After buzzy energy of the early 2000s and 2010s, the pandemic and changing economics took a toll on the local music scene. But there is still one out there—and it’s been struggling to recover and find itself again.
Music lovers who found themselves in the Sarasota-Bradenton area in the late 2000s and early 2010s might recall that there was a distinct buzz of energy in the local music scene. The Noise Ordinance Project—a tongue-in-cheek nod to Sarasota’s notoriously strict sound regulations—was started by a small but dedicated group that wanted to spotlight the vibrant music community in the area. From 2010-2013, participants in the project compiled and produced four CDs featuring an eclectic collection of original tracks by local musicians and bands, and the Cock & Bull hosted four Noise Ordinance concerts at which all contributing bands played back-to-back short sets on two stages.
The turnout from the community was huge. From garage bands to singer-songwriters, from Americana to psychedelia, and literally everything in between, this project represented not only the diversity and talent in the local music scene, but also the sense of community that had sprung up within it.
Additionally, other venues like The Shamrock, Growlers (now The Mable), Pastimes Pub and Ace’s Lounge hosted packed shows featuring bands with names such as The Equines, Fancy Rat, Sons of Hippies and Villanova Junction.
I was in a band called Scone Train that began to play around Sarasota at that time, and through the sheer good fortune of timing, we happened to drop into this rapidly energizing music landscape. Opportunities to meet and play shows with other local bands abounded, and it was exciting to be a part of that creative community. Audiences would come out to see what all the buzz was about, and the energy ran high for close to a decade.
In November 2019, when Scone Train played at Arlington Park Porchfest—another community music event that has gone by the wayside—we didn’t know that it would be our last gig. A few life-shifting years and one global pandemic later, I found myself asking when I’d last gone out to hear a local band. With some of the longtime music venues in the area having closed or changed hands, I wondered: where was there left to go experience live original music?
Good news: After talking to local musicians and venues, I found that, despite the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and the changing economics of Sarasota, there is still a scene out there that has been struggling to recover and find itself again. The pandemic offered many local musicians an opportunity to reassess themselves creatively and write new music, so this is a fortuitous moment to get out there and experience the fruits of their artistic incubation.
“I feel like the Sarasota music scene comes in waves,” says Lesa Silvermore, who has been playing music in the area since she was a “shy punk” teenager at Booker High School. She graduated from Booker in 2010—the same year as the first Noise Ordinance compilation. After high school, she started playing live, including at the Noise Ordinance concerts, and eventually formed The Lesa Silvermore Band with a couple of her fellow musicians.
“It seems like there’s a time when people come together, and then a time when people move away, and that’s what happened in the late 2010s,” Silvemore says. “Young people often find it hard to make a living and be supported in this area as original artists, so they set out to find inspiration in larger cities such as Los Angeles, Nashville and New York.” Silvermore is familiar with this: she moved to Nashville for a little while, a time she describes as an “extreme learning experience.” Eventually, she returned to Sarasota because she missed the chemistry she had with her band.
“Things have definitely shifted in the music scene here,” Silvermore says, “but I think now everyone is craving reconnection and community, especially after 2020, when we were all so separated. The new faces make it exciting. It’s important to give those young people a space and a place to express themselves.”
Claire Franklin was one of the organizers of the Noise Ordinance project, and her current band, Divine AF, still plays locally, although it focuses more on special events and larger festivals. “We all got to stay home for two years, and we got very good at it,” she says. “There are so many in-home entertainment options now, you don’t really even need to leave the house. Bands have to do something really spectacular to get people motivated to actually show up. It’s a struggle. I think the hunger for going out has yet to outweigh the ease of staying home.”
“I’m hopeful because this does tend to be cyclical and I think [the local music scene] will recover, but I don’t think it’s going to look the way it did before,” she continues. “What direction it goes in depends on who shows up and what people want. If they don’t want live original music anymore, and they don’t show up, they’re not going to have live original music anymore.”
Intrigued? Here are some opportunities to show up for live original music locally.
All the local musicians I talked to spoke highly of Oscura in Bradenton, one of the few dedicated live music venues in the area. Oscura started out in a smaller location in downtown Bradenton but moved to its current spot in 2022 because it needed a larger space to support what it was becoming. Musicians rave about the positive experience the venue creates for the bands that play there and the heavy promotion they do for shows through flyers and social media channels. Oscura hosts live music events three to four nights per week and a singer-songwriter brunch every Sunday.
Matt LaPerche, the event coordinator and audio engineer at Oscura, says, “Our biggest draw is definitely the punk indie bands from the local scene, or anything punk-adjacent. We’ve been very lucky to see our shows grow immensely over the last year. We went from seeing maybe a handful of people for some local acts to now, when they’re filling the room.”
Plus, he says, there’s been a number of newer bands that have popped up since Oscura opened. “A lot of them are people that have been in bands before, and they get inspired to get together because now they have a place to play in the area again that will support them,” he says. “It’s awesome to see that they’re interested in continuing that and helping to grow the scene.”
Ringling Underground at the Ringling Museum of Art (Sarasota)
Ringling Underground, a monthly Thursday-might music event that runs from September to May in the courtyard of the Ringling Museum, has been a staple of the Sarasota music scene for the past 12 years. It typically features three acts — one Sarasota band, one Florida band and one national act.
Shannon Fortner, who books the bands for Ringling Underground, has been involved with music in this area for several decades with their longtime band Meteoreyes, as well as other projects, and has experienced the ups and downs of the music world.
“Unfortunately, the noise ordinances that came about in Sarasota in the 2000s brought about the demise of live music that had been thriving in the downtown area,” Fortner says. “Since then, we’ve seen a lot of venues come and go, and we’ve seen some staples on the scene close, such as the Five O’clock Club and the Blue Rooster.”
“The concept of Ringling Underground is to get support for local and regional artists so they can make these connections with national bands,” Fortner continues. “A lot of the reason I do what I do is to try to make the music scene more sustainable. How do we nurture bands to feel inspired to focus on doing their original music? A lot of the new bands that we’ve seen coming up are cover bands, and they’re doing that because that’s what they can get paid for.”
Fortner is quick to add that being supportive as a music venue isn’t just about providing a space for bands to play. “It’s also about being financially supportive, not just, ‘Hey, here’s fifty bucks and a beer.’ We have a lot of money in this area, and I would love to see some folks who are or were musicians themselves that would be interested in investing in and supporting the music scene so that we can inspire younger artists to find their full potential as musicians and inspire the next generation. When there’s more consistency in an industry, that’s when you see bands thriving.”
The next Ringling Underground event takes places on Feb. 1, 2024, and will feature local band BRIANA! + Lemon Royale, Treis and Friends from Central Florida, and the national touring act Telula.
Original Band Night at Bold Cowork (Sarasota)
Alicia Gatto is a relative newcomer to the Sarasota scene, having moved here from Los Angeles two years ago. A singer-songwriter, fashion designer and promoter, she started creating original music events in L.A. in her 20s.
“When I first got to Sarasota, I thought it was a beautiful place, but everything seemed like kind of the same old thing, with mostly cover bands in restaurants and bars,” Gatto says. “I was bored and wanted to help make something cool happen.”
Over time, she started to make connections with local bands in the area. “I saw that original music exists here and that these artists just needed some support,” she says. “That’s when I decided to put together an event to showcase the talent we have here.”
Original Band Night will take place on Jan. 27, 2024, at the Bold Cowork space in downtown Sarasota and will feature performances by four area bands: Physical Plant, The Lesa Silvermore Band, Me Umbra, and Treedom. There will also be a fashion show featuring local designers and models, plus fashion artisans and health and beauty vendors.
“I’m trying to bring a younger, fresher element because I do feel like there’s a demand for this here, and Bold Cowork is a unique space to hold an event like this,” Gatto says. She hopes that Original Band Night will inspire others in the community to think outside the box in finding ways to support the local creative scene.
Café in the Park (Sarasota)
Located in Payne Park in downtown Sarasota, Café in the Park has been hosting live music since 2015 with its weekly Friday evening concerts and “Sunday Songs in the Park” afternoon series. Much of the charm of the café as a music venue is the shady outdoor patio area where the bands play, which means that shows sometimes have to be rescheduled when the weather is inclement.
“The live music started off as a way to bring people in,” says Simone Steiff, the owner, manager and head chef of Café in the Park. “It has turned out to be a big part of our overall success.”
Café in the Park hosts an eclectic variety of bands of all different genres, many of them local, as well as some from outside of the Sarasota area. “We have a limited number of slots for our music, so I’m not even able to get in all of the bands that we would love to have play here,” Steiff says.
“It’s always exciting to see all the talent in this area, and the way that people turn out to support it,” she continues. “Almost all the musicians who play here let me know how much they enjoy this venue because the audience actually listens to the music, engages with it, even sometimes gets up and dances along. It’s not just background music for their dinner.”
When Covid restrictions shut down the café for a few months in 2020, Steiff planned on taking a longer break from the live music offerings, but the demand was strong. “People kept asking when we were going to start back up with the concerts,” she says. “They really wanted to get out and feel the community, and because we are a mostly outdoor venue, people felt safe here.”
Steiff feels positive about the state of live music in the area. “It’s great to see how busy bands are, not just playing in town but going on the road as well,” she says. “I feel like live music in Sarasota is really flourishing.”
Fogartyville Community Media and Arts Center (Sarasota)
According to Jesse Coleman, station manager for WSLR 96.5FM Community Radio, live music at Fogartyville has had a strong post-Covid comeback. Fogartyville is a 105-seat venue in the heart of downtown Sarasota that hosts regional, national and international acts three to four times per week during season, with a variety of genres including Americana, folk, blues, experimental, indie, world music and jazz.
“We also look to bring a spotlight to our local musicians by serving as the launch venue of their tours or album releases, booking them for our open houses, and offering opportunities for them to open for visiting out-of-state bands,” Coleman says.
Coleman himself was in a band called Cassolette, which participated in several of the Noise Ordinance projects. “We collectively had some really positive synergy around that time,” he says. “It’s clear to me that material conditions contributed to the proliferation of original music. Rental housing and real estate prices were actually reasonable for working people and students in Sarasota, so the area had a base of young, creative people who were forming bands, doing art projects, and organizing shows.”
“Aside from Covid, the increase in real estate prices that has pushed young artists to more affordable areas has been a huge factor in stifling original music in this area,” he says.
That said, Coleman still believes that the live music community in this area is on its way back. “With WSLR 96.5 FM as a core part of our operation, we have a tremendous opportunity to promote local shows and give local musicians airtime and interviews,” he says. “I think that local media outlets play a huge role in facilitating local scenes, and I’m optimistic about the future of a unique music culture here in Sarasota.”