By DAN CARTER
Set a scene in your mind, it is the year 2009 and you’re in a music venue in Vineland, NJ. In a crowd of youthful faces, you can see a smile across the room. The face belongs to a young girl. She has not had many reasons to turn around her frown lately but tonight she managed to catch a ride to see her favorite band play her favorite song. She will carry this memory with her forever, because in that moment the world around her was singing directly to her and only her. At Hanger 84, many memories like this were made. The venue however is long gone.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I can recall being able to tell you a list of ten bands, singers, and rappers and where they were going to be performing the next three weekends in advance. This is what is known as a music scene, a connected group of novice and professional musicians and performers creating a community to preserve their work and to grow.
Nowadays, despite its efforts to claim how art-centric it is, Cumberland County no longer has the strong music scene presence it used to, not even a decade ago. To discover why this is happening I inquired help from my friends in the band FRND CRCL (pronounced Friend Circle) from Vineland. Despite being from the area and releasing their first full-length album a couple of months ago, they have hardly ever performed in their home county and I found this strange for a punk garage band from South Jersey.
I sat down with Zac Johnson, the singer and guitarist for the band, to talk about the state of our local music scene. He disclosed to me that even though the band plays what he calls “outdated Pop Punk music with Reggae and Rap influences” he doesn’t have any connections to any similar bands in the area. The lack of camaraderie he says is palpable and a distinct difference from what he remembers of bands a few years ago.
Johnson told me that since the bands forming in May of 2015, they have performed less than ten shows in Cumberland County and he said almost all of those shows were what he called flops. He recalls that most shows in Cumberland made the band feel like they were secondary entertainment. By that he explained that the music was never the center focus, the shows were always at bars or restaurants or events where the people would have been there whether the band was playing or not, and because of this the crowd had a general disinterest in the music. Johnson said that every show felt like they were expected to do covers of “oldies or rock classics” and new or original music was frowned upon. All of these things made the band look elsewhere to perform and to grow as an entertainment presence to moderate success.
It seems recently the art scene Cumberland County brags about only encourages traditional forms of art or cover bands and music, and FRND CRCL is a great recent example of this bias. When I asked Johnson what the county could do to improve the upcoming music in the area he said that “The first thing would be to open an exclusively music based venue again now that the likes of Hanger 84 or the Oak Tavern are no longer in business. Until then, new bands will be forced to look to North Jersey venues such as Stone Pony in Asbury Park, or Hard Rock Café in Atlantic City to make a name for themselves.”
It is now up to Cumberland County and time to see if these types of ideas will ever be implemented in our County again, or if our county will just be local bars hosting cover bands for the next few decades. Only one thing is certain and that is if these local bands are not brought back home to play, my gas money will keep being burnt driving to see where they play next.