By GRAELYN BRASHEAR
COASTAL MONMOUTH BUREAU
Originally Printed 12/30/2009 in the Asbury Park Press
Even though the alternative folk-rockers of Toms River band River City Extension got a big break this year when New Brunswick-based XOXO Records agreed to sign them, lead singer Joe Michelini said life hasn't changed much.
The contract the band is signing is really just a formal recognition of an already well-established relationship with the small independent label, Michelini said.
"We've been working with these people for years now," Michelini said. "They're all our best friends. We all hang out together, we drink together, we eat together."
The band's six members still are cheerfully playing at small venues along the Shore, and they're still pulling out the stops when it comes to self-promotion, whether it's posting videos of recording session on their blog or offering to cook fans dinner in return for a donation to their tour fund.
The cooperative, do-it-yourself approach they've used to make a name for themselves has become the hallmark of the local and national music scene in the first decade of the 21st century. In the past 10 years, musicians in all genres have taken advantage of the popularization of digital music, internet blogs and social networking sites to launch themselves without the assistance of big-name music labels. On the Jersey Shore, and especially among those playing the famed venues of Asbury Park, such independent artists have come together to create a community that's gaining recognition nationwide.
Bret Morgan, co-founder of Asbury Park-based music merchandising company Bands on a Budget, has watched the changes unfold in his backyard.
"Making merchandise has gotten a lot more affordable," Morgan said. "Everybody can set up a home studio and have quality recording, which wasn't possible 10, 15 years ago."
As a result, he said, more artists are putting out their own CDs, printing T-shirts, networking and booking shows. "They can basically do everything themselves," Morgan said, "and make money and be able to do it as a lifestyle."
The most noticeable effect on the Shore music scene has been sheer numbers. There are more bands than ever, Morgan said, and there's a new sense of camaraderie among musicians that's propeling the scene forward. Artists like Nicole Atkins, currently on a national tour, and the members of The Gaslight Anthem are helping other groups get a leg up.
"We have some bands that have broken out recently," he said, "and once one or two break through to a national level, it just opens the floodgates."
River City Extension's Michelini is just 21, but he's a lifelong musician, and he's watched the Shore scene go from fractured and cutthroat to downright harmonious as bands realize the benefits of community that works together. Between the big live music markets of New York and Philadelphia, a new generation of artists have made a home here, he said, and they're making great music.
"We're helping each other out for shows, playing songs with each other . . . lending our guitars, whatever we need," Michelini said. "It's like the bar is being raised, and we're all helping each other up."
That kind of support is attractive to other artists, said Billy O'Brien, 26, who started managing shows in Asbury Park "when it looked like post-World-War-II Hiroshima," and is now in artist and community development as part of ShoreAlternative.com, an online radio station that serves Monmouth and Ocean counties.
The Shore's vibrant music community has given national acts more incentive to play its venues, and to stay a few days and make local connections, said O'Brien.
"I think that's what's giving the bands credibility," he said. "When these bands come through, they see something that's thriving, and that's special."
It's all combined to make the Shore scene the latest poster child for a new paradigm in music.
"I'll put our local scene in Asbury Park and in New Jersey up against pretty much everyone," O'Brien said.