Taking Back the Scene: the little revolution of Astoria Music & Arts
by Audrey Dimola
Published in Ins&Outs Magazine, Vol. II, Issue 04
We’ve all heard of legendary Manhattan music venues like Bowery Ballroom and Webster Hall, and have probably gone to shows in smaller spaces like Crash Mansion and Mercury Lounge. And by now we’re all aware of the Brooklyn scene of loft parties and independent music venues started by fans wanting to make their own rules. But where, in this mix of the NYC well-known and underground, is the music scene in Queens – and why aren’t we hearing about it?
It is becoming more and more apparent in recent years that something important is, in fact, happening here in our much beloved neighborhoods of Astoria and LIC. In particular, there is a group of artists, writers, musicians, party planners, and general mischief makers who have come together in a serendipitous collaboration to link up the arts in this sprawling borough, and to prove to all of NYC that Queens has something electric, intelligent, and uncompromisingly unique to offer, too. This group is the local grassroots organization Astoria Music & Arts, founded by Astoria native, Justin P. Finley. At AM&A shows and events affiliated with the group, there is a pervading sense of camaraderie between the members – an unwavering dedication to each other and to the cause, which is, of course, promoting and celebrating the overwhelming amount of musical and artistic talent right here in our own borough.
Astoria Music & Arts initially evolved out of Finley’s local event planning and festival organizing, and has now grown to become an official nonprofit organization, as well as an umbrella term for the many different artists of varying disciplines now working together under the AM&A name. The core committee alone speaks to the organization’s diversity: Finley, in addition to Mike Tummolo from Astoria performance/art space Wonderland Collective, writer Kara Rochelle, Elizabeth Ferguson from Make Music New York, Carlos Detres from online/print literary ‘zine The Whiskey Dregs, Audrey Dimola and William Helms from Ins&Outs Magazine, and photographer/singer Janene Otten, as well as a supporting cast of new members and regulars being added every day, such as Astoria rapper Chris Joslin a.k.a. Hops, photographer Christopher Casey, and members of local bands Bliminal, Illimanjaro, and gutter & spine. But by no means is the group exclusive, and the success and importance of a collaborative spirit is something Justin Finley noticed early on in his efforts leading up to the formation of Astoria Music & Arts.
Finley, a self-starter and lighting designer by trade, grew up in Astoria, spent some time in Florida, and returned to the neighborhood in late 1999. In the years following, he wrote articles for Astoria/LIC arts and culture ‘zine exPRESSo, performed with environmentally conscious artist collective The Green Circus, organized festivals in the area, and sang lead vocals and wrote lyrics for local indie rock band, Bliminal, which he is still a part of. In early 2008, Finley had an idea for a festival in a local park that ultimately ended up setting a critical series of events into motion. The totally free Astoria Music Now! Festival – assembled on practically no budget and with the help of a few local advertisers and the sale of 70 t-shirts – took place in Astoria Park on July 26, 2008. Not only was it the first event of its kind to bring together 20+ local bands and musicians playing live original music on two stages (as well as hula hooping, magic, comedy, and face painting), but planning the event also led Finley to several important contacts: Tara Sansone of Socrates Sculpture Park, Karen Overton of Partnership for Parks, Aaron Friedman of Make Music New York (the citywide live music event on June 21), and various other key players in the cultural and artistic development of the neighborhood. Before the festival (which Finley planned primarily with help from Evelyn Krichmar), he had also dedicated himself to creating programming for the live music events in Astoria as part of Make Music New York. Finley reflects on his participation in MMNY as a “rite of passage” which “opened a lot of doors,” and as an “invaluable resource” that allowed him to reach out to the entire local music community. Also, “MMNY was a propelling force in building the database for [what would become] AM&A,” and as Finley says, “It helped me to understand who appreciated being in the neighborhood and wanted to play [music] in the neighborhood.”
After the Astoria Park festival, Finley read an article in the August ‘08 issue of Ins&Outs that spurred him to reach out to the editors. As he recalls, “An artist basically said that there’s nothing happening in Queens [and] I didn’t get it! I was kind of upset. That’s not true, there is something happening here, and it wasn’t just a matter of our festival. This has been building over years, it’s just nobody knows about it.” According to Finley, this was one of the precise reasons why he started AM&A – “because of the zero recognition for any kind of a scene in Queens. It’s virtually an empty canvas, so we can do whatever we want. It’s just got to be organized, otherwise it’s not going to happen.” As a lifetime Astoria resident, AM&A’s founder has watched the rise and fall of a scene in the neighborhood. “It’s always been like an ebb and flow. Something has always been trying to happen, but it could never really get recognized or noticed or established because it’s almost like the neighborhood didn’t want it to happen, it kept on rejecting it.” Finley recalls the pattern of one or two venues featuring music and generating a buzz that would ultimately – and unfortunately – fade out, such as the “original thought and original programming” created at the now-defunct local bar Tupelo from 2000 to 2005. However, as aforementioned, in recent years, and especially in recent months, things have been changing for the better – more and more people seem committed to keeping that local energy alive.
As Finley so aptly describes, “the evolution of AM&A has been constantly, rapidly growing,” and it is only because the music and arts scene in Astoria and LIC has been growing right along with it. “Recently there’s an influx of so many artists and bands,” Finley says, “so what I just started doing was connecting the dots, if you will – putting all the pieces together, all these elements. It’s just like being a chemist in a lab, making this formula for something.” The next step in “putting the pieces together” came after Finley received an e-mail back from Audrey Dimola, one of the editors at Ins&Outs.
Following a meeting with her at LIC Bar relatively soon after, as Finley says, “these ideas started spawning out of that, and we were cross-referencing everybody we knew. Then we thought, let’s get people together in a room, like a think tank, and establish a meeting point, something to launch the future of the scene.” This “think tank” became the Meet and Greet at Dominie’s Hoek in LIC that brought Finley and Dimola together with Ran Craycraft from Why Leave Astoria?!, George Rallis from Hell Gate Social, Gustavo Rodriguez from LIC Bar (whom Finley had already been working with), Rob Prichard from the as yet unopened but highly anticipated Queensbridge Theater, John Butera from Dominie’s Hoek, and various other writers, musicians, and supporters. “The Meet and Greet was great because we met and introduced a lot of key players in the scene,” Finley says, “and rather than feeling like anybody’s competing – let’s all work together. I mean, it’s a very utopian kind of model, but let’s try it, you know? It’s worth a shot!”
Following this networking event that made Finley, and undoubtedly everyone involved, truly realize “the enormous potential of the neighborhood,” AM&A’s first big events since the Astoria Music Now! Festival in July were put into the works: the “Cornucopia of Consciousness” on November 29 at Hell Gate Social, followed by a 3-venue “Rock n’ Crawl” (at Boîte à Café, The Quays, and Shillelagh) along 30th Avenue in Astoria on December 27, which was produced in association with Ins&Outs Magazine. Both events featured nothing but live original music performed by local bands and solo musicians from Astoria, and set the tone for AM&A’s upcoming projects in the new year. As Finley states, AM&A had made the transition from a concept and a MySpace page to an official organization when City Parks Foundation agreed to be their fiscal sponsor, and after that, the core committee of AM&A nearly assembled itself on its own very soon after Finley realized that there needed to be a group of people working together to oversee the organization, “to build it and guide it along.”
“It all happened very quickly. We were all finding each other,” Finley reflects, and the first meeting of the new committee met at Astoria’s Wonderland Collective in January of ‘09 to discuss the future, which soon turned into an ambitious series of events. Finley’s serendipitous meeting with Mike Tummolo of Wonderland led to the first product of the AM&A/Wonderland collaboration: a diverse, multi-disciplinary arts and music celebration featuring live bands, dance, hip hop, stand-up comedy, DJs, spoken word poets, and more, called “AMandA in Wonderland,” planned for April 18 at Wonderland. AM&A has also just recently secured a section of 30th Ave. for their Make Music New York Block Party on June 21, and, of course, the culmination of their efforts will be the Second Annual Astoria Music Now! Festival in July, again at Astoria Park. Looking back on what they have accomplished and forward to the ever-changing future, it seems Finley has learned by doing, running with a mix of optimism and realism. He acknowledges the potential of the scene while remaining aware of the work to be done, which includes continuing to pursue more and more diverse music acts, expanding the concept of how shows are presented (creating a “show that’s like no other, or like no other that this neighborhood has ever seen before”), and also furthering the visual arts in Astoria and creating more spaces for it to be exhibited. He’s also learned that “we’re on the right track, there’s no doubt about it – definitely paving new ground. And as things materialize from what we’re doing, it’s just a sign, it’s an affirmation of progress.”
Finley and Astoria Music & Arts want nothing more than to continue with what they have started – their little revolution, getting grander by the day. They are joined in the fight by others like Gustavo Rodriguez, whose innovative programming for his Monday Music Showcase Revue has made LIC Bar a staple in the growing scene, and has allowed Rodriguez to, as Finley says, “have a huge impact on LIC.” Finley was asked to start a Monday Music Showcase at Blackbird’s Bar in Astoria, adding their efforts to open mics and live music nights at The Quays, Wonderland, and LIC’s Lucky Mojo, to name a few. “The scene is growing,” Finley remarks, “with organizations like AM&A and other artists that are inspired enough to put their own shows on – which is happening, too – and that’s the idea. The word is getting out, the buzz is getting out, and it’s changing the scope of how shows are done, how music is received in the area.”
And as for AM&A, the organization that is now just over a year old and already being considered a legitimate source for local arts: “it’s very organic, very grassroots,” Finley says. “And it has its own life, you know – my input is just as important as everyone else’s, and the beautiful thing about the way we work together is that everybody has great ideas and nobody disagrees with any of them because it’s such a new kind of format for how to run something – there’s nothing rigid about it.” He continues: “we’re juggling a non-profit organization, so no one’s getting paid here. That’s why I feel that this is a much bigger concept – it is kind of like a revolution, because we all believe in this.” And Finley himself is particularly tied to the cause: “I feel like if I’m not doing this, I don’t know what else I’d be doing that would make sense, to validify my time. I’ve always said to myself that one day I want to look back and say, ‘oh my God, I can’t even believe what I was able to do,’ rather than say, ‘I can’t believe I didn’t do anything,’ you know what I mean?” As Astoria Music & Arts continues to grow, it seems that many locals – perhaps many more than initially anticipated – feel the exact same way.