First off, congratulations to Hear Nebraska, a nonprofit music-focused organization (on whose board of directors I am a member) that raised more than $10,000 last week as part of the Give To Lincoln Day effort. Over the course of 24 hours, Hear Nebraska gathered all its social media might and managed to attract 300 donors to its nobel cause — promoting Nebraska music to the rest of the globe.
With cash in hand, Hear Nebraska can pursue a number of projects, including producing a vinyl-only local band compilation, purchasing banners to hang at events, and building a live, streaming radio station featuring music and interviews by and with Nebraska musicians and touring bands passing through our borders. Not to mention feeding hearnebraska.org’s sole paid editor, the honorable Michael Todd.
Interesting number, that 300.
See, I’ve got this theory I’ve been kicking around with a few folks involved in local media. The idea involves the Circle of 300.
It basically says that no matter how much coverage indie music gets from all the printed newspapers, websites, records labels, venues and local bands, there’s still only about 300 people in Omaha who really pay attention to what’s going on in the indie music scene. That means all of those media outlets — whether it’s Lazy-i, Omahype, The Reader, The Omaha World-Herald or yes, Hear Nebraska — are talking to that same 300 people.
Forget the analytics and social media “friends/followers/likes” stats, ignore the global reach statements and the circulation figures. None of that matters. 300.
Go ahead, balk at that number. Maybe it’s too low. In a metro area with a half a million people, it probably is. It definitely should be. There are those who will say, “OK smarty-pants, if what you’re saying is true, how does The Faint sell out Slowdown in a matter of days? That’s way more than 300 people.” Well, I’m not talking about those people. Heck, a guy at my real job mentioned The Faint concert in the elevator the other day, and I’ve never seen him at a local rock show in my life. He’s not among the 300 I’m talking about.
I’m talking about the core 300 people who are “in the know” about what’s going on musicwise, who go to rock shows regularly at the usual venues (The Waiting Room, Slowdown, O’Leaver’s, The Brothers). In addition to having great taste in music, they have refined taste in booze and food and movies and art and comedy and in a lot of things. They’re smart. And they’re involved. They turn off their TV sets and go out at night. And they’re generous, even if they can’t afford to be. They’re the ones at the CD- and vinyl-release shows walking around with merch under their arms. They’re good people.
But there’s only 300 of them. They’re like precious diamonds carried around in a little black velvet bag. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re one of them. And you know most of the others. You talk to them at rock shows or tip a beer glass at them at Krug Park or bump into them at Record Store Day where you examine each others’ purchases.
They’re your friends. They’re an extended family. But in this whole big frickin’ town of half a million, there’s only 300 of them.
By the way, it’s the same in every city, but the number varies depending on total population. In a town the size of Chicago, where there are 3 million people, the circle widens to about 1,800. In New York, where there’s 8 million, the circle is a mammoth 4,800. In little ol’ Stockton, CA, population below 300,000, the number drops to around 150. It’s a percentage thing.
And in Omaha, the number is around 300. That’s all there is. But here’s the thing: There’s more than one circle. In addition to the indie music circle, there’s a circle of people who really follow the Omaha art scene. They know the galleries, they know who’s making the good stuff, they know the openings worth attending. The number of people in that circle: Somewhere around 300. Same goes for the live theater scene. 300. Fine dining (i.e. foodies): 300. Independent film: 300. And there are different people in each circle, but there’s plenty of overlap from one to the next.
Some people call them “taste makers,” which is just a convenient way to label folks who give a shit about something other than reality television, Billboard “music,” the latest Adam Sandler moron-a-thon and who makes the best pizza in town.
Others call them snobs or elitists. And that’s when circles can get dangerous. The problem with circles is that they can be hard to break out of — or just as bad — to let others in. Believe me, there are people outside these circles who want to go to indie rock shows, art shows, live independent theater, even exclusive restaurants, but who won’t because they don’t think they belong. They feel like outsiders in a world of circles. They’re afraid, or they’re angry.
Even if all this is true, what’s the point? I don’t know if there is one, except for this: If you’re an artist or a musician or a chef or a filmmaker or a music journalist, you can survive on those 300. Barely. But if you want more, you’re going to have to break out of the circle and let others in, and for an artist, that’s a damn hard thing to do.
Because in a town the size of Omaha, a non-profit organization like Hear Nebraska should be able to raise more than $10,000. It should be able to convince more than 300 people that what it does is important. There has to be more people out there than that.
Over the Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on arts, culture, society and the media. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.