I smirked as I watched Nate Ruess, lead-singer of the pop trio, fun., accepting the Grammy award for “Best Song” for its inescapable anthem featuring Janelle Monáe, “We Are Young.” I smiled for the reason Ruess articulated during his acceptance speech when he noted the irony of the award. He and his band mates are in fact “actually old,” he said, having been around the music scene for well over a decade. Later in the night, Ruess and company were dubbed “Best New Artist,” an equally ironic honor for a group with two records to its name.
You may or may not realize that Ruess’ journey to the Grammy’s began in Iowa City, where he lived the first few years of his life. His story is an example of the ever-shifting landscape of music in the United States. Bands like fun. bridge the gap between underground “indie” and mainstream success.
“The lines are blurred,” says Tony VandenBush, co-founder of Bandwith Radio, an Iowa City-based music streaming service catering specifically to independent and local groups. “‘Indie’ is just a word that originally meant ‘not backed by a major label.’ Many ‘indie’ bands are making waves now due to increased methods of exposure.”
Services such as iTunes, Spotify, YouTube and personal blogs, allow bands to expose new fans to their music. Access to new and undiscovered music has never been easier. Sometimes, though, the sheer volume of content can be overwhelming, if not confusing.
For VandenBush, one particular lunch hour in 2009 stands out as a turning point in his music-seeking experience. After enjoying an indie song on a guerrilla radio station, VandenBush embarked on a frustrating and ultimately failed search to purchase said song. Fed up, VandenBush and his two business partners, his brother Jake VandenBush and George Andrews, founded Bandwith Radio (bandwithradio.com) as a place for unsigned bands to advertise their tunes to music fans eagerly actively searching for the next big thing.
Bandwith Radio accommodates a variety of local talent, the majority of whom operate without the benefit of a major record label.
“While we have bands on our site that belong or are represented by small labels, the majority of them are talented garage bands that live for the weekend, live for a chance to play live, and have little to no financial backing,” he said.
Fans can purchase music directly from the site, which is free to artists. It is this grass-roots business method that reflects their dedication to independent and underground music and the people who are desperately seeking the next group to occupy their musical obsession.
“In my experience, there are those that will always want to hear the ‘new’ band before they are everywhere,” VandenBush says.
As a complement to the website, Bandwith hosts an annual music festival to showcase the talent featured on the Bandwith website. This year’s festival is Friday and Saturday at the Blue Moose Tap House in Iowa City featuring veterans of Iowa City’s rich music scene as well as some groups new to the area.
“It is our way of saying to the bands, ‘thanks for being a part of the family.’ At the same time, we can bring attention to our website and what we do for music makers and music lovers,” VandenBush says. “Iowa City has a great music scene. We have a few of my personal favorites playing this weekend: TallGrass, Mad Monks, Item 9 and the Mad Hatters and the Oculus. (Also) some that may not be on everyone’s radar, including Blizzard at Sea, The Wandering Bears, Cashes Rivers, knubby, The Western Front and Sunset 4Ever.”
Of the 11 bands performing at this year’s Bandwith Festival, two are from Wisconsin, one is from Minnesota and the remaining eight are from Iowa (with five hailing from Iowa City). You never know which just might be the next “big thing.”