In coffee shops, bars, basements and live music spaces, Yale’s independent musicians have created a scene for themselves.
At first glance, it might not seem like a university renowned for its symphony orchestras and a cappella groups would also have a thriving independent music scene. At least, that is what Micah Osler ’18 thought when he was a first year. Despite being heavily involved in musical performance during high school, Osler had no idea of the extent of the music scene at Yale until he started attending off-campus live music shows in his junior year.
“It’s just kind of striking that the music scene at Yale is underground,” Osler said.
The independent music ecosystem at Yale is largely decentralized, and most groups are unaffiliated with the University. The independent bands run by Yalies range from garage bands who produce music for the love of it, to more established ones that have already released EPs or enjoyed mainstream success.
These bands and musicians perform frequently at off-campus spaces in New Haven and beyond, such as coffee shops and bars. Yalies organize many of these live music events at Radio House, a thriving off-campus music venue. Since coming to Yale, Osler has performed off campus with the up-and-coming band Laurie and the Good Lives.
“It’s not like theater at Yale,” Osler said. “It’s not like dance or the other performances at Yale, where it is done in college-sanctioned spaces, run by University productions. … For me at least, when you are a dorky little first year, you have trouble finding these things.”
Live music spaces have to be spacious to accommodate music equipment, musicians and the audience, Sara McCartney ’19 said. McCartney regularly organizes independent music events. Because on-campus spaces, such as suites or common rooms, are not suitable for live music performances, groups typically perform off campus. The few suitable on-campus spaces include St. Anthony’s Crypt near Silliman College, where Battle of the Bands, a Bulldog Days event, takes place.
Playing live music is essential for independent musicians in general, especially at Yale. Musicians interviewed by the News said playing live allows them to gain more listeners and improve their performances.
“[It’s] a space where you can see how responsive people are to the song and see what works about your music and what doesn’t,” said Danny Belgrad ’18, a member of the band Vern Matz, which released an EP in January. “At the start it was a little more of an obligation for us, because we were horrible and had no idea what we were doing. Now it is a fun thing.”
Osler attributes the underground nature of the independent music scene to the prominence and success of Yale’s traditional music groups.
“When people think of music at Yale, they think a cappella, they think the symphony orchestras,” Osler said. “And that inevitably leads to variable attention being paid to these college garage bands.”
For Belgrad, the lack of a prominent independent music scene at Yale means he does not know many other independent artists.
Belgrad said he thinks the modest presence of the indie scene at Yale stems not from a lack of talent, but from a lack of institutionalization. He noted that there are talented indie musicians at Yale, citing Zack Sekoff ’18 and the indie electronic group Opia as examples of Yalies who have made a splash in the music industry.
However, some students have risen to address the lack of institutionalization. The New Music Cooperative, created two or three years ago by Max Vinetz ’18, aims to provide more institutional support for Yale undergraduate composers by connecting them with other musicians and helping them access recording studios or performance spaces, according to Sarah Sotomayor ’21, the current president of the New Music Cooperative. Sotomayor added that the cooperative strives to “be an umbrella for music resources.”
Many artists also record music on their own in Yale’s residential college recording studios. Zulfiqar Mannan ’20 started writing music at age 15 but only began recording music when he arrived at Yale and discovered the recording studios.
Mannan said he has never considered joining a traditional music organization at Yale.
“A lot of group settings can be very inhibiting to the growth of individuality that is very necessary in these four years at Yale,” said Mannan, a staff reporter for the News. “Tradition and legacy can both be very scary.”
Osler and Mannan both like the underground nature of Yale’s independent music scene. Mannan said he thinks that alternative music at Yale can be left to its own devices because it sustains itself.
Osler added that part of the appeal of off-campus music events organized by Yale students lies in that the events do not happen under the exclusionary auspices of Yale. On an average night at an off-campus live music event, Osler said, he sees many New Haven residents in addition to students.
“The best thing about the [music] scene at Yale is that it is the only aspect of Yale I’ve ever seen where there is total overlap between the Yalies and townies,” Osler said.
McCartney observed that many people find these off-campus live music spaces welcoming and safe because the people focus more on the music than on alcohol. Unlike male-dominated fraternities, she said, live music spaces welcome people of all genders, especially women — the primary organizers of the indie events.
Off-campus live music spaces often bring performers from out of town. Last Saturday, Gabby Zonneveld travelled with her band from the State University of New York at Purchase, New York, to New Haven to perform at Radio House.
“Especially with music, intimacy is so important because you are putting yourself out there,” Zonneveld told the News. “And sometimes it can be really [emotionally] cold in a professional musical venue.”
She prefers smaller music venues to the larger stages where she has performed in the past, such as the American Idol stage and the Minnesota State Fair stage.
The diversity of genres available at off-campus live music venues attracted Noah Gershenson ’21, who does sound engineering for music events organized by Yale students.
“Every single time I come [to a live show] it’s a roll of the dice, and I’m never sure what I’m going to get, and I always have a great time,” Gershenson said.
Vern Matz, the band that released an EP in January, will perform at Toad’s Place on Friday evening.
Ko Lyn Cheang | firstname.lastname@example.org