Many have built homemade studios, formed very unofficial musical co-ops, or begun idiosyncratic indie labels (and often all three), opting for complete artistic freedom over the corrupt carrot of rock & roll stardom.
Together with like-minded musicians participating in a relaxed, conducive atmosphere, many have developed their own sound, often synonymous with the studio, label and home turf. The names alone -- Thrill Jockey, Wavelab, Perishable, Merge, Lambchop, Bloodshot, Matador -- evoke distinct artistic universes (even down to CD art) where creativity, not money, provides the Big Bang.
Some local musicians believe Charlotte is nearing the critical mass where indie ventures like these are an inevitable component of the local musical landscape. It's too early to tell, of course, but the Houston Brothers' recent acquisition of their own studio space -- dubbed "Cougar Camp" -- in a Charlotte neighborhood has the earmarks of just such an enterprise.
"(The studio) is just a component of this holistic thing we're trying to do," said Justin Faircloth, the group's keyboardist and primary songwriter. "Get as many musicians involved in town as possible, with a place where people don't feel like they're spending money by the hour to be under pressure to make a record, and all those other intimidating aspects."
Like a lot of these musical communities across the country, one band with a unique sound and incorruptible commitment to music emerges and often serves as inspiration: think Thrill Jockey, Tortoise comes to mind; Wavelab, Giant Sand; Perishable, Califone.
It's the Houston Brothers' unique and engaging take on pop, country and electronic sounds that has already pulled some Charlotte musicians and bands into their orbit.
"We've got folks who are interested in coming to record with us that like the way our records sound and want to dig into some of the things that we do," Faircloth said, citing local acts Elevator Action, Alan and Chad Edwards (ex-Lou Ford, now Hard Times Family), and John Morris' new band, Tyre Fyre, as probable participants, as well as a long list of other potential pairings.
"We're not shopping it out like a commercial studio, but we're trying to take on projects that want us to be involved in our working capacity: layering sounds, using tones," Faircloth continued. "We let people know in advance that we're going to be pretty heavy-handed with it. We're not there to be documentarian recordists -- there's plenty of people around that are better at that than we are."
Like many of the homemade or band-run studios indie acts gravitate toward, their catch-(on tape)-as-catch-can nature is a big part of the appeal, an antidote against the sterility and assembly-line philosophy of most pro studios. The members of Chicago-based Califone, born out of the ashes of Red Red Meat, recorded in a truckstop owned by percussionist Ben Massarella before the band opened their own studio, Clava, to like-minded bands including OrSo, Sinister Luck Ensemble, Sin Ropas and Out of Worship. Their label, Perishable, followed, but sharing studio space -- and ideas and instruments and equipment and musicians -- has been a boon to everyone involved.
"All we were thinking of doing was trying to collaborate together, but what we wound up doing was helping each other start our own bands, and we didn't even know it," Massarella said by phone.
The Houston Brothers are hoping for the same happy coincidences. They recorded their first two CDs in Justin's attic -- "in our underwear," Faircloth remembered -- with open windows, no air conditioning, and a host of other recording disasters lurking. Their new studio -- a 30s-style bungalow with creaky floors, strange drafts, odd-angled corners and who knows how many more undiscovered variables -- offers a better working environment while retaining some individuality. It's already a full-fledged member of the band.
"It is its own entity and we work with it, as opposed to trying to stifle it," Justin said, opting for a landscaping metaphor. "You can either manicure the shit out of your yard and make it precise and, in my mind, very bland, or you can plant shit everywhere and make it what it is and enjoy it for what it is."
But even when a town's community of independent musicians comes together, there are plenty of cautionary tales to go around. Sadly, it doesn't take much to ruin the vibe and spoil the spirit.
"You go to these places after that's happened, and it's just a bunch of people trying to compete with one another and piss on each other's shoes, trying to grab musical real estate," said Faircloth, whose less-than-ideal experiences in Portland, OR, are chronicled on the song, "Portland," from the band's latest, self-titled, record.
One of the musicians the Faircloths will be working with, Chad Edwards, remembered another time when Charlotte seemed poised to "put itself on the music map." It was the mid-90s, and at the time local acts Jolene, Muscadine and Sugarsmack had all recently been signed to major labels (or one major label -- Sire) and seemed poised to put the city in the musical spotlight. A year later they'd all broken up, largely because Sire never got behind any of the projects, hoping, as usual, to get maximum return (for the label) with minimal effort.
So Edwards is cautiously optimistic but downright ecstatic that he can make a record without having to "worry about where the money was going to come from to do it."
"(The Faircloth's studio) has breathed new life into the ideas we had," Edwards said of both himself and his brother, Alan. "We were at a loss, considering our US record label had folded and our band broke up. But they have provided us with an opportunity to get a record made, and a good one, with people we trust and that can really play.
"Their first concern is making good records, and bettering things for everyone in town," said Edwards.
There are auditory oases all over the country to suggest that it just might work.