PROVO — One day while shopping, Provo resident and blogger C. Jane Kendrick couldn’t help but overhear two college students making fun of her hometown.
“They were saying, ‘Who would actually live in Provo?’ and ‘Yeah, it’s just a spot that you pass by on I-15.’” Kendrick laughed.
And it should be comical. For one thing, Kendrick spends the first Friday of the month dancing on a rooftop in downtown Provo and listening to local artists, along with thousands of other people. Hardly something to just pass by.
“I wanted to tell them there’s a lot they just don’t know about Provo,” Kendrick said.
The city's thriving music scene flies in the face of the stereotypical image of Provo. With acts like Imagine Dragons, Neon Trees, Fictionist, Lindsey Stirling, Ryan Innes, Joshua James, Isaac Russell, The New Electric Sound and The Moth and the Flame (to name a few) reaching national and international acclaim with top 40 hits, cross-country tours and millions of views on YouTube, one can’t help but wonder what smalltown Provo is doing right.
Several elements have contributed to the rapid growth, success and uniqueness of the music scene. Notable among these is the revitalization of downtown Provo, the creation of more opportunities for local artists to perform, the refusal of music venues to sell alcohol and the influence of the local culture.
“There is just something about here and now that is making it work," said Kendrick, who is also one of the founders and sponsors of Provo’s Rooftop Concert Series and a self-proclaimed promoter of Provo. "There is an energy going on in Provo that hasn’t been here before.”
In 2009, the city approved a series of new development projects and created new committees in a conscious effort to revitalize downtown Provo and make it “historically new” (see www.downtownprovo.org). Already host to many old but well-preserved buildings, the construction of Zions Bank Financial Center, the Utah Valley Convention Center, the FrontRunner train station and more free parking have helped draw more people downtown.
With the upcoming expansion of the Nu Skin Innovation Center (a project that has been in the works for several years) to keep up with the company's growing popularity, a new temple for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the recent announcement of Google Fiber — which will offer free basic broadband to every residence in Provo as well as the option to upgrade to speeds of 1 Gb/second — the downtown renovation is picking up even more speed.
One of the newly formed committees was named “Center Focus: A Vision and Plan for Downtown Provo,” (see www.provo.org/redev.centerfocus.html) and had to do simply with the cultural identity of downtown. A group of private citizens — made up of Kendrick, singer/songwriter Mindy Gledhill, photographer Justin Hackworth, music manager Sarah Wiley and others familiar with the music scene — was asked to help think of ideas and ways to get people to take advantage of all downtown had to offer. One of their ideas resulted in the Provo Rooftop Concert Series, where local artists with followings are invited to perform on a rooftop on 100 North and 100 West. Now in its fourth season, the popular series brings in thousands of guests every summer.
“The Rooftop Concert Series has been huge for Provo,” said Sam Schultz of Sammy’s, a café across the street, who also shares a passion for and actively participates in the music scene as a manager for musicians like Innes and consultant and sponsor for numerous bands.
Provo was named as one of America’s Most Livable Cities in 2010 by forbes.com, and more recently as one of livability.com’s Top 10 Downtowns of 2012.
“There is a spirit to Provo that is getting stronger, richer and more vibrant," Kendrick said. "The music scene is really vibrant, the restaurant scene is delicious, there are great artists, Google Fiber is a huge boost. There is just a lot to be proud of now here."
Along with the facelift of Provo’s downtown is the fact that reputable venues exist that allow local artists to perform and gain strong followings.
“Bands wouldn’t have much without good promoters, producers and venues behind them,” said Schultz, who also hosts a lot of block parties and music-related activities outside his café. “It gives these musicians opportunities. That’s what it’s all about.”
Another such venue is Corey Fox’s Velour Live Music Gallery on University Avenue.
“You can’t talk about the Provo music scene and not talk to Corey Fox,” Kendrick said. “He is an amazing coach for a lot of these bands. He knows what he’s doing. He’s got magic.”
Russell, a Provo musician who is now signed to Columbia Records, said, “He’s got golden ears, a great instinct for music.”
After managing local bands and other Provo venues, a passion and career that started in the early '90s, Fox decided it was time to open his own place. With his experience, he really could have gone anywhere.
But he wanted to stay in Provo.
“It would have been kind of stupid to open it anywhere else,” Fox said.
While many venues focus on getting well-known, already-touring acts to play, Fox is more motivated "to be a teacher, to find people and help them do more,” he said. “Provo is a transient town, so you only have these bands for a short amount of time.”
Before they got really big, Neon Trees and Imagine Dragons both won Velour Battle of the Bands and members of both have played at the Rooftop Series. The first time Neon Trees played its hit single “Animal” was at Sammy’s. Russell practically grew up on the Velour stage, playing numerous open mic nights before he got his record deal.
For Fox, a band's success begins by having a structure in place, “spending more time practicing, taking what they do more seriously.”
That, and having a mentor to help along the way. “You can have all the talent in the world," he said, "but if someone doesn’t put a structure on it, it doesn’t matter.”
“He (Fox) cares about me ... where my focus is in life,” Russell said. “He doesn’t just believe in stuff happening. He tells me I need to promote and go do something about it ... just a great guy with an honest heart. He hears music differently, and he gives people a shot. He has got to be like one of three reasons why I’m where I am now.”
Another good motivator for bands is seeing the careers of their predecessors take off.
“When younger bands are coming up and they see that band who has set that bar, they see that they can reach that level as well,” Fox said.
Plus, it helps that these bands remember their roots and share the desire to keep local artists and venues on the radar. When Imagine Dragons came back for a concert in May, The Moth and the Flame was the opening act. Tyler Glenn and Branden Campbell of Neon Trees played at the Rooftop Concert Series last month, alongside Innes, Stuart Maxfield of Fictionist, James and other local talent.
While local venues are all for giving opportunity to new bands, there is still a high standard that needs to be upheld.
Kendrick says bands need to show how serious they are.
“The bands that are promoting themselves and are kind of aggressive — those are the ones we notice,” she said. “You kind of have to work for it.”
Unlike most entertainment venues around the country, Fox doesn’t serve alcohol, which he believes has greatly influenced Velour’s success in a few different ways.
“Of course the alcohol revenue would be nice,” Fox said. But that would have detracted from his purpose in opening the venue.
“I hate when you’re in a noisy bar and the band is just background music. The goal is to have the music be the focus. We want the crowd to actually get something out of it.”
Not only has the refusal to serve alcohol created a music-focused atmosphere, but it also allows underage performers and audience members to come to shows.
“Many of these acts started off as teenagers," Fox said. "It’s rare to have a place where anyone under 21 can play.”
Like Russell, for example.
“There would have been no way to cultivate that want and need to perform,” said Russell, who started playing shows at Velour behind his brother when he was only 13.
“It’s also nice because you know that everyone at the shows is honestly going just to hear music. They’re not going out primarily to drink at bars and then maybe listen to whoever is playing.
“They’re sober all the time, so if they like your music, they’ll be able to go post it and share it. They exist clearheadedly.”
Perhaps a contributing factor to Velour staying afloat without alcohol is that Provo is “a heavily religious town,” Russell said.
The influence of faith on the Provo music scene is something no one involved can ignore.
Russell says that being in a place where most residents are of the LDS faith is "kind of hard sometimes" for a musician. He commented on how the local culture sometimes cultivates “one-upping" and pressure to be perfect.
On the other hand, Russell can’t help but wonder if perhaps the pressure that comes with holding oneself to such high standards is what also leads to good songwriting.
“Maybe it’s that angst of trying to be perfect that leaves people wanting to express stuff,” he said.
According to Fox, “Anytime you have a conservative community, there is a thriving subculture within that.”
Schultz believes the college community attracts musical talent.
“You look at all these bands, and they’re not originally from here," he said. "What I think happens is that kids from all over the world come to BYU and UVU and they’re all Mormon. They’re talented, form bands and create awesome stuff together. BYU and UVU are very entertainment-driven and they will come to shows, support events, which creates a buzz, and that helps artists be more secure.”
Whatever the reasons, “It’s an exciting time,” Fox said.
“I’m really interested to see what happens, and I don’t see it ending any time soon," he said. "Now, everyone is stepping up their game. It’s inspiring everybody to do more. I think one of the best things that can happen in the music scene is friendly competition, and that’s definitely what’s going on right now.”
“It’s a mecca of talent — it really is,” Schultz said.
The only thing left?
“Huge things are happening right now, and a majority of people still don’t know a lot of these bands started here,” Fox said. He explained that in the news, there is usually always a section featuring local athletes playing in the NFL, but rarely do you find news about local artists.
“Growing up, it was all about the BYU quarterback factory and all these people going to the NFL. The music scene is the equivalent of what was happening with BYU football in the '80s — except it’s not getting as much attention.”
Neon Trees’ “Animal” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Alternative Rock chart, and Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” earned the band a Rolling Stone magazine Biggest Rock Hit of the Year in 2012. Both bands are featured on the “Iron Man 3” soundtrack. And that’s just a taste.
“So many things are happening with all these bands, and local exposure is definitely not where it needs to be," Fox said. "But it’s cool that it is changing."
And if it doesn’t, the rest of America will probably pick up the slack.