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Wednesday, Oct 19, 2011

San Diego bands grapple with national buzz shortage

Some leave for a shot at the big time; others stay and make the best of it

By Seth Combs
TropicalPopsicle-Press1 Tropical Popsicle's Tim Hines is second from right.

A band asked me recently what they could do to generate some buzz nationally. I contemplated the question for a few moments, filtering out obvious answers like smart marketing and relentless touring, and came up with what I thought to be a better answer.

“If you want some immediate exposure,” I said, “then move to Brooklyn.”

Yes, I realize that’s kind of a dick answer. But it’s true.

It’s a dispiriting thing to see one of San Diego’s best bands or artists pack up and leave for a more buzz-friendly city like L.A. or Austin, only to blow up once they get there. I’ve seen it happen so many times. But I can’t blame them—it’s just easier to make a national name for yourself in a place that has a bit more cred than boring, old San Diego, where you have to work twice as hard.

But everybody knows that bands leave San Diego, so let’s ask some better questions: Why doesn’t San Diego have the same indie cred as places like New York City or Chicago? And why do local bands stick it out in a scene that seems consistently ignored?

“San Diego can be very stifling, and it can sometimes seem like there’s not much going on here, culturally,” explains Tim Hines, who plays in Lights On and Tropical Popsicle, which has been getting some blog love lately. “But it’s sort of a copout to go somewhere where there’s already a bunch of that already, especially when we need more of it here.”

Other people I talked to share that desire to, as Gandhi put it, “be the change you want to see.” I can’t help but think that only gets you so far. Taylor Doms, who runs the electronic-music-focused website The Mixster (, thinks local musicians need more help promoting their music.

“I do my site because I love the scene, but you have to put your entire heart into it,” Doms says. “I feel there isn’t a strong company in San Diego that is just there to promote the scene on a national level.”

Indeed, San Diego has a ton of PR firms, but it seems that not one of them has a music division devoted to promoting local bands nationally, whereas a bigger city like New York probably has too many ( just check my inbox). When I asked the head of one of San Diego’s biggest firms why more local companies don’t promote local music on a national scale, the answer was surprisingly blunt.

“You’d have to really love music, because, I’m sorry, but there’s just not a lot of money in it,” says the PR rep, who asked that their name not be used. “You’d probably be working a lot for free, and I’ve heard so many horror stories from colleagues where they helped a band get popular and then they get dumped. Why take the chance?”

Doms helps promote a few local DJs in addition to running The Mixster and says she makes very little money from it. But she says the chance is worth taking.

“Whether you’re a musician or whatever, when you do get that recognition, it’s so much more gratifying,” she says. “The lack of expectations of the San Diego scene can only benefit us. We can do whatever the hell we want and hope that people will not only recognize it, but also accept it and build from that.”

That, I believe, is worth staying around for.