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Eau Claire Sound

When a couple friends were starting a two-man digital design agency I jumped in to help them solidify their brand voice, naming the company and writing its first manifesto. Three years later, the company grew into a full-service agency and I joined as its strategy director (and primary writer).

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Every scene has a defining sound: the somber grunge in Seattle, the bizarre, noisy folk of North Carolina, the atonal experimentation of Brooklyn.

 

 

 

So as Eau Claire grew into a hotspot of nationally-bound musicians, we tried to find that thread by deferring to the experts – local musicians, industry pros, and fans.

 

Designer: Serena Wagner +   Writer, Interviewer: Thom Fountain


 
We conducted over 30 interviews and wrote a manifesto linking each statement to its source, building an immersive print and web experience to explore.
 

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Let’s start with the obvious: Eau Claire has no singular sound. 

There’s no magic thread that weaves its way through our scene. There’s nothing in the water (as far as we know). Eau Claire musicians are varied and diverse, and as far as we’re concerned that’s a good thing. 

Musicians talked about the fact that they love the broad styles you can find here, even going so far as to say our lack of homogeneity is what’s keeping our scene alive and thriving. And that’s not just amplified in mixed company bills at basement shows. Bands themselves don’t fall into categories they way they sometimes do elsewhere. Local musicians aren’t tied to what is hip or up-and-coming nationally. You don’t see many trends come through in full in our area – just bits and pieces of them layered in among other influences. And, yes, that’s evident on show bills as well. It’s not uncommon here to see a line-up of metal and indie-rock or hip-hop and folk, especially in those underground scenes taking place in basements across the city. 

But beyond the not-too-surprising revelation that the Chippewa Valley has something for everyone, there were some intriguing observations from those new and old to the scene. Take our influences. Most people are familiar with our extensive jazz scene, but it’s interesting to hear how that plays into the musical spectrum as a whole. One take that kept coming up was the focus on arts education – and specifically jazz. The acceptance of musicians at an early age gives a boost of confidence that remains into adulthood and programs from young to old create a large talent pool that spreads out across genres. Beyond jazz the other genre that kept coming up was blues. It’s clear we have a strong blues scene, but you see it more places than at Owen Park in the summer. 

That learning and drive continues after school ends, though. A number of interviewees talked about the comfort level of trying new things in front of an audience , even how bands push each other to get better. This sense of a music community continued to come back around. Our market isn’t big enough for musicians to be cutthroat – heck, for most of them this isn’t a full time job. Instead the community supports itself and its band members. 

It’s probably easier to do that because everyone plays together anyway. This also isn’t a new revelation, but many, many Chippewa Valley bands share members – often across genres. These collaborations create that cross-genre sound that kept coming up – and allows everyone’s influences to mingle and create something new. That interchange can sometimes pose a problem, though, making the scene look insular and unwelcoming. Luckily we had plenty of stories about how the scene embraces new and visiting musicians – again, staying true to that cross-genre ethos. 

A lot of the musicians in the scene, while relying on each other, also work their butts off for themselves. There’s a bit of a cliche with the Midwestern work ethic, but still it kept coming up again and again. It seems Eau Claire music is music that’s hard fought and comes with the blood, sweat, and tears (and time and effort) alongside. That community support helps. 

The threads that weaved throughout these interviews were all over the place, but the one constant was a general concern about the well-being of our scene. Every person I talked to had a genuine love for their experiences here and for the other members of the music community, whether musicians, fans, or whatever else. The scene doesn’t need to be tied to a certain genre to coexist in peace, and even thrive off that variety in sound. 

Eau Claire music can sound like a lot of things , but clearly it resonates loud and clear across our entire region.

“Eau Claire music can sound like sweaty basement shows or clean theater shows. And beer and cheese and wine and Wisconsin. Eau Claire music sounds like sitting by the Chippewa River with your family and enjoying life. Eau Claire music sounds like people doing exactly what they want to do.”
— Eric Wells, Musician