Scott Hermo and Emma Willer’s at-home recording studio in Winsted, Connecticut is bright, cozy, and a tad messy. Recording equipment, microphones, amps, pedal boards, and of course, instruments—guitars, keyboards, drums, bass—line the perimeter of the open room. A lone floor tom, parts of its skin covered in blue masking tape, is cast aside next to an old, peeling keyboard. Former set lists are tacked onto a corkboard, along with song titles for their upcoming album, all surrounded by unlit holiday lights. Emma finishes a slice of day-old pizza (cheese, cold) while Scott apologizes for the mess. Behind him is his laptop, where he mixes their music for their band Boyscott.
“It wasn’t until the end of high school that I started actually going to house shows and really seeing the scene for how amazing it is,” Scott says. “It’s a huge turning point for everyone—their first time experiencing that.” He’s dressed in jeans and flip-flops with socks while sitting at his desk, casually switching his legs between crossed or flat on the floor. Emma nods, knocking some dust off a mini keyboard, her shoulder-length hair neatly tucked behind her ears. Though Emma and Scott are from Rochester, New York and Montclair, New Jersey respectively, they both moved to Nashville, Tennessee to attend Belmont University for film studies. They met at school and since both had a history in playing music, Emma primarily on piano and Scott on guitar, they decided to make music together.
Boyscott made the album, Goose Bumps, released it online, then started playing shows around Nashville. “Our friend Noah had a little label at the time and was working at Two Boots Pizzeria. That was a venue and a big music meeting space that would sell tapes and CDs.” Their friend released the album on cassette and got them their first show. “Just by having stuff online people reached out and asked us because Nashville’s always looking for new people. People just find you.”
They played shows in Nashville for the rest of their college years before recently graduating. Since then, they’ve racked up millions of streams on Spotify, gained thousands of followers on social media, and this past March, had a twenty-three show tour across America. Boyscott’s “metamorphic rock” rang out from Connecticut to North Carolina, with stops in Kentucky, Nashville, and back up through New York.
Although they’ve done tours in the past, this was their most ambitious, and most successful, selling hundreds of t-shirts and CDs along the way. “It’s everything that I would want a music scene to be,” Scott explains, scratching a faint hint of stubble along his jawline. “It’s the most supportive place for artists and people who want to go be accepted and enjoy music. On this tour we did eleven house shows in a row, day after day, which was crazy, but those were our favorite shows of tour hands down. I ten times prefer the D.I.Y. community.”
Ah yes, house shows: pretty much the quintessential example of what D.I.Y. is, and an initiation of sorts for newcomers to the scene. The first house show I ever went to, back in 2016 somewhere in the suburbs of Bloomfield, Connecticut, was terrifying then, and pretty much procedure now. I still remember the crowds of teenagers and twenty-somethings standing outside smoking cigarettes even though it was January. There was no bathroom, although I was so anxious about it I didn’t exactly go looking for one, and the guy at the front door gave me the faint sense that he wasn’t actually in charge and had just scammed me of five dollars.
“When I do other jobs, I’m like, ‘I hate this.’ But when I haven’t showered for three days in a car with other people who stink or are tired or hungry I’m like, ‘oh, I love this.’” — Emma Willer
The basement, where the actual music playing took place, was unfinished and almost the same temperature as the outside. There was no stage, no monitors, just around thirty people packed together like pickles in a jar—bobbing around and smelling faintly of vinegar.
When the band I had come to see, Queen Moo, started playing, I got why I had driven forty-five minutes to stand in an uninsulated and moldy basement with dozens of strangers. I knew, like everyone else, I was only supposed to appear vaguely interested, but I remember smiling like an idiot for the whole twenty minutes. I get why Scott would want to keep that feeling.
“Your songs, as cheesy as it sounds, come alive and there’s a new energy at every show. It’s amazing that random people you’ve never met are clapping for you,” he explains, Emma nodding in agreement.
Besides giving fans the gift of live shows, Boyscott and thousands of other bands sell merchandise like t-shirts, pins, stickers, and physical copies of their music online. Bandcamp is one of the most popular music streaming and selling platforms for independent artists, and the site Boyscott first released their album on. Launched in 2008, the company was revolutionary for taking a smaller cut from music purchases and streams than other companies like Spotify or Apple Music. Their website states that “our share is 15 percent on digital items, and 10 percent on physical goods. Payment processor fees are separate and vary, but for an average size purchase, amount to an additional 4 to 7 percent. The remainder, usually 80 to 85 percent, goes directly to the artist, and we pay out daily.”
Fans can find an artist’s page on Bandcamp and buy their music or merch directly off the site. In mid-April, Bandcamp announced they would now begin pressing vinyl for artists through their website. According to Billboard, “Artists can create a vinyl campaign and begin taking orders with no up-front investment. Once they reach their minimum goal of orders, Bandcamp will press the records, print the packaging and ship to fans. Artists decide on the design and price, and Bandcamp takes no ownership of the record.”
Although this may shock anyone over the age of forty, last year cassettes and vinyl topped CDs as the top-selling physical form of music. Vinyl sales grew almost 12 percent while cassettes grew by almost 19 percent. Although many researchers attribute this to the so-called nostalgia era, what they fail to see is the main draw: the independent, do-it-yourself music scene.
This D.I.Y. community of plucky teens and adults releasing music without a label or support from a corporate backer is nothing new. But keeping the music alive in Nashville, a city packed full of musicians and spaces to play music seems relatively simple. How is that possible in Eureka Springs, Arkansas or rural Connecticut? Small, sparse communities rarely have spaces to accommodate musicians, and distances between venues or cities make word-of-mouth advertising a challenge. But not impossible.
The worn wooden floors, disco ball, and rainbow LED lights at the art gallery Mac650, in Middletown, Connecticut feel reminiscent of my middle school dances at Litchfield Middle School. (Go Cowboys!) The feeling is the same: clusters of friends isolate themselves into corners of the long, narrow room. There’s awkward, shuffling feet or bobbing heads to the music, and my middle school crush, Michael Kennedy, still is not here to ask me to slow dance.
At Mac, everyone pays at the front door, greeting the friendly, open face of Brandon Rizzo, the promoter who put this week’s D.I.Y. show together. You pay your ten dollars, receive a purple and blue-sharpied x on your hand, then join the crowd all facing the one-foot tall wooden stage.
Brandon Rizzo, a twenty-four-year-old University of Hartford graduate has been meeting bands, booking shows, and celebrating independent music for years. Brandon is a talent buyer and promoter, which means he books shows for bands right here in Connecticut.
“We’re considered what’s called a ‘C-class market,’ as opposed to places like Massachusetts or New York, two naturally A-class markets filled with music.” Brandon’s job is to convince bands to come through a state that isn’t designed for tons of publicity. There’s a struggle to find places that have the equipment an artist needs: microphones, monitors, sound equipment, and lighting, not to mention if a show is backlined, meaning the artist coming expects certain equipment like drums or DI boxes to be present.
“We’re skipped a lot because it’s not really considered to be a lucrative market. You have to work almost twice as hard to make sure it is on the map,” Brandon explained at a Starbucks in Meriden where he had agreed to meet me, adjusting the worn, green knit collar of his sweater, his silver nose ring shining in the late spring sunlight.
But booking shows isn’t something new for him. At UHart, his major was Performing Arts Management, which sounds helpful, but was an unfocused department that went through a major revamp after he graduated. His real education came his senior year of college when his apartment became the spot for house shows.
A friend needed a space to host a band and asked Brandon to use his apartment. His home soon became “The Notch,” named because of the small roof above the doorway of the complex he lived in. “I turned my living room into a place and it got some weird notoriety on campus. I didn’t necessarily intend to, but if I’m not going to be getting anything besides a bachelor’s I might as well just kill it senior year and do what I want.” Through this, he met new bands, fellow promoters, and other creative people in this community.
After graduating, Brandon’s connections continued to reach out. “After college I didn’t have a plan. Then a friend that I had met from the house shows was like ‘hey, we need a show.’ I knew around that time a couple friends of mine were starting to book shows at Bloomfield Village Pizza which is just a little, dinky pizza restaurant.”
For old time’s sake he booked them, The Planet You, a band from New Jersey. “I had a show with them and it was fine. Time to go home. Then he told someone about me. Then people just came out of the woodwork asking.”
From there, he decided to make it official. He set up a separate email account and gave it a name: Tiny Box Booking. Now, he’s booked shows all around Connecticut, moving from Bloomfield Village Pizza to spaces in Wallingford and Middletown. His reputation in the state has only grown, leading to contacts from larger cities reaching out or sending bands his way.
“What I’ve heard from a lot of different agents, festivals, and managers is they’re excited because Connecticut gets to stay on the map and a lot more people have been considering coming through here. If they end up getting bigger and decide to upgrade to bigger promoters at least they’re coming to Connecticut. At least they’re giving people a reason to believe that a community not necessarily fit for the music scene is just as strong, if not stronger than anything surrounding it.”
But running this business for two and a half years comes with its challenges, especially since he’s operating in an undesirable market. It’s directed solely out of Brandon’s one bank account, meaning if a show doesn’t sell well, he’s the one who will suffer for it.
“I’ll have like forty bucks in my account and just hope I can get something back at the end of the night.” In Connecticut, with no “main city,” it’s hard to draw crowds for shows. What makes it even harder? To make a profit Brandon needs to sell a certain amount of tickets each show according to how much a band asks for. Bands that come through have a few standard deals: guarantee, door deal, and plus deal.
Guarantees are when a band asks for a certain amount and receives that, no matter how well or poorly the show is sold. Door deal is a percentage of the gross sales of the night, usually seventy/thirty or eighty-five/fifteen. Last is a plus deal, which is a guarantee plus a portion of door sales, which most artists prefer. “The idea is that once they have a guarantee and all of the room is paid, what’s left is called backend, so that is gonna be left over after all the bands, the room, the whatever’s paid, and it’s got nowhere to go.”
Since bands want a piece of that backend to pay for gas, food, car insurance, and just the mechanics of staying alive while on tour, Brandon’s usually getting a very small slice of an already meager pie. He has a series of hurdles in ticket sales he must pass for each show to pay for the touring band, the room, the local bands, and marketing. “You realize how many facets it’s going to. Whatever’s leftover is what you make.”
Live Nation, “the world’s leading live entertainment company,” who had nearly $11 billion in revenue in 2018, has connections to venues all over the world, thousands of employees, and an annual budget with multiple bank accounts—not exactly the humble, single account Brandon operates out of, one that fluctuates greatly based on who’s willing to come out to a show on a random Thursday in April.
To sustain this work, he’s had many side jobs, including a grueling one at an aerospace manufacturer. “It was usually wake up at four in the morning, leave the house at five, get there a little after six, work from six to five, get home, go to bed at nine, and do it again every day. I did that for around a year and a half. And if I had a show after work I’d be done at four-thirty, five o’clock, go to the show, do that until midnight or one in the morning, wake up at four and do it again. I did that for a long time. It killed me.”
It hasn’t all been hardships. He’s drawn the interest of big labels and national acts. In November 2017, he had one of a few of his sold out shows, featuring a collection of local bands and some larger acts, like Prince Daddy and the Hyena, Kississipi, and the headliner, Mom Jeans. He had hosted Prince Daddy and the Hyena several times and knew of Kississipi, but was unaware of how big a crowd Mom Jeans would bring.
“I had to balance what it means to be sold out with having fun and inviting as many people as I can. The cap on Mac is 150. We over capped to around 200. There was no room to move and people were kicking the lamps at the top of Mac650, someone smashed a hole through the wall. You’re just seeing people lose their minds. They’re all mouthing the words to this band and I’m just like who the fuck are these people? That was one of my favorites. I still think about that. Cause now Mom Jeans is what they are. And I’m just like ‘oh, we did that.’ That’s ridiculous.”
It’s a far cry from his humble beginnings at “The Notch,” something that has led his roommates to new opportunities too. “My roommate RJ was like, ‘I’m a photographer, I’m a videographer, look at all this material I have to work with.’ He was like, ‘I’m gonna do it for a living.’ It opened up a new world to a lot of people.” That kind of inspiration and connection inspires Brandon to keep this scene alive in Connecticut. “Doing this was a fun way to get release and hang out with friends, but it ended up being a thing surrounded by many positive moments. I’ve met a lot of friends, and those friends went and met friends. And that’s what Connecticut needs, more people that care.”
At Starbucks, he pulled his phone out of his pocket and showed me a Google Doc of almost every single show he’s ever put on, some dating back to 2015. The venues vary, starting out at Bloomfield Village Pizza before moving to spaces in New Haven, and now Mac650 in Middletown. When I asked him what all this meant, what the D.I.Y. community represented to him, he had an immediate answer: “It’s the power of friendship.”
He took his glasses off, ran his hand through his hair, and let it briefly float above his face like a puffy cloud. “It’s what happens when you have nothing backing you. We’re absent of the corporate world. We’re absent from professional standing or judgment. It’s like when you walk into a class and they give you a history test and didn’t teach you anything about history and they’re like, do it. Like alright, time to D.I.Y. this test.” He laughed, stretching his arms above his head. “And naturally it’s a kind of purgatory that’s not sustainable because you either get to where you want to be or you falter, but while you’re there, it’s the best time of your life.”
Back at the show in Middletown, it’s the end of the night. The rainbow lights are unplugged and folding tables struck down as bands exchange contact information and hopes to play together again in other cities. Boyscott, who went on last, pack up their drums and guitars. The sound guy, Steve, coils cables as Brandon bounces around the room, saying thank-yous to the bands and the trail of show-goers heading out the door. Boyscott has about an hour drive ahead of them back home to Winsted.
“When I do other jobs, I’m just like, I hate this,” Emma explained, back at their studio. “But when I haven’t showered for three days in a car with three other people who maybe stink or are tired or hungry I’m like, ‘oh, I love this.’”
The band manages to squeeze their two guitars, amps, drum stands, and drums into the car. Emma closes the car’s trunk with a quiet thud. “We’re really stoked when we go to these shows in Connecticut,” Scott said. “There’s people that care and do it correctly. They throw great shows, they have great spaces, things are on time, they’re very respectful, and there’s just tons of great bands around here. The difference is that things are farther away. But we don’t mind that. It’s worth it.”
Headline Photo: Scott and Emma in their at-home “studio.” Photo Credit: Sabrina Cofer for Blue Muse Magazine.
Sabrina Cofer is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine.
Good story about CT music scene.
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