‘You’re on Your Own, Kid’: Taylor Swift fans struggle for Eras Tour tickets

By Isabella Reilly

On the morning of Nov. 15, 2022, lifelong Taylor Swift fan Emma McElroy sat at her kitchen table at 9:30 a.m. Bright-eyed and glued to her computer screen, she patiently waited to join the Verified Fan presale for Swift’s upcoming tour — the first concert the singer has headlined since 2018.  

At 9:41 a.m, she nervously texted her friend Jayne Willard. 

“Are you in the waiting room?” 

“Yes,” Willard replied. “I’m very scared.”

But by 10:33 a.m., McElroy sent another text, this time excited. 

“I got five lower bowl tickets for April 28 in Atlanta!” 

“Still 2,000 plus people in front of me,” Willard replied at 10:35 a.m.  

And at 11:21 a.m., Willard sent two sad face emojis with a message that read, “I haven’t moved in over 40 minutes.”

As a long-time fan of the singer herself, Willard said the cost didn’t matter. She had to see Swift live. 

Still, she didn’t think she’d have to bear with a 6-hour, slow-moving wait in Ticketmaster’s virtual queue to get what she wanted. 

“Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve”

Willard was one of millions of fans to experience significant wait times, site interaction issues and exorbitant additional fees during Swift’s Ticketmaster presale. Fans and scalpers competed for a seat to one of the tour’s 52 U.S. show dates. Twenty-six concert hopefuls have since filed suit against the ticketing company, claiming it engaged in anticompetitive and fraudulent conduct. 

“I’m not going to make excuses for anyone because we asked them, multiple times, if they could handle this kind of demand and we were assured they could,” Swift said in an Instagram statement. “It’s truly amazing 2.4 million people got tickets, but it really pisses me off that a lot of them feel like they went through several bear attacks to get them.” 

McElroy said as soon as she began moving in the queue, she knew she was ahead of others in line. She said she couldn’t believe how quickly she was able to get her hands on tickets.

Willard, who was competing for tickets to Swift’s third show in Tampa, said she entered the presale intending to buy two seats, assuming someone would want to go with her.

But after finally getting through to ticket selection, Willard recalls clicking on a single seat to view the price before immediately being sent to checkout. 

“I had one seat in my cart and thought, ‘I’m not going to risk this,’” she said. “I was just grateful to get out with something.” 

Despite the friends’ vastly different experiences, Willard and McElroy were some of the lucky ones. The ticket battle left many fans, such as Alexa Mazloff, empty-handed.   

After a 4-hour wait in the queue, Mazloff said she thought she could rejoin the presale line the following day and purchase one of the remaining tickets to Swift’s first Tampa show. Though she didn’t think her selection would be as vast, she trusted that if she logged on early enough the next morning, she would be fine.

She later learned she wasn’t.

To address what Ticketmaster called a “historic demand for tickets,” the company postponed the exclusive presale for Capital One cardholders scheduled for the afternoon of Nov. 15 to the following day. The general public sale, scheduled for Nov. 18, was canceled later that week. 

Jennifer Kinder, a lawyer representing Swift fans and founding attorney at the Dallas-based firm Kinder Law PLLC, said she had never seen a situation like Swift’s recent ticket sales before.

The Ticketmaster issues made national news, even attracting the attention of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, which held a case hearing on the matter on Jan. 24.  

“Ticketmaster ought to look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m the problem, it’s me,’” Sen. Richard Blumenthal said during the three-hour hearing, quoting a lyric from Swift’s new single “Anti-Hero.”

Compounding an already trying customer experience, Kinder said verified fan tickets were sold for higher prices than initially negotiated, allowing the company to increase its existing additional fees. 

“As long as they can get scalpers and bots to buy a bunch of tickets, then they are ensured that the ticket will be sold two to three more times,” Kinder added. “And each time there is a new fee, they benefit.” 

Mazloff said that though she’s still on the hunt for a pair of tickets, most available for resale are out of her price range. She recalled an offer of one set of tickets priced at $1,000 each. 

“I’m sorry, but that is out of budget,” she said. “For me and for most people.”

“The Great War”

Kinder said she stands behind her decision to take on the suit, regardless of the criticism she’s faced.

She hopes her efforts will help prevent the further implementation of industry monopolies like the one fans claim Ticketmaster currently holds. Ticketmaster merged with Live Nation Entertainment, an events promoter and venue operator, in 2010. As a result, the company now holds an estimated 70% share of the market for ticketing and live events. 

Since Kinder Law began its “Take Down Ticketmaster” campaign in November, the firm has encouraged fans of other major artists interested in fundamental change to document their ticketing experiences, adding, “consumers need to stand up for themselves.” 

The first federal court hearing for the Swift fans’ lawsuit against the ticketing giant will be held on March 27. Kinder said the firm is prepared for what will likely be a “big fight.”

As for Willard, she isn’t letting anything get in the way of seeing Swift in Tampa. 

A first-year graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, she even moved her thesis defense, initially due by April 16, so it wouldn’t conflict with her show date. The committee hearing her defense agreed to do so on April 7, a scheduled university holiday.

With her one ticket secured, she’ll attend Swift’s concert solo, hoping the show will be akin to a religious experience. 

“Nothing is going to stop me now,” she said.


Edited by Allie Kelly and Guillermo Molero

UNC senior brings the pianos of Graham Memorial to life

By Marine Elia

In the oak-paneled Graham Memorial study lounge, the room resonates with the heavy, melancholic notes evocative of a Chopin piece. The scene is akin to that of a 19th century drawing room, with dim lighting from the chandeliers illuminating students reclining on gleaming leather sofas. Emotion effortlessly flows from the piano into the ears of the people in the room. Tucked away in the corner, the varnished baby grand shines. The pianist, a girl in neon yellow overalls, is consumed by the music.

The pianist is Tianzhen Nie, a classically trained pianist and Hawaii native. During her brief spurts of spare time as a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she brings the pianos of Graham Memorial and Hill Hall to life.

“Pure bliss,” she said in response to how music makes her feel.

Nie may have trained classically from the ages of 6-17, but she hasn’t stopped improving her musical skills. When playing in spaces on campus, she frequently makes her impromptu performances interactive by calling on her audience to give an emotion for her to recreate on the piano.

“The thing about music, though, is that it’s really like acting. In that moment, when you’re playing, you can step into whatever mood or realm of feeling you want, even if it’s not the headspace you’re currently in,” Nie said. “It’s really like a kind of escape.”

Nie refers to improvising as her preferred form of playing. The inexorable connection she has with the piano allows her to play flawlessly without even glancing at the keyboard.

“I’ll ‘Bird Box’ it and look away or just close my eyes,” Nie said, alluding to the recent Netflix original psychological thriller.

A unique talent discovered and a special bond formed

Although she knows music is an innate characteristic of her mind and soul, Nie accredits her training to her piano teacher in Honolulu. Earning the endearing title of “Auntie Alice,” Nie’s teacher, Alice Hsu, continues to be her motivator and biggest fan.

Hsu aspired to become a professional pianist after graduating from music school in Vietnam, but switched routes to teach the next generation of young musicians. Hsu taught at Nie’s elementary school and first encountered her when she was a talented third-grade piano player—with awful technique. Hsu took her in as a student for private lessons.

“After the foundations were built by having the discipline to practice every day, that’s when her creativity and passionate [playing] started to show,” Hsu said.

Nie recalls Hsu’s piano studio where she spent endless hours rehearsing the standardized piano tests to advance to new levels of piano mastery.

Lessons would always begin with a conversation on how Nie was feeling, a demonstration of the warm, familial relationship between the teacher and student.

“She cared about not just how I developed as a musician, but as a student and person,” Nie said.

Overcoming obstacles

Like many tales of success, Nie’s did not come without its trials and tribulations. When she was in fourth grade, Nie rebelled against her parents and rejected the five hours a week spent practicing. It didn’t take much to quell an 11-year-old’s uprising as her parents stressed the importance of piano as an outlet and creative pursuit.

During the recession in 2008, Nie’s father lost his job, and her piano lessons had to be placed on a hiatus until he found employment. Nie’s piano career could have been canceled indefinitely if not for Hsu, who saw her potential and offered to give her pro bono lessons due to the magnitude of her talent.

“I was compelled to help,” Hsu said. “She was too unique for me to let her go.”

Early on, Nie’s independence and creativity were in the nascent stages of development as she chose the pieces she wanted to play under Hsu’s “democratic teaching.” It would be this sense of musical autonomy that led Nie to compose her first piece at 12 years old. As part of a project in middle school to create a video in iMovie, she used her talents to compose the background music. The impressive feat earned her the attention of her principal who wrote her a letter describing how proud she was of her.

“When I received the letter, that’s when I stopped and said, ‘Okay, yeah. I might just be good at this,’” Nie reminisced. To further her talents, she sought new spaces where she could grow, such as her church where she practiced improvising and accompanying the choir.

A creativity that can’t be bound

Last summer during a study abroad program in the Galapagos with her environmental studies program, Nie was inspired to once again unearth her composer persona. With a team of friends, including an aspiring documentary filmmaker, the group of students produced a short four-minute documentary for which Nie wrote the score.

Nie intends to start composing again, but with multiple art forms clouding her vision of a future as a soloist, the task of composing is an arduous one. As a cellist and having a background in Chinese zither as a nod to her Chinese heritage, Nie does not suffer from a lack of instruments to absorb her creative fluids.

At the intersection of creativity where talent runs in multiple veins of expression, music lends itself to poetry. Nie is a member of the UNC Wordsmiths, the spoken word team on campus. She represented the Wordsmiths at the College Union Poetry Slam Invitational, the national competition for college spoken word teams, for the past two years.

Her repertoire ranges from pieces parodying Donald Trump to statement-making feminist commentaries intent on changing the stigma around periods.

Mistyre Bonds met Nie in a poetry class her freshman year and is also a member of UNC Wordsmiths. She describes Nie’s writing style as “beautiful and powerful at the same time.”

Bonds envisions Nie “conquering the world” after graduation with her ability to connect to others.

Nie’s future abounds with possibilities. If she chooses to continue her education, she will pursue a master’s in environmental studies with a focus on environmental disasters and how they affect minority communities.

Earlier this semester, Nie began to flirt with the idea that her art could flourish into a successful career. Terence Oliver, who teaches motion graphics in the School of Media and Journalism, came across one of Nie’s spoken word performances on YouTube entitled “Person of Color” in 2017 and offered her $250 to participate in a video showcasing UNC’s talent and diversity.

Still waiting to discover if an artistic path will overtake an academic one, Nie said she will navigate her future with the mantra she applies to her musical improvisations, “When I make a mistake and hit the wrong note, I turn that mistake into a new melody.”

Edited by Mitra Norowzi and Natasha Townsend

Seeking black identity in a white world through rap

By Sophie Whisnant

(Photos courtesy of Alice Hudson)

Rapper and NC State student Phillip Green.

Philip Green leans back on a dirty old pull-out couch in his friend Cole Brown’s college apartment. His head bops along to the “Black Panther” soundtrack, but he’s exasperated and dehydrated after ranting about his descent from an almost mythical and deeply spiritual black Egyptian heritage.

“I’m that black dude that likes to talk about Egypt,” Green says once he catches his breath.

“Yeah but can you rap about it?” asks Brown, his words bouncing off the miscellaneous bongs and smoking vessels scattered around his apartment.

Green just laughs, sinking deeper into the couch. This is a question he’s been asked before.

Growing up in a white world

Since he was old enough to go to school in his hometown of Wilmington, N.C., Green has been one of, if not the only, black people in his class. He’s channeled the teasing and loneliness he’s felt through his original rap music and has a budding career as a successful rapper in the Raleigh area.

Although he raps about racism, Green’s world is surprisingly whitewashed. His music might tell the story of someone fed up with racism and society, but to the outside world, Green seems comfortable living a white life.

Green’s rapping career is now almost 8 years old. He started off posting songs on SoundCloud that he made in his makeshift home studio under the moniker “PG-13.” A junior communications major at N.C. State University, Green performs with the popular Triangle rap group “They Came from Lemuria” in Raleigh bars once a month.

Rap was therapeutic for Green as a middle schooler at a small Quaker school in Wilmington, where no one looked like him. His skin color felt the most confining when learning about history and the accomplishments of the Europeans.

“The books we read didn’t have people that look like (me),” Green said.

It didn’t change much once he got to high school. As part of a smaller accelerated college program within a public school, Green was one of five students in New Hanover High School’s Lyceum program. The signature dreadlocks that he started growing when he was 9 made him stand out even more.

In high school, Green experienced racism in subtle and overt ways. He still remembers feeling angry and embarrassed when the topic of flying monkeys came up in class. His peers compared him to the monkeys, laughing about their similarities.

“I’m the butt of the joke,” Green said. “If there’s five people making a black joke, and you’re the only black person, I gotta laugh about it too.”

One of Green’s oldest friends and classmates, Gavin Campbell, who is white, was in the room when the monkey joke took off.

“I have heard years of people calling him an ‘Oreo,’” Campbell said, “asking why he ‘acts white.’”

What bothers Campbell the most is when others seem surprised that Green can be a well-spoken and polite black man. Throughout their friendship, Campbell said he’s noticed how, in stores, white people keep an eye on Green.

Green has felt those extra eyes on him. He has always been conscious of his skin color and what he looked like sitting across from his classmates. It didn’t get easier when he started college.

Higher education, same problems

As a freshman Green almost reflexively joined a white fraternity, but later became inactive when he found it too similar to high school. He was tired of being the only black man in the room.

Despite this, two years later, Green still lives in an almost exclusively white world. He spends Thursday nights with his girlfriend, Hannah Neely, who is white. They lovingly pass a bong back and forth while cuddling on the couch and making plans to visit their other friends, who are also all white, later that night.

Green’s closest friends are all white. After years of being the lone black person in class, he now describes white people as his “comfort zone.” Despite the hurtful joking, he said, his friends are generally well-meaning and have given him a different way to look at the world.

“Being seen by the majority of your white peers as the ‘token’ friend is an inevitability,” Campbell said. “Philip has retained his identity as a black man through his music, friendships with people from various walks of life, and through general pride in his identity which I’m extremely proud of him for maintaining.”

Even though he has friendships with people like Campbell that he values, Green still enjoys, and relies on, being able to play what he and his girlfriend call the “race card.”

“You pull it in social settings where you’re high or uncomfortable,” Neely said to Green about the card.

Green said that he’ll respond to his white friends with the phrase “Oh, it’s because I’m black?” to raise awareness about what is offensive, or to just make his friends uncomfortable and defensive for his own entertainment. It’s funny to him, his little way of getting back at his friends for the jokes they’ve made about him over the years.

But even though he talks about race with his friends, he doesn’t feel like people take his blackness seriously.

Green’s parents own an environmental restoration service. He’s always been comfortable financially and didn’t feel like he fit in with a lot of the other black kids in his high school.

“I have felt pretty lonely,” Green said, “just because, like, I’ve created this niche for myself where it’s like I’m the suburban black kid.”

Because of his socioeconomic status, he’s found it difficult to defend his race with white people.

“People don’t take my advocacy as seriously,” he said. “They don’t think my voice is as valid.”

Rapping: thinking out loud

They may not listen, but speaking up has always been important to Green. He’s passionate about his political views, like his belief that incarceration is modern-day slavery. He will discuss how the TV show “Cops” is lynching, and vent about how black men only witness the American dream through programs with white actors like “Friends.”

When Green speaks about these issues, he starts to use the rap voice he’s been honing since he was 13. He speaks deeply with a natural flow, accenting certain words and syllables to emphasize what’s important. Rap is his preferred method of communication.

Green’s rhymes have reflected his anxieties of being the only black face in a white world. On the 15-minute track “Griselda Negro,” Green raps, “‘Bro, today it ain’t about race’/ Yes it is, the wealth gap it’s a massive issue doe, yes, I notice dis,” and, “They sayin’ I’m free/ Only on the day I escape from my b-o-d-y.” These lyrics might contradict the white life Green has carved out for himself, but they voice the black side of him that he keeps hidden within his social circle. When he “spits” certain lines, he’s sharing his passion. His songs are his diary and provide an outlet that lets him live the blackness that’s missing in his daily life.

Whether rap is a coping mechanism or not, it brings Green happiness unlike anything else. If he isn’t working on a song, he’s listening to rap, either on his own or with his group of friends sharing a joint. Rap isn’t just an escape, it’s his lifestyle.

“This is what I feel the best doing,” he said.

Edited by David Fee


Balancing books and beats: UNC students make music between classes

By Moses Musilu

Late Tuesday night, Wesley Simmons sits alone at his desk, under a dimmed blue lamp, buried in his laptop.

With a few more taps on the keyboard, the Charlotte native finally finishes his assignment for class and closes his laptop to check the time on his clock: 1 a.m.

Slowly he collects the books and notes spread across the desk, neatly separates what he needs for class and puts it in his book bag. Picking up the clock, he adjusts the alarm for 9 a.m. the next day, and turns off the light in his room.

But instead of getting in his bed, he goes back to his desk and increases the brightness on his lamp. He pulls out his headphones, pen and notebook and begins to write. Countless songs and poems consume the pages, dating back to when he was in eighth grade.

For Simmons, it’s the perfect time to make what he loves: Music.

And there are times when you’d find him wide awake until 5 a.m. deep in his notebook.

“Most of my writing comes between that time,” he said. “That’s when it starts to click for me. There’s nothing else I have to think about. Being up that late doesn’t feel like I’m forcing myself to do it.

“During the day, I’m always thinking what I have to do, whether that’s class or meetings. But at the end of the day, it’s just me and what I want to do with my time. That’s music.”

“The College Dropout” or “Graduation”?

With a growing hip-hop community, students find themselves trying to balance the books with their music. For some, the weight is too much. Raekwon Williams, a 22-year-old rapper from Raleigh, North Carolina, dropped out of UNC-Greensboro his sophomore year to pursue a music career.

“I felt that school was distracting me to the point where I wasn’t putting my all into my music,” Williams said. “I wanted to devote everything I had to it. So now I’m here.”

Williams wasn’t the first to drop out in search of musical fame. Successful hip-hop artists such as Common, Sean Combs (P. Diddy) and Kanye West dropped out of college to pursue a career in music. Kanye West’s journey led to his record-breaking “The College Dropout” album.

Dropping out of school isn’t a decision that’s encouraged by most. In an interview, Kanye West told high school students to stay in school for the opportunities it provides and that his road to success was harder because of his decision to leave school.

Simmons goes by the name “Wes” in his music. Influenced by his parents, Simmons enrolled in UNC-Chapel Hill as an exercise sports science major in hopes of one day becoming a doctor.

But his desire of becoming a doctor slowly faded away, and by sophomore year he knew he wanted to turn his musical hobby into a profession. School seemed to be a waste of time.

“I began to realize I didn’t like school in high school,” Simmons said. “But once I got to college and had all the freedom, it solidified it. My mindset became more independent. Back at home, we’re so influenced by our parents, but they’re not living your life. You have to do what’s right for you.”

Simmons came to the realization when he was walking through campus on a Wednesday night. Every Wednesday, there would be a group of students freestyling in front of the Student Stores. He was impressed, but knew he could do better. After making friends in the group, he was introduced to other artists who showed him where he could record and make music.

But for Simmons, balancing music and school has always been a problem.

“Unfortunately, a lot of times, one or the other suffers,” he said. “If I have an exam one week, my writing suffers. Sometimes I get carried away in my writing and a test suffers.”

Amara Orji, another hopeful artist attending UNC-CH, agreed that although balancing music and college is difficult, it’s better to have a degree in case it doesn’t work out.

“Having a music career would be amazing,” he said. “But I know that there are millions of aspiring artists who work and try just as hard and don’t make it. Staying in school, I’ll always have something to fall back on.

“Also, my parents might kill me if I dropped out,” he quickly added.

Orji, who also studied exercise sports science, goes by the name “N19E.” It took him until his senior year at UNC-CH to realize he wanted to become a rapper, but he says his late revelation was probably for the best.

“I wouldn’t have dropped out but I might have started to question whether the work I was doing was worth it,” Orji said.

“I might not be famous, but I’m still an artist.”

Now on the verge of finishing his senior year, dropping out of college to pursue stardom was never a serious thought that crossed 22-year-old Simmons’ mind. He said when he starts something, he wants to finish it.

And it’s always good to have a backup plan.

Simmons said some people forget some famous artists weren’t discovered until they were older. He sees no reason to rush to stardom and is embracing his music journey.

“If Kendrick Lamar called me up, told me to fly out to California right now and sign me to a record deal, of course I’ll drop everything and go,” he said. “But that hasn’t happened, and I know what I learn from the connections and people I’ve met here are going to help me change the world through music.”

And if he doesn’t make it?

“Then I don’t make it,” Simmons said “I might not be famous, but I’m still an artist. I’ll still be able to make an impact on some people’s lives. It just won’t be as many.”

Simmons plans on becoming a teacher after graduation through Teach for America. He said teaching is what he wants to do through his music, so it made sense to become a teacher because of the major impact they have on people.

Simmons wants to change the world through his music the way Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West have by relating to a lot of people.

“Whether it was love or the struggle of growing up in bad environments, people used their music to help themselves in good and hard times,” he said. “I want people to have my body of art and transform the people who hear it like they did. I want it to be something they can carry in their lives forever.”

Simmons has released two albums in the past year on his SoundCloud page and will soon release music videos. He performs at local open mic nights around Chapel Hill with other hip-hop artists from UNC-CH whenever he has the chance.

“I performed at a show with 30 people the other day, and compared to Kendrick, of course that’s nothing,” he said. “But, that meant the world to me. I enjoyed everyone in there, and I know this is just the beginning. You have to crawl before you can walk.”

Edited by Ana Irizarry

Chapel Hill’s ‘noise’ subculture chooses Nightlight over limelight

By Janna Childers

Rosemary Street in downtown Chapel Hill is eclectic, for sure. It’s the home to some of Chapel Hill’s highest-rising apartment complexes, the ever-vigilant student-run newspaper office of The Daily Tar Heel, magnificent historic homes, shady college bars, tiny nonprofit and law offices and, of course, you can’t forget the deep-fried Southern delicacies of Mildred Council’s restaurant, Mama Dip’s.

But down an alley nestled between the candy-pink cement of Tonya’s Cookies and the mood lighting that oozes from Northside District, it can be easy to miss a small music club.

The venue isn’t very big, and it’s tough to imagine a sell-out show of more than 300. The low ceilings keep the stage at a height that barely distinguishes artist from audience, and although red paint lines the walls, the club’s ambiance is far from bright.

Scarce lighting casts shadows on dingy furniture and tangles of cord, making anyone unfamiliar with the place second-guess a whim to wander in from the street. But it’s here that the misfits of Chapel Hill’s music scene find their sanctuary.

Because of Chapel Hill’s quintessential college-town status, the music scene is multi-layered, ever-shifting and sometimes perceived as lacking an edge. But for the past 10 years, a small-but-steady vanguard of artists and music lovers has cultivated a space for experimental and alternative music. And that crowd has come to call this music venue, Nightlight, their home. These champions of the weird and different have ushered in a host of new amorphous music genres, most of which fit under the label “noise music.”

Noise is a term that has been used nationally to describe a type of experimental music developed from the punk wave and dada art movement that pushes the boundaries of sounds and techniques that are traditionally considered “music.”

A dying scene

For many critics, Chapel Hill’s music scene peaked in the ’90s, when the town’s indie and punk bands drew in major record labels in search of the next Nirvana. In 1989, Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance — members of Chapel Hill’s indie rock band Superchunk — fled from major record label pursuit — and, in true “do-it-yourself” punk fashion, formed their own independent record label.

Merge Records went on to sign artists such as Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel and She & Him. But, when the label moved to Durham in 2001, Chapel Hill was left in a sort of punk-rock vacuum.

“In a lot of ways, music in Chapel Hill is totally dead. In the ’90s, Chapel Hill was like a huge indie-rock Mecca.” said Sam Higgins, a Chapel Hill musician who performs under the name SMLH. “The scenes were Seattle, New York and Chapel Hill, oddly enough. I feel like, nowadays, the legacy of those bands is supporting this notion that music is still thriving in Chapel Hill when it’s not at all.”

Last November, SMLH released an 11-track digital album and cassette tape called “Occoneechee Haunts + Staring Thru The Wall,” which features tracks riddled with an ethereal concoction of dissonance and melody, delving listeners into a sleepy yet strangely outraged state.

Going underground

Higgins may hold a cynical attitude toward the Chapel Hill music scene, but artist Ryan Martin disagrees.

“I feel like there are a lot of parallel scenes that don’t really overlap so much. Like, for instance, bluegrass is a real thing, and I know nothing about that,” he said. “The stuff I’ve been involved with is sort of more marginal. Kind of weird experimental type stuff.”

Martin performs under the name Secret Boyfriend. His blend of genres produces a dark, lonely sound whose minor chords and bursts of unorganized cacophony can be hard on some ears. His most prominent recording is “This is Where You’ve Always Lived,” a digital and vinyl LP released in 2013 under the London-based label Blackest Ever Black.

But Martin doesn’t seem too concerned with the success of his recordings. He prefers to promote the projects of his fellow musicians.

Martin also books a lot of the shows at Nightlight. Shortly after Martin made the move to Chapel Hill, he started volunteering at Rosemary Street’s clandestine music club because he wanted to find out more about the scene in his new town.

By the end of the year, he was running the whole venue with a friend. Now, since club ownership has changed hands to Ethan Clauset and Charlie Hearon, Martin books shows at several venues, including, up until last year, his own house on Hannah Street in Carrboro.

“I lived there for about 8 years and we had a shit ton of shows. Like, so many. I couldn’t believe we got away with it for that long,” he said.

But there’s not much difference in booking for a house show or a bigger venue, he said. Martin is plugged into a vast network of local musicians, and whenever one’s in town, they come to him for a place to play.

This grassroots approach to performance is what sets the underground scene apart from the mainstream. For musicians to survive in the commercial industry, they need to have an agent, a manager, a tech crew, publicity and ceaseless touring and producing. Stewart Kingdon, social media manager for WXYC, a student-run radio station at UNC, thinks the underground scene is underground for a reason.

“I think part of that is just the way people want it,” he said. “Like, I know a lot of my friends don’t want to play in a lot of big venues or anything, or it’s just a hassle or it’s hard to coordinate a show or you need to open for someone, and it’s just not as easy to coordinate.”

‘The hype machine’

Martin, like other artists in his genre, thrives in scenes that stray from the limelight.

“I think I’ve always just had sort of a weird mistrust of mainstream music,” he said. “It’s really exciting hearing something so good, and it’s made by people who aren’t trying to promote themselves — they just like to play shows. It’s just like they’re sort of ignored because they’re not putting themselves into this hype machine,” he said.

Although Martin tries to avoid the “hype machine,” he still wants underground music to be accessible for those who seek it. That’s why he finds all sorts of artists for Nightlight, people who play everything from “techno, harsh noise, sort of weird scrappy improv,” to “people doing weird, solo pop projects.”

Clark Blomquist is a regular at Nightlight — not only to listen to shows and find new artists, but also as a performer. Blomquist’s latest project is called Tegucigalpan. His 2016 album “The Fifth of She” is particularly noisy and dense.

“I write and record songs on my own by multi-tracking — laying down one track, listening and playing along with another instrument to lay down the next, until the song is complete,” Blomquist said.

Both Blomquist and Higgins had a hard time describing their music. They rattle off lists of subgenres to try to give context, but in the end, Higgins said, “I don’t know if it’s as much as I actively play a certain type of music as it is (that) I write music and it turns out to be this type of music. I’m thinking about my influences and my aesthetic choices that I’m making when I write music, but I don’t think that dominates my process.”

A home for contradictions

The freedom to write without a formula is appealing, and that’s why Nightlight has become such a home for musicians who don’t fit the traditional categories. It’s a place where you can be weird. Unlike going to a folk concert where the majority of the audience is dressed in flannel and worn boots, an audience at Nightlight hosts people who dress in all black and have dirty hair. It has people who wear tight leather corsets and short skirts and people guys who are just in jeans and graphic tees. The differences are what bring the community together.

“There are so many contradictions,” Martin said. “There’s so much stuff in that scene that is comforting or soothing, and then there’s stuff that’s pleasing in this sort of deeper, mellow level. There’s stuff that might poke your brain and make you excited or make you head bang.”

Granted, the music might not be to everyone’s taste, but the people you find in this scene are genuine. They love music. They respect one another’s creative endeavors. And they seem to have found their niche.

Edited by Danny Nett

Out of the attic and into the spotlight: the little yellow tuba house


By Molly Weybright

The bright yellow house holds thousands of feet of tubing, tens of thousands of dollars worth of materials and more than 130 years of history.  Inside, it smells faintly sweet and metallic – the smell of brass.  Soft orchestral music with tuba features plays in the background.  If Seuss and Sousa combined their talents to create something beyond a musician’s wildest imagination, the V & E Simonetti Historic Tuba Collection in Durham would be the result.

Different shades of gold, brown and silver overlap, creating a metallic, musical camouflage. Light dances off the lustrous, lacquered tubas and seems to be absorbed by the dull, matte ones. Some of the tubas are simple – designed for function and sound rather than visual appeal. Others are etched with intricate designs, like ivy climbing a wall, and look so wonderfully crafted and delicate that it’s hard to believe they were made for anything other than admiring from afar.

Standing in the main room is like standing in a forest. A metal forest made of curves and loops rather than straight lines and angles. A forest where every facet can be used to create deep, heavy, melodic sounds.  The curves blend together and connect until it feels like one massive instrument rather than 300 individual ones.

But every instrument works. Every instrument is functional and serves a purpose. As if Sousa stepped into Seuss’ madness and said, “This is pretty good, but here’s how I can make it better.”

Covering much of the floor, walls and ceiling is one of the most magnificent tuba collections in existence, and one man’s lifetime of stories and treasures.  Three hundred and five brass instruments belonging to the tuba family fill the small space. Vince Simonetti sits on a small chair nestled between many intricate and unique types of his favorite instrument – the tuba.

He talks about the instruments in his collection with fervor.  The stories of where they came from, the lives the instruments lived before they were his, flow as easily as water over smooth stones.  His passion is evident.  When asked about his own history with the instrument, his smile widens.

A lifelong passion

Vince first played the tuba in the 1950s as a high school student.  In fact, he was a trumpet player until he entered high school.  He approached the school’s band director and asked if he could play trumpet in the band.

“We have zillions of trumpets,” the director told Vince.  “But I don’t have a tuba player.”

The band director then gestured to this massive instrument, this tuba, and Vince remembers thinking it looked like it had been hit by a truck.  But he decided to give it a try, and that was all it took.

“I just became obsessed with it immediately and have been obsessed ever since,” he said.  “I used to draw it in study hall.”

That obsession persisted for more than half a century as Vince played with and conducted many orchestras in North Carolina.  He founded the Durham Symphony in 1976, conducted the North Carolina Symphony, the Raleigh Symphony and the Raleigh Concert Band.  In 1984 he founded The Tuba Exchange, a Durham business that supplies individuals and school bands with brass instruments.  But, his pride is his tuba collection.

The collection began in 1965 while he was touring the United States in the orchestra for Russia’s Moiseyev Ballet Company.  He found the first tuba in Boston, a 1910 Cerveny helicon, and the Historic Tuba Collection was born.

The collection grows every year as people call Vince and tell him of an instrument they have that he may be interested in.  According to Vince, many people have rare instruments that have been passed down from grandparents or great-grandparents simply sitting in their attic, and he is more than happy to take them off their hands.  The museum’s newest acquisition was added as recently as January 27.

“Vince is pretty well-known in the tuba community,” said Betty Black, co-owner of The Tuba Exchange, when asked about how people find Vince when looking to sell or donate an instrument.

He and his wife, Ethel, opened up their collection to the public on March 5, 2016 in the little yellow house in Durham.  Almost 200 people showed up at the grand opening, to the couple’s surprise and delight.  However, only 15 to 20 people can comfortably experience the collection.  Vince laughs when he remembers giving tours that day for more than three hours straight.

The collection has been featured locally in The News and Observer and Indy Week but also received some national recognition when it was featured on NPR’s “Unsung Museums.”


Peggy Schaeffer, a former scientific librarian living in Durham, called the museum a “local oddity;” and after passing it many times, she finally went inside and was shocked at the sheer volume of instruments inside the small building.

“I had no idea that they had so many tubas and that they varied so much,” she said.

Vince has been pleased with the public’s response to his collection, and visually, it’s easy to see where the fascination comes from.  The size of the collection is incredible, but the real beauty is in the stories.

Rhonda Cohen, a volunteer at the Durham Literacy Center, visited the collection with her husband Jay Cunningham, who plays in several music groups in the Triangle.  The Literacy Center is only a few buildings away from the little yellow house and Rhonda often walks past it.

Rhonda said that what truly impressed and delighted her about the experience was the passion that Vince has for his collection, which was evident when describing his many instruments.

“He was like a father glowing about the talents of his children,” she said. “Unlike a father, he definitely has his favorites – whether because of their rarity, sound quality or brilliant design.”

The exuberance with which Vince tells the stories of his tubas is enthralling.  It truly is like listening to a proud parent brag about his children – showing off their talents, assets and accomplishments.

“Almost every one of these instruments has a unique story to it,” Vince said.  That’s more than 300 backstories and histories, and he knows how to tell them all.

Even if he may not admit it, it is clear that he does, in fact, have favorites; and they’re not always the tubas one would expect.  While some of the instruments are grandiose and intricate, his favorites are often the more battered tubas, worn down by years of use.  These are the tubas with the stories he likes telling – the tubas with history.

A special collection

He has a tuba that is over 5 feet tall and when placed on its stand, is over 7 feet tall.  It was designed for upright string bass players.  The musician would play the string bass standing, and when the music called for it, he would switch over to the tuba simply by stepping from one instrument to the other, without having to sit or adjust his positioning.

This type of tuba is incredibly rare because it was only made in the 1930s.  Vince has two in the collection.

He has one of the first types of sousaphones, or marching tubas, nicknamed the “rain catcher,” designed by John Philip Sousa himself.

Modern-day sousaphones have the bell pointing forward, so that the sound is aimed at the audience and can be clearly heard.  But Sousa designed his original instrument with the bell facing upwards because he wanted the sound to “go over the top of the band like icing on a cake.”

It almost seems as if there is some force driving Vince and the tubas together.  As if they are moving on roads parallel to one another for decades only to intersect at the perfect moment.

For example, he has two tubas in his collection that are identical – the only twins in the museum.  He usually doesn’t buy duplicates because he says he simply doesn’t have the space to display them.  But, when he discovered the second tuba he had to buy it.

Why?  Because these two tubas, both made in 1916 and purchased years apart, are one serial number away from each other.  These tubas were created back to back and then circulated separately, only to find themselves reunited in the V & E Simonetti Historic Tuba Collection.

For more than 100 years craftsmen have made the instruments Vince Simonetti has in his collection.  Each instrument is different, but fits within the museum like a perfect puzzle piece.  The museum is heavy with history.

Vince says he wants to keep the collection on display for as long as he can. When the time comes he wants to pass it on to his son John, also a musician. But until that time comes, Vince will continue giving the instrument traditionally found in the back of the band, its time in the spotlight.

Edited by Bridget Dye

‘Don’t call me cool’: Bull City hip-hop artists craft their own sound

By John-Paul Gemborys

Soxs pulled up to the studio on 112 Hunt St. with his friend Raheem Royal, better known by his stage name, Defacto Thezpian, riding shotgun. After they parked, the pair stood outside the car for a moment. Defacto Thezpian spat a few bars a cappella while his girlfriend sat in the driver’s seat, the scent of lit marijuana drifting down the block.

Defacto Thezpian is a local Durham hip-hop artist. The self-proclaimed, “schnozy” emcee was there to put the finishing touches on his latest project, “burgundyskylines,” and had invited me to come and observe the process.

But in the recording booth of GMMc Digital that day, the rapper got stuck behind some bars.

The rhyme scheme was simple enough, matching multisyllabic jewels, such as cummerbund, mumbling, sustenance, humbling, scuffling, buffering and so on. But there was a snag. The issue was at the center of this sophisticated multisyllabic rhyme scheme. The word “sustenance.”

“SUSTENANCE!” he cried out comically at one point, heard only through the microphone in the isolated recording booth. “SUSTENANCE!”

So he did another take. And another. And another. The same beat played again and again, the same lyrics, the same booming bass. At attempt number six, he could have been satisfied, but he wasn’t. At seven, the delivery was less muddy but still sounded weak.

“It doesn’t sound as strong as the rest of the track,” he said. It wasn’t until attempt number eight that the “schnozy” rapper was satisfied, content to move on to another verse, another sample, another ad-lib.

Durham is home to many artists like Defacto Thezpian: rappers who take pride in the craft, who eschew the modern obsession with image and marketing and continue to put the art before all. With such festivals and opportunities as the Beats and Bars Festival in 2016, Moogfest, which came to Durham in 2016, and the DURM Hip Hop Summit, which began in 2012, the Bull City hip-hop scene is on the come up.

Being a native of Durham myself and a hip-hop geek to boot, I decided to explore this burgeoning subculture, interviewing local artists to find out about their latest projects, hear what inspires them and discover what it takes for small-town Southern artists to break through in an already oversaturated market.

‘I’m an artist’
Uncertain of where to start, I went to the one expert I knew, my old running mate Michael Jones, aka Jones Michael, aka DJ Know Question.

Jones is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to the culture. When I asked him what he does, he said, “Basically I create products. I’m an artist — I create clothes, I create posters — any sort of visual art.”

He’s also “a DJ and a producer and a rapper and a singer.” Even his sweatshirt was emblazoned with one of his illustrations, a graphic of a man with bulging eyes and a ridiculously wide-open mouth — a hallmark of Jones’ unique drawing style. The piece, he said, is called “Brain Melt.

Jones told me that he’s been making music seriously for eight years but that his real start was much earlier. “I recorded my first rap in third grade,” Jones told me. His dad, who played jazz in college and is currently a music teacher at Culbreth Middle School in Carrboro, helped him along the way. “I was like, ‘Dad I got this song,’” Jones said. “And he was like, ‘Oh you wanna record it?’ So he gives me this generic beat — like it’s not even a rap beat — and I hopped in my dad’s studio and recorded it.”

By the eighth grade, inspired by the likes of Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco, he told his dad he wanted to start making music, so his dad threw him a Casio keyboard and a drum machine. Today Jones makes music in his spare time, posting a new song to his SoundCloud almost every day, along with original artwork for the month he calls “Jamuary.” He also DJs under the alias DJ Know Question at such venues as DaNu’Gen Entertainment Cafe and Bull City Cigar Co.

When I asked him why he does music, he told me it’s for the love. “I’d rather just create, man — and then create enough so that people like it and that people want to pay me for it. I don’t need to be on the cover of a billboard. I don’t need a world tour.”

To break through commercially, he told me, the answer is simple. “You really gotta be yourself because that’s the only thing that’s gonna sell,” he said.

“You’re not going to get anybody with artwork like this. You’re not going to get anybody else that has this sound.” His next project is a record called “New Clear Energy.”

‘You gotta learn tunnel vision’
The next artist I met is a relative newcomer to the game. His stage name is Ducee’ DropTop, and he welcomed me to his home with warmth and a Backwoods cigarillo.

Describing his style as “mellow-hype trap,” he released his first record, an eight-track project called “#BoostUP,” in December. One of the singles he put out for the tape, “Wit It,” has over 11,000 views on YouTube. When I sat down with him, he told me a key to success in the game was keeping a tight circle of like-minded individuals and focusing on his goal.

“You gotta learn tunnel vision, stay focused on what you do and at the end of the day, let the haters hate,” he said. “You can’t get strung up into that negativity. Negative people, I don’t want you in my life. I practice positivity.”

The next artist I spoke to is a veteran on the Durham scene, a rapper and producer who recently moved to Charlotte. He goes by Alex Aff.

He told me about his first tour this past December, the “Aff & Friends Tour,” a five-stop circuit through Raleigh, Wilmington, Virginia and New York ending with a show at the Pinhook in Durham.

When it came to advice on how to succeed in the industry, Alex talked about being organic. “I think the problem with a lot of artists is that they try too hard. I understand the mentality as an artist. You want it so bad, and you’re trying so hard to get people to pay attention. When I think from the fan’s perspective or the person’s perspective that isn’t an artist, you can see that they’re forcing it, and that makes you more resistant to gravitating toward their brand, their craft, whatever they do,” he said. “How I get attention is by being as natural as possible and being as myself as possible. I think that’s really the only way I can stand out.”

His latest project was an album called “Forever.” He recently put it up on iTunes.

‘Don’t call me cool’
Defacto Thezpian was the fourth artist with whom I was fortunate enough to spend some time. A lyricist and wordsmith, he explained the meaning of “schnozy” to me in the studio. “When I was in high school, dog, I made up words all the time. That was the word I stuck with the most. I used to tell people, simply, I wasn’t a cool dude. I was that person everyone knew, but I wasn’t cool. I wasn’t a jock,” he said. “But I like that I can still be cool and not be those people. Don’t call me cool because ‘schnozy’ fits me so much better.”

Being around him, it’s obvious that Defacto Thezpian is a natural showman. When he attended Hillside High School, he was an actor. It’s where he gets his name. At Hillside he was in 12 school productions  and took on roles such as Chad Danforth from “High School Musical” and Willy Wonka. He started taking music seriously in 2012, although he began recording songs his freshman year of high school in 2006.

“It wasn’t until after I got out of high school and I started doing open mics and seeing that I had a platform to perform that made me start wanting to take it more seriously,” he said. In 2013 he had his first headlining show at the Pinhook in Durham. He told me that he didn’t start doing music as a full-time gig until June 2016. He estimates he’s done about 200 shows. He’s also played at festivals like A3C in Atlanta, the Beats and Bars Festival in Durham and Youbloom in Los Angeles. On April 11 he’s opening for Alex Wiley at Kings Barcade in Raleigh.

‘Music chose me’
The final artist I got to chat with was 26-year-old Danny Blaze, native son of Durham, N.C. One of the first questions I asked him was how he got into the game.

“I started playing with it when I was 14 in the ninth grade. I would kind of write little things here and there. I would hear J Dilla instrumentals and try to freestyle. I was horrible,” he said. “I didn’t take it seriously until 2010. I was in this group with Dinero P. We were in a group called The Koolest, and I was in that group literally until June of 2015. So I’m pretty fresh out of that. And, yeah it was weird, man. It was hard kind of starting over — I was almost afraid to give it another go.” But he did and is currently working on his next album, “Punk Ass Dan,” which he anticipates will drop either this fall or summer.

When asked why he does music, Danny Blaze said, “Man, it’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at, to be quite honest. Like I’ve been decent at everything else in my life as far back as I can remember. I kind of feel like music chose me. I don’t feel like I have much other choice. And I love it.”

When I asked him if there were any issues that his music addressed, he said, “Yeah man, ‘Punk Ass Dan’ is going to be a really dark tape. It’s not really like anything I’ve put out so far, and it’s definitely going to address pretty much everything wild going on these days like police brutality to this wild election. I wouldn’t consider myself an artist if I didn’t. Hip-hop is being the CNN of the hood, as Chuck D once called it, and I feel it’s our duty to uphold that. And it’s not even the hood anymore. It’s the world, period. We have social media, so the world is so much broader than the hood these days. So I definitely have to address those things. It’s very important to myself.”

Edited by Alison Krug