[one]Avoiding the chilly temperatures and accumulating snow, a small crowd of people gathers inside the dimly lit café to sip tea and coffee. It’s a Wednesday night at Magdalena’s Tea House on Michigan Avenue, and the stage is set for the weekly Open Stage night. The cold weather has abbreviated the list of artists – including comedians and poets as well as the singers and songwriters – but the Lansing café, with its stained glass lamps and warm colored walls, provides a cozy atmosphere for the few who trickle in.
The café, established in July 2004, is the culmination of Miko Fossum’s decades-old dream. Fossum founded Magdalena’s Tea House to be a place of community, something she felt the local music scene lacked. “I felt like there was a need for another music venue, one in which there is no smoke or alcohol involved,” Fossum said. “It’s really just an idea I thought would work. My whole premise was live music, performance art, community space.”
Fossum got the idea for the tea house from her travels in Europe about 20 years ago. She was inspired by the friendly cafés featuring independent artists in a relaxed atmosphere – a place for the performers as well as the audience. “I visualized what I wanted to create, and it’s developed beyond what I intended,” she said.
Venues such as Magdalena’s Tea House, The Green Door Blues Bar and Grill, and Ten Pound Fiddle Coffeehouse offer intimate settings for a wide variety of genres of artists. The distance from MSU’s campus – a mile or two past the Frandor Shopping Center – seems to isolate the students from the Lansing scene, according to Chris Dorman, a local singer-songwriter and volunteer at Magdalena’s Tea House.
“There’s definitely a barrier,” he said, referring to the lack of MSU students looking to Lansing for music and other shows. “Lansing is more saturated with passion and talent than I’ve seen anywhere else. [East Lansing venues] think that to make money, you have to have cover bands.”
Although (Scene) Metrospace and Green River Cafe provide performance space, most of the East Lansing venues are bars, where admission is limited to crowds of 21 and older. Rick’s American Café features Jedi Mind Trip, a cover band that plays rock hits from various artists ranging from Maroon 5 to Journey to AC/DC, every Thursday night. Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub often has shows from local bands with some original music, but covers are often intertwined into their set lists as well. The October 2006 closing of the Temple Club, which hosted local bands as well as nationally touring shows accessible to 18-year-olds, and the 2006 departure of Mac’s Bar’s longtime booking agent Steven Lambert certainly hurt the local music scene’s diversity.
[tea]The age restriction of the bars also factors in to the number of venues at which local artists can play. Venues, in an effort to at least cover costs, look at the kind of following an act has before booking them. This can hurt younger bands that have a younger fan base. “A lot of the venues are bars, so it’s hard to get your friends in,” said Cori Bruder, an interdisciplinary studies in social science sophomore, adding a lot of the bands themselves might be under the appropriate age.
“When I was in the dorms, I wouldn’t spend any money except [on shows at] Mac’s Bar,” said Amanda Brewington, a communication and telecommunication, information studies and media senior and a co-host of Impact 89FM’s The Basement. “It used to be that I could catch lots of indie touring bands, but now it’s basically jam bands and hip-hop.”
In order to promote local artists, The Basement tries to bring local music to the Lansing area via the airwaves. Each Thursday night, the show features artists from Michigan. The artists either submit their own demos to the show or are discovered by co-hosts Brewington and third-year veterinary student Kate Brackney. “My favorite thing to do is to see a band I’ve never seen before and play them on air,” Brewington said, adding that The Basement tries to play what its listeners want to hear. “We try to take to hear feedback that is genuine. What we play is a reflection of what we know.”
Both Magdalena’s Tea House and The Basement see the Lansing area as a microcosm of the sundry music of Michigan, and recently implemented local noise ordinances have also stifled the local music scene. The East Lansing noise ordinances prohibit having a live band or disc jockey or other live entertainment under penalty of a $1,000 fine or a $500 fine and 72 hours of community service. Brackney said there are still many house shows in the student housing community, but they have to stay underground for fear of being caught by the police. “You have to adapt to what’s legal,” she said.
Despite the smothering ordinances and rampant influence of cover bands, there are still many local shows with local artists to see – it just boils down to the matter of finding them. A lot of times, promotion is the most difficult step for these young artists trying to establish a name for themselves, and small venues like Magdalena’s Tea House provide this atmosphere. “We also recognize the fact that people appreciate amateur bands being able to come and have a place,” Fossum said. “If they can bring out 20, 30, 40 friends, then they can play here. That’s different than some of the spaces in town that are strictly performance-based.”
The Basement, with its attitude of promoting local music, is another avenue for artists to use to make themselves known. “We try to announce as many shows as we can over the air,” Brackney said. “Michigan has more to offer than Eminem and Kid Rock. It has a genuine music scene.”
Though artists typically try to get their names out through the usual gigs and radio play, there is another option for local hip-hop artists. Code of tha Cutz, a hip-hop record store in East Lansing, began as the hip-hop stage in 2001 on the Vans Warped Tour. In 2003, Code of tha Cutz established itself in East Lansing as a hub for underground, independent hip-hop. “Anything hip-hop that goes on around [East Lansing], we promote it, and we set it up,” employee and Lansing resident Cameron King said. “Any hip-hop show is ‘Code of tha Cutz presents…’”
Code of tha Cutz, with its shelves full of hip-hop vinyl records and local artists’ T-shirts and posters, is the vision of well-traveled Jamie Wilkins, a.k.a. DJ Add.Verse, who has performed at the X-Games, on some of pro skater Tony Hawk’s tours and still performs at Warped Tour annually. Wilkins wanted to bring more than another genre of music to East Lansing; she wanted to expose the town to a new culture. “With the culture, you’ve got graffiti, you’ve got breakdancing, you’ve got being an emcee, and you’ve got DJ-ing,” King said, pointing to the in-store breakdancing pad and adding the store hosts weekly freestyle battles. “No one buys music anymore, so the music doesn’t even sell all that much. It’s more the hip-hop culture that everyone would love to see.”
While Magdalena’s Tea House, The Basement and Code of tha Cutz focus on independent artists, there is a closer venue to find more popular, mainstream shows: MSU’s campus. The Residence Halls Association (RHA) has brought many nationally touring shows to MSU. “We feel that we’re in a unique position because we can bring mainstream, national acts to campus,” said Grant Lyman, who has been the RHA Director of Special Events for the past three years. “One of our goals is building Lansing as a concert market. We’re at a point where agents are contacting us to see if room is available.”
Lyman agreed the closing of the Temple Club in Lansing created a void in suitable venues for the larger acts. MSU has offered its 3,500-person capacity Auditorium to acts with big fan bases such as Guster and The Fray. RHA also sponsors an annual Welcome Week show – the most recent Welcome Week artists include Jimmy Eat World, Dashboard Confessional and Howie Day – at the Wharton Center. “I really appreciate it because it’s not like the same bar scene,” Bruder said. “It’s clean. It’s nice. It’s usually free or cheap.”
[hip]These intimate on-campus venues allow students to get close to their favorite artists while not having to travel far or pay a lot of money to get to the show in the first place – some of the most influential factors for many college students. It benefits not only the students, but RHA and the artists as well. “Having two venues in the middle of campus is much easier for students,” said Lyman, adding that much of the time, students would have to travel to Grand Rapids or Detroit to see such shows. “It\’s a lot easier for us to reach students in the dorms through RHA. We have a much easier time marketing than those other venues do.”
This spring’s lineup features several artists making return visits to MSU. The alternative rock band Mae will take a break from its national tour to play at the Erickson Kiva on March 30 – the band’s fourth stop at MSU – and Ben Folds, who targets college audiences, will return on April 3 at the Auditorium. With Lyman’s growing relationships with the artists’ agents and the students’ warm receptions, MSU has established itself as a prime market for music artists and performers. RHA isn’t all about the national shows, though; the association tries to create chances for the smaller local acts. “[The mainstream acts] give us opportunities to book locals as support,” Lyman said. “It gives us a good chance to reach out to them.”
The local music scene – whether it’s the Wharton Center, a Lansing tea house or the darkest dive bars – continues to change along with its students and fan base. The venues are always adjusting along with their patrons’ tastes. One thing will remain constant, though: music will remain an integral part of a community always looking for an entertaining way to spend their evening, especially when it means staying out of the cold.

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