Sean's Louisville: On the town with Louisville MUSICulture's Sean Bailey
Originally published in the Louisville Eccentric Observer (LEO) Weekly Magazine, Jan. 22, 2014.
It’s approaching 2 in the morning on the first Friday in November when Sean Bailey and I step out of our third and final concert of the night. Mississippi rapper Big K.R.I.T. has just wrapped up a relentless performance at Diamond Pub, and Bailey is driving me back to my car downtown when I ask outright, “What is Louisville MUSICulture?” But, of course, there’s no real reason for this question — he has already demonstrated the answer to me over the last several hours.
On paper, what Bailey does is so simple that it seems unnecessary to bother him with such questions. Nearly every day, he scours social media outlets to aggregate information about concerts around town that evening. He then compiles a list he shares on Facebook (to more than 9,000 followers) and Twitter (almost 4,500 followers). That’s Louisville MUSICulture. But such a sterile description ignores the magnetic, infectious enthusiasm weaved into everything Bailey does.
“In the most basic sense, Louisville MUSICulture is a blog in that it’s a frequently updated web log with posts listed in chronological order,” says Bailey. “I’d say in the broader sense of what LMC is, I consider the platform a resource for the community that I’ve grown up around and love. If one person happens to support a local musician, venue, record shop, fundraiser, music shop or Louisville-centric event because of something they’ve seen on LMC — whether it was something I’ve written about, or someone else’s words — then I truly feel like I’ve been able to give a little something back to the town that’s given me so much for nearly 30 years.”
Bailey, 36, is a surprisingly reserved fellow who didn’t think he had much of a story to tell, and it took a little convincing for him to agree to be interviewed. This helps explain why he comes off as unaware of the extent to which he influences Louisville’s sometimes fickle concert-going crowd with his exhaustive pet project.
But in retrospect, “What is Louisville MUSICulture?” was the wrong approach — the real question is, “Why is Louisville MUSICulture?” What drives Sean Bailey to devote so much time to this labor of love for this city and its culture? How does he find time to catalog so many concerts, let alone attend any of them? If I was going to get to the bottom of what makes Bailey tick, I knew I’d have to observe him in his natural habitat.
Bailey and I begin our night by meeting up for a drink at Garage Bar. He’s just come from a gallery opening on the Trolley Hop circuit featuring art inspired by the music of Will Oldham and is eager to make his way to Zanzabar to see the jagged post-punk band Julie of the Wolves.
While sipping gin and tonics at Garage Bar, we run into an old friend who previously worked with Bailey at the outdoors equipment store Quest Outdoors (where Bailey is currently employed, in addition to his role as social media coordinator for the Louisville Palace), and they laugh together about ratty old outdoor gear they still hold onto for sentimental reasons. After four years as a snowboarding instructor in Colorado, Bailey amassed a fair amount of well-worn and well-loved equipment.
He first moved to Steamboat Springs, Colo., in the fall of 1999 as a direct result of working at Quest, “finding new passions in outdoor adventures and falling in love, head over heels, with snow sports — specifically snowboarding — and mountain culture,” says Bailey. “After taking a solo snowboard trip in my station wagon to Jackson Hole, Wyo., the winter of 1998, I knew then and there that the mountains were where I wanted to be at that point in my life.”
With support and encouragement from his family and friends, he packed up a few belongings and headed west. He found work managing a snowboard shop, Powder Pursuits Shred Shop, but he calls that “a means to do what it was I truly moved out there for — get outdoors in the mountains as much as possible.”
He returned home to Louisville in the summer of 2003, where he became an increasingly important staff member at ear X-tacy Records for the next eight years.
This would prove to be a pivotal move for Bailey. “Many of the relationships I hold near and dear to this very day were cultivated there at the record shop,” he says.
Indeed, ear X-tacy was where he met Laura Read, who is now his fiancée. Read shares Bailey’s enthusiasm for both music and the great outdoors. She’s also passionate about the culture of Louisville, working as a manager at WHY Louisville.
“His smile was so big,” Read recalls of her early encounters with Bailey, “and he didn’t have a beard at the time, so he was baby-faced. I immediately was, like, ‘I want that!’”
It was also at ear X-tacy where Bailey began to develop relationships with musicians after he was put in charge of local record consignments. In 2010, when the store relocated to the Douglass Loop in the wake of financial trouble, Bailey began booking in-store concerts several nights a week in an effort to keep the city engaged with the displaced shop.
While previous in-stores typically featured touring acts who came to town for gigs at major venues, the goal of this new concert series, dubbed “ear X-tacy After Dark,” was to invite lesser-known local bands to come in and promote their new releases — to raise local talent up to the same tier as the headliners whose records lined the walls.
That wasn’t the only community service Bailey championed; entry to most of the all-ages shows was granted in exchange for canned goods to donate to the Dare to Care food bank. Rather than plaster coffee shops with flyers to spread the word, Bailey began researching the most effective ways to promote events using social media.
He originally started the Louisville MUSICulture Facebook page as a companion to ear X-tacy’s official page, using it to further spread news of the store’s events as well as to support other events around town.
Unfortunately, all of the passion and online presence in the world couldn’t save ear X-tacy from the inevitable. Bailey stepped down from his position in September 2011, less than two months before the store closed. Tellingly, he took to Facebook to share the news:
“This is one of the most difficult decisions that I’ve ever had to make in my 33 years,” he wrote, “but this is what needs to happen in order for me to pursue certain and specific goals that I’ve set for myself personally, academically, and professionally.”
The social animal
After ear X-tacy shuttered its doors, Bailey’s newfound social media savvy led to a new position maintaining the Louisville Palace’s online presence. “Social media management and digital marketing were never anything I foresaw myself being involved in,” Bailey admits, “and it was simply by happenstance that I ever became immersed in such a realm.”
Bailey also was driven to keep LMC alive, seeing as there was still a need for it in the community and, perhaps, as a tribute to ear X-tacy.
“He had so many connections to local artists in this city, and he didn’t want to lose that,” says Read. “(Louisville MUSICulture) was a way for him to continue promoting local music, to continue talking to people about music, and to remain a part of the music scene.”
Read tells me Bailey is known for his concert-hopping antics, often meticulously planned so he can be at just the right place at the right time to catch bands at various venues on the same night. As we finish our drinks and settle on three different concerts we’d like to see that evening, I ask Bailey what his record is for most shows attended in a single night.
“Working in the outdoor industry for the better part of eight years,” he says, “we have a term for those who climb as many mountains as possible, simply to be ‘that guy’ or to boast about how many summits they’ve reached. We call those folks ‘peak baggers.’ I’m not knocking that kind of lifestyle, but it’s honestly not for me.
“I’ve never wanted to become a ‘show bagger,’ per se, and just go to as many shows as possible, just to say I went here or there, or to challenge myself,” he continues. “I genuinely enjoy hopping around between a couple to a few shows on any given night — not because I feel obligated, but because I truly do enjoy the live music experience, and I’m trying to support and learn about as much of the talent Louisville has to offer as possible.”
Bailey adds, “As soon as I start to lose any portion of the experience of seeing live music as a direct result of trying to stretch myself too thin, that’s when I know I’m doing this for the wrong reasons. Thankfully, I’ve never reached that point, nor do I ever intend to.”
Brothers: a tale of two sons
When we arrive at Zanzabar to see Julie of the Wolves, we’re greeted by several friends and concert-going regulars, including Bailey’s older brother Evan, who plays in the longstanding indie rock band Second Story Man with a member of Julie of the Wolves, and whose lifelong musical journey is intricately interlaced with Sean’s.
As the children of professional musicians, Sean and Evan began their musical training at an early age in their hometown of Tampa, Fla. Their father, Louie, is an organist and the music director at Crescent Hill Baptist Church. Their mother, June, works as a private piano and voice instructor, in addition to her role as choir conductor at the church.
Bailey began studying violin at age 6 under the Suzuki method, which favors the development of a young musician’s ear and intuitive sense of music over written music and theoretical knowledge. Once he hit 10 — around the time his family moved to Louisville — he decided he wanted to take up the drums. Meanwhile, older brother Evan had picked up a guitar and begun writing songs.
The brothers’ first band was Oratory Striplings, which evolved into Plunge, who, according to Evan, were “regulars on the scene back in the glory days of Louisville underground music — ’91 to ’93.” Evan and Sean’s sometimes prickly relationship was made clear during their decidedly undemocratic band practices, where Evan often took charge.
Friends and family are quick to point out that Sean is a gifted drummer. “Technically speaking, he could take me to school,” admits Evan, who drummed for Second Story Man for more than a decade. Sean hasn’t been actively involved in any bands since the dissolution of Spritely, another Evan-led production, in 2009. For someone as passionate about music as Sean is, it’s curious that he no longer has an interest in performing.
Evan worries he might have turned his younger brother off from wanting to play with others. “I do think it would be healthy for him to experience playing music with somebody other than me. It’s kind of tough to say that, because I absolutely love playing music with Sean.”
Sean’s reasoning is a simple matter of logistics. “I still consider myself a drummer, but just not one who plays out all too often. I feel, at this point in my life, several other things in my daily and weekly routines would have to change considerably in order for me to get the full satisfaction of playing in a regular band … though I do get to sneak down to the (Second Story Man) practice space at my convenience whenever I have the hankering for a solo jam session.”
While quick to second the notion that time is his major limiting factor, Bailey’s fiancée Read also suggests his shyness gets in the way of public performances. “He’s super humble, to the point where he doesn’t realize how good he is,” she says. “For example, if he plays a show with Second Story Man and someone comes up and says, ‘The drums sounded great!,’ it makes him uncomfortable. He’s so gracious, he doesn’t know how to accept compliments without feeling like he’s somehow solicited them from people.”
Sean Bailey likes this?
While we’re chatting with mutual acquaintances at Zanzabar, openers Twenty First Century Fox take the stage and dive right into their energetic, three-guitar dance-rock assault. Bailey and I squeeze through to the front of the stage for a better view.
Between sets, we’re joined by a new circle of friends, all eager to share what they’ve been up to with him. The mood is jovial and Bailey is all smiles, but he doesn’t say much. Not that he could have gotten a word in edgewise, anyway; his friends can’t seem to talk fast enough to get through everything they want him to know about. It occurs to me that maybe this — soaking up the stories, absorbing all the good vibes from the people around us — is what Louisville MUSICulture is really about.
But I don’t have much time to pursue this line of thought before Julie of the Wolves takes the stage and our focus is shifted back to the music. We only make it through about half the set before Bailey reluctantly suggests we head to the next venue. We shuffle through the packed house and make our way back to his car.
The mood is a bit rowdier at Haymarket Whiskey Bar, where goth-metal lifers The Revenants have just taken the stage to celebrate the release of their new record. Frontman Jason Revenant pushes through the crowd while screaming into a microphone clenched between fists adorned with spiked leather gauntlets.
Once again, our stacked schedule for the evening means we aren’t able to stay for the entire set, but I was curious about Bailey’s engagement with the local metal community, so I reach out to Revenants’ guitarist William Ragland later to find out about his relationship with LMC.
“Louisville MUSICulture has become an indispensable service to our city’s artists and fans,” says Ragland, who adds that it can be rare to find someone “who takes the time and effort to highlight everyone’s efforts with such sincerity. It’s so much more than a bulletin board — it’s a news source that champions each one of us.”
What makes LMC different from any of the numerous other local resources for current events? Bailey says he once tried to take an unbiased approach, but he now embraces tailoring his coverage toward what he perceives LMC’s audience to be, and acknowledges that “nearly everything LMC embodies is an extension of my own interests.”
He tries to incorporate as many styles of music as possible into LMC, “and it’s been interesting to see which of those strikes a chord with the audience more so than the others.”
One thing is for certain: Louisville MUSICulture won’t be co-opted by moneyed interests anytime soon. “This is a complete labor of love for me,” Bailey explains, “and while I feel like I’ve put a fair amount of sweat equity into this, I’ve never seen nor asked for a single cent from anybody. I love keeping this as independent and Louisville-centric as possible, and I’ll strive for that to be the case for as long as I’m doing this.”
On our way to Diamond Pub, I finally work up the nerve to bring up the one topic I’ve been dreading most: Might Bailey and Read one day pack up and leave Louisville behind?
And what about those life goals alluded to in Bailey’s farewell address to ear X-tacy? What about the graduate degree in sociocultural anthropology, perpetually “on the backburner in order to focus on the here and now”?
I point out some cryptic messages Bailey had written on Twitter a few weeks prior: “Thinkin’ about moving on from this place I love … Needing to branch out a bit more — hoping/needing to regain clarity and focus.” Later: “Eternal love for this town, but I’m craving something else in addition to everything Louisville has to offer. #personaltweet”
That hashtag might come off as Bailey trying to maintain a sense of ironic distance, but it’s key precisely because he, by nature, is so very reluctant to talk about himself. People gravitate toward Bailey because he’s genuinely enthusiastic about whatever it is they do, and he always gives the impression of being a bottomless well of positive energy and contentedness. After observing him interact with so many people from different corners of Louisville’s music world, I’m struck by how much everyone divulges about their lives to Bailey, and how conservatively he reciprocates. This felt like a rare, sincere peek into a deeper sense of restlessness and wanderlust that few people who know Bailey casually would attribute to him.
Unsurprisingly, he lets out a hearty laugh and shrugs off the idea that he would be relocating anytime soon. It’s just aimless daydreaming, he reassures me. He is similarly incredulous when I suggest, echoing the sentiments of other local music fans, that Louisville MUSICulture is vital.
“Y’all would get along just fine without me,” he laughs. He could be right. But if the local music scene has proven its resilience after the loss of ear X-tacy — once a major focal point — then it’s due in some significant part to Louisville MUSICulture’s efforts to carry that town square over to the Internet. Bailey’s role in managing a broader sense of community above all the disparate realms of local music is undeniable. But while, theoretically, anybody could do what Louisville MUSICulture does, individuals like Sean Bailey are hard to come by. Let’s hope he can stay for the whole show.