Local Current Blog

On being a gatekeeper

Photo by Nate Ryan/MPR

It’s taken me a long time to get here, so I’ll do my best to keep my voice from shaking as I say this: My name is Andrea, and I’m a gatekeeper.

That’s right. I keep the gates. I make the tastes. Sometimes I lord over people, shoving my opinions down their unsuspecting gullets. Sometimes I stand up in front of classrooms full of hopeful music majors and rock-stars-in-the-making and wax philosophical about how they can shape their attitudes, Twitter pages, and personal brands to appeal to a tastemaker like me. And sometimes I write about a band on my blog, and they pull a quote from my piece and place it at the very top of their press release, hoping it will capture the fleeting attention of other gatekeepers in the scene.

I used to cringe every time I heard those words, gatekeeper and tastemaker. It implied that I was seated up in some ivory tower, looking smugly down at the impressionable masses—or, at the very least, that I was egotistical enough to believe that my word should carry more weight than anyone else’s. Didn’t the people who flung these words around know that I was just a young woman with imposter syndrome trying to make her way in a dude-strewn industry? Didn’t they know that even I didn’t believe that I deserved to be there in the first place?

But over the years, something strange started to happen. Every time I thought that I had a pretty good grasp on the scope of the Twin Cities music scene—understanding the major players and hot bands of the moment, knowing the history of who came from where and why that mattered, and seeing the arc of the next big genre rise and cast its shadow over the city—someone would tap me on the shoulder and expose a whole other pocket of the city that I’d never seen before. Even the rock scene has its own underground movements, with bands that only play in basements and sounds that range from the most blistering hardcore punk to the most delicate psychedelia and folk.

But what about the EDM scene? The slam poets? The jazz heads? The metal scene? The blues singers? The cover band circuit? The legions of Hmong hip-hop dancers, or the rappers coming out of North Minneapolis? The high schoolers who can’t even get in to most venues, and the seasoned funk trailblazers still gigging in tiny bars week after week?

The fact is, there isn’t a singular Twin Cities scene. There are a multitude of scenes, messy and overlapping in some areas and deeply segregated in others. Some of them are on the radar of every major media outlet in town, and some are only being written about in niche blogs and community newspapers. There are bands who will go through the entire process of writing, recording, mixing, mastering, and printing a CD that will never be heard by anyone outside of their immediate friend circle. There are artists who will load their gear into the back of their van and trudge it all into a dimly lit bar tonight to play for the sound guy and a couple of regulars. There is music coursing like blood through the veins of this city, and no single person will ever have enough time, energy, and teleportation skills to hear it all.

As someone whose job it is to hear as much as possible, it would be paralyzing if it weren’t so awe-inspiring.

Every time the camera zooms out a little wider and shows me just how massive and productive this place is, it causes me to stop in my tracks and question not just why I’m doing this work, but how. And as I prepare to take over The Local Show this month, I’ve been doing a whole lot of reflecting on this bulging, busy city and its incredible communities. Some of my favorite music that I’ve come across in the past five years—from The Chalice to Hippo Campus, Perfume Monster, Dizzy Fae, and Bruise Violet—are artists that I first found on SoundCloud and YouTube. So what does that mean about the way a radio station or newspaper should solicit music? It’s clearly not enough to expect it to come to us; part of the job is going out and finding it. How do we know if we’re looking in the right places?

I’m not going to make any big proclamations or pledge to do things dramatically differently than how they’ve been done in the past. To be honest, I have big shoes to fill, as both of the previous hosts of the show, Chris Roberts and David Campbell, did tremendous work. And I am painfully aware of my own limitations, as both a white woman from small-town Minnesota who came up through certain scenes and communities to find a job at an indie rock–leaning public radio station, and as a human being who has completely subjective tastes, friendships, and desires.

But as I move into this role, and as the mail bins full of CDs take over my cube and my dance card is filled up with important concerts and events, I am keeping one commitment at the very forefront of my mind: I am a gatekeeper, and that comes with tremendous responsibility. I know a whole lot about Minnesota music—enough to fill books, really, and for some to even consider me an expert—but I will never know it all. And I will never stop asking questions.

This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between 89.3 The Current and The Growler, a monthly craft beer lifestyle magazine covering the best stories in beer, food, and culture. Find this article online and in print in the January edition of The Growler.

  • Nate Reiter

    You had me at Imposter Syndrome. I too share this dysfunction, but from the musician side. I look forward to meeting you in the future, hopefully to be handing over cd single after cd single! Have fun. You’ll continue to do great.

  • Sarah Balk McGrill

    Feel the same way! I’m a gate keeper in the highly tiered visual art world. It is a huge responsibility to continuously educate myself as to what new directions established artists are going, while keeping an eye open for diversely emerging and outsider artists too. We are lucky to be in such positions in such a rampantly creative location. It’s not a task I do without utmost respect for those creative energies putting themselves out there.

  • Bryan Strang

    I’m not from Minnesota and I only live there a month or two at a time when someone needs their dogs or pipes kept from freezing while they’re away, but following you has been how I’ve been “going out and finding” music for years already.

  • Carl Unbehaun

    And there’s the singer-songwriter scene. People like Nigel Egg, Ben Hoganson, Leslee McKee, Josh Schmidt, Michael Riddle, Amanda Grace, Wayne Hamilton, Donna Dahl, etc. who grind out low or no-paying coffee house gigs just because they love writing and sharing their songs. Thanks for the nice article and for loving music, Andrea!

  • Tmart

    Thanks for the article, and the courageous act of admitting you are a gate keeper.

    I am part of the horde of local musicians who has played plenty of crappy low or no paying gigs for tiny crowds. There have been many discussions with other bands over the years about how the gate keepers elevate a select few and kind of ignore the rest. My honest opinion is that not all bands out there are worth listening to (some of these questionable talents HAVE been let in by the gate keepers though, for reasons I will never know). But there are plenty of awesome bands that put the time in on stage and recording that deserve some exposure. And it’s the gate keepers that are able to give bands that chance.

    I am an MPR sustaining member, and happy that The Current and The Local Current exist. However, I have tried listening to The Local Current multiple times and have found that most of what I’ve heard are the most popular Minnesota artists. And it’s great to hear Prince, The Replacements, Dylan, Soul Asylum, Husker Du, etc… But I wonder if the Local Current could be more diverse.

    What about a new stream? You could call it “Local Discovery” or something. The focus would be lesser known bands. This stream could do a mix of genres, but also have dedicated shows (a metal show, a rock show, a bluegrass show, hip hop, jazz…whatever…) I feel like The Current always talks big about helping out the local music scene. Digging a little deeper, and giving more artists exposure would really back those words up.