate the dozens of bands who play at her Campus Concert Series.

The series, a Duke University Union committee with an annual budget of $15,000, began last year. It hosted several events, including the pitifully attended Battle of the Bands on Main West Quadrangle (the lesson-not to schedule shows against March Madness-has no doubt been learnt). But under Apostol's guidance this year, CCS has transformed itself, presenting three to four bands most Friday afternoons in the Armadillo Grill, with about 15 shows each semester.

Apostol wanted to hold the concerts in the heart of campus to attract large student crowds.

"I wanted to do a lot more with the group; I see so many talented bands, and I sort of asked around, how much do these bands cost, and I was amazed it was so affordable to bring them here," she says. "The Triangle has very talented bands. They're not good-they're very good. I think a lot of people don't realize that. They think Durham, it's a small town."

The results of the series have been impressive. Most of the shows have been packed. But who makes up those packed audiences? There are friends and fans of the mostly Durham-based bands, graduate and professional students, members of the faculty and staff. But Apostol estimates no more than one-third of attendees are undergraduates, despite efforts to attract more.

"It's hard," she says, plainly.

When you go to a certain number of shows, you get to recognize many of the faces. After four years of shows at the Duke Coffeehouse and the Dillo, Broad Street Cafe and the Local 506, the Cave and the Cat's Cradle, you know who you're going to see, even if you don't know all of their names. And when you're standing in a great venue on East Campus but everyone around you seems to be either a local or a Tar Heel, you start to wonder where your fellow Duke students are.

So does Mimi McLaughlin. A physician's assistant by day, McLaughlin plays bass in Chapel Hill's Pneurotics by night. She's also one of two organizers of Secondhand Freespace, a quarterly workshop intended to help bands demystify and navigate the music industry.

"I've definitely been a lover of local music for a long time," she says. "I grew up in Colorado and went to undergraduate in Boulder, and music was a huge part of that. The college scene was a whole lot different in that way. Chapel Hill, you see the same undergraduates out. There seems to sort of be a pocket of local music lovers."

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University, there are small but dedicated groups that rally around school media outlets-many of which emphasize the local music scenes. Even as compared to these small contingents, however, Blue Devils seem "isolated" within the walls of campus, she says.

"Are young people not going to local music as much?" she asks. "Are they more into dance parties?"

McLaughlin says the topic has come up often in conversations she's had. She lauded Bombadil, a band of Duke graduates, as successful innovators. Armed with acoustic instruments, the band performed a "guerrilla show" in the Pit, a central area at UNC, attracting a couple hundred listeners.

"We are trying to find ways to interrupt the day-to-day life of an undergraduate," she says. "It's easy to get wrapped up with everything, and you're in the library all the time, and you get hyperfocused. So you have to interrupt that comfort zone for a little bit and look out into the town you're in."

Glenn Boothe never had trouble breaking out of that comfort zone. In fact, he spent so much time going to shows in Chapel Hill during the late 1980s that he decided to transfer from UNC-Greensboro to UNC-CH.

The scene back then-Boothe graduated in 1990-was legendary. The Cat's Cradle, now located in Carrboro, was on Franklin Street and was the scene's epicenter. Musically, Chapel Hill provided a cheerier counterbalance to the angsty grunge of the Pacific Northwest-a guitar-driven, rocked-up sound, but calmer, with more of a slacker aesthetic.

Bands like Superchunk, Blankface, Polvo and Archers of Loaf loomed large, and in 1989, Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan founded Merge Records, which is now based in Durham and remains one of the most powerful indie labels (its roster includes Arcade Fire, Spoon and Neutral Milk Hotel).

"I feel like the college years are the great time to discover music," Boothe says. "Some of my favorite bands are bands I discovered in that time; some of the best shows I've seen are shows I saw in those years."

Now Boothe books bands at the Local 506 on Franklin Street; he also organizes Secondhand Freespace with McLaughlin.

He doesn't see as many students, from Duke or UNC, passing through the doors of his bar as he'd like-both because he says he wants others to have the same rich experience he did and because it's in his economic interest.

There are a couple of forces at work, Boothe says. The scene can be intimidating to a newcomer, and he fears there may be an assumption that clubs cater to locals, and students are not welcome (not so, he says).

"I'd like to think that we [reach out to students], but obviously we're not completely successful at it," he says, except at special shows presented by student media. "It's the same bands that play the 506 all the time, but when it's Daily Tar Heel presents or WXYC presents, there are many more students."

Nationally touring bands do better among undergraduates, but a smaller club like his doesn't always reap the benefits, he says. For example, Arcade Fire played to a small crowd at the 506; after breaking out, they sold out the Cat's Cradle.

The real problem, he says, is that people of all ages are less interested in discovering new music by going out. Time was, going to shows was an important social outlet and a way to get to know new bands.

"When you can go on MySpace and other Web sites and hear bands and check them out, people do that before going into the show," he says. "What it used to be, you might hear about a band and be willing to pay the cover charge to see them. Now, you can listen first."

But shows at the Coffeehouse, like CCS shows, are almost always free for students-not that the price makes much difference, says junior Jen Fuh, the Coffeehouse's booking manager. For two years, she has hired the bands that play in the East venue.

"Last year when I booked, I just wanted to keep the indie scene coming here," she says. "I was hoping students would come in and they would like the music and think of it as a place to come regularly. That was my first mistake. I didn't realize people just didn't come."

The great tragedy of all this is that the Coffeehouse can provide a nearly unparalleled space for students and locals to intermingle. Fuh has a budget of $26,000 this year for programming, and she has a strong pool of bands from which to choose. Whereas many local venues don't pay musicians or offer only a cut of proceeds at the door, Fuh-like Apostol-gives bands a guaranteed fee. And the bands like the space.

"This is the spot where Duke and Durham intersect," she says. "Bands don't feel like it has that bullshit Gothic Wonderland feel."

As a result, she's been able to book some of Durham and the Triangle's best bands, acts like Red Collar, the Dry Heathens and Midtown Dickens.

One of the Coffeehouse's biggest shows last semester was a CD-release party for the Physics of Meaning and Butterflies, two bands on Chapel Hill-based Trekky Records. The room was filled to capacity, with audience members packed from wall to wall. Locals and UNC students were numerous. But the number of Duke undergraduates, by this reporter's account, could be tallied on two hands at the most.

In October, the Coffeehouse reopened after a renovation and remodeling. Student attendance has improved since then, but Fuh says she still feels her biggest obligation is not to Duke students but to the scene and the local residents ("20- to 30-something Durhamites: grungy, lots of beer, lots of cigarettes, nice people," as sophomore Sarah Hamerman, a Coffeehouse employee and frequent show-goer describes them).

After all, they're the ones who go to the shows.

Sometimes, Fuh continues, students come and find themselves amazed at how much fun they have or how good the music is. They say they'll come back. But she says they seldom do.

"Instead you're getting trashed in Few Quad. You can do that at so many parties," she laments. "I don't ever see students I don't know at these shows. It's just the fact of missing out on a live music venue when you have the opportunity all the time. This is a legitimate venue. It's not like we're talking the Plaza."

But so what? Duke students aren't shutting themselves off from art; student sales for Duke Performances are up significantly across the last two years, for example, and the Nasher Museum of Art still draws throngs. What's the harm in not going to shows by rough-shod, sometimes experimental, sometimes inaccessible bands?

McLaughlin, Boothe and company say the dearth of student attendance (from Duke or UNC) doesn't endanger the vitality of the Triangle scene, which caters to the 25-to-30 crowd and consists largely of locals-although the closing last year of Franklin Street institution Schoolkids Records might suggest otherwise.

The real danger, though, might be the gradual strengthening of the Duke bubble and further divisions between Duke students and locals.

When Apostol began to reach out to bands to play CCS shows, several of them were very eager to play for student audiences. And several of them have been very pleased with the results, saying that such a collaboration of Duke and Durham should have happened long ago.

But she says many bands remain dismissive of the University's undergraduates as potential listeners.

"There's this sort of reluctance from local bands to see Duke students as their target audience, because they think students are not interested in hearing them," Apostol says. "They don't consider them local people."

She is making efforts to ensure that CCS remains strong after she graduates in May, pushing other members of her committee to make connections in the musical community.

Still, it's hard to replace someone with the personal charisma and connections Apostol has. Maybe CCS will remain strong. Or maybe it will go silent, and one bridge between students and the local community will disintegrate.

But either way, most Duke undergraduates probably won't notice.


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