City of blogs

So you want to build a music and arts community? First, contact your system administrator.

At a coffee shop outside Dinkytown this February, Paul Hirte ended his cell-phone conversation: “Sure, come on over.” He pocketed the phone and focused his attention on the laptop opened on the table, then looked back up and said, “That was a friend of mine. He just asked me if their band could play a show at my house.”

With that, Hirte’s eyes dropped back down and scanned the screen. A single browser was opened and several tabs cascaded near the top – one for his e-mail, one for his MySpace profile, one for mnspeak.com (an online local news aggregator), and one for MoreCowbell.net, a local music blog launched in April 2004 by webmaster Kyle Matteson. (Matteson also oversees Arcade Fire’s Web site and a fan site for Wilco, and developed and contributes to reveillemag.com, an online repository for some of the best homespun music journalism in the state.

Hirte, who studied at the University for three semesters, helps run More Cowbell and works at the coffee shop part-time. The blog is a purveyor of the local indie-rock scene, and arguably one of the best sources for information on every indie act that comes through the Twin Cities, thanks in large part to Hirte’s constant updates and to his meticulous attention.

“When I started posting on More Cowbell, I made it a goal to post 1,000 times in a year,” he said. As of the end of February, Hirte, writing under the name “digital paul,” had logged over 1300 posts on the blog since January 2007. The next most frequent poster is “solace,” the name used by Matteson, with a little more than 800 posts since the site was created.

But More Cowbell is just one of a number of local blogs acting as arbiters for all things cool, hipster, overhyped, trendy, fun, indie, obnoxious – choose your adjective – that exist solely to help you slink your way out of the home and into the Twin Cities after sundown. Together, they constitute the panel propagating an online phenomenon that’s becoming a trend in its own right, even as it continues to change shape: The all-encompassing blog – as event coordinator and PR representative, as personal journal and public journalist, as nightlife sponsor, and, sure, even as friend. These blogs are happy to devour your nightlife seven days a week and eager to spit it back up like the mother birds perched in the trees outside your window.

What they produce and reproduce more often than not comes in clean, easy-to-digest Web content, with sharp aesthetics and a keen, definitive judgment on what to do – where, when, and with whom. Those criteria are a veritable precondition given their creators’ multitalented, multitasked approach to art and culture, a role traditionally held by newspaper and magazine journalists and the companies they work for. (And for the record, what these individuals are doing is journalism.) They are part business, and to one another, part business associate. They can be your confidante late at night or early the next morning, as memories from that night gradually return to you – some even have the photos to help you remember.

And yet, it also seems that to the public they are part stranger, at least for the time being. Soon though, if you are not already, you may be more familiar than you want to be with their domains and their domain names (there is such a thing as too much exposure). But for now, fortunately for them, they’re probably too fresh for backlash.

Tyler Stevermer is an architecture and interior design senior at the University. His look varies from week to week, from day to day, throughout the week, and probably throughout the day. A single-breasted blazer fits him as genuinely as a V-neck and denim, and if the evening warrants it, he’s not opposed to donning all three at once, or ditching the denim and slipping into some tight-fitting lamé. You might notice him by his thick-framed glasses colored a sort of chromatic honey, though even they absorb and reflect whatever color happens to be nearby; and so, although you could have sworn they were charcoal the last time you saw him, they may be a light lilac the next time. But the point isn’t to notice Stevermer; that’s his job. He notices you.

Friends of friends

Thrifty Hipster thriftyhipster.com
Since its inception in 2003, Thirty Hipster has been the main source for information on local happy hours. With over 12,000 people on their mailing list and 6,000 hits each day, Thrifty Hipster is dedicated to accurate information that is easy to access. This in part is the reason Dogwillo will soon debut a new site, localhipster.com, an updated version of the old site, with more reviews and an interactive map.
“You know what you’re doing on Saturday night. You’re going to a concert with your friends, we built the site for that person that’s bored on a Wednesday night and wants to go out, but isn’t sure where to go,” said Matt Dogwillo, a former University student and the founder of thriftyhipster.com.

mnVibe mnvibe.com
mnVibe is a posting board for local electronic music enthusiasts that has been a part of Minnesota’s dance music community for over eight years.
Vital Culture, formerly the old Vital Vinyl record store downtown, currently hosts the site, which has over 8,000 members, and receives 2,000 visitors a day.

Stevermer posts on and manages The Minneapoline (theminneapoline.blogspot.com, pronounced: Minneapo-LEAN), a blog that covers local street fashion through straightforward means: The two contributors take their cameras to the streets and find it. Graphic designer Ellen Dahl started the blog in November 2006. Stevermer joined her at the beginning of 2007, and the two continue to maintain the site together through Google’s free blog site, blogger.com.

Street fashion (think vita.mn’s regular cachet of photos in its back pages, also the work of Dahl) proliferated among Japan’s Westernized youth culture at the beginning of the millennium. The style is big in Japan (Tokyo Street Style – www.style-arena.jp, also linked from The Minneapoline), and thanks in large part to blogs like The Minneapoline, it has become big in hipster enclaves throughout the world.

Yet characterizing street fashion is thorny, and the style has its detractors.

“These are clowns who have just discovered American Apparel and have yet to discover backless bras,” one anonymous commenter wrote in response to pictures posted from First Avenue’s “Solid Gold New Year” celebration.

“There are a lot of people who are just flat out offended by what people are wearing,” Stevermer said. “But if someone’s got the guts to do it, I’m going to record it.”

The Minneapoline’s simple format calls for a single page of digital photographs uploaded from Stevermer’s or Dahl’s camera, along with an occasional comment on the fashion by one of them. It’s a format duplicated in cities throughout the world, from Paris-based Facehunter to Jakarta’s JSL, Jakarta Street Looks (both hosted by blogger.com).

Although The Minneapoline is primarily about the fashion, it does play a supporting role in determining where its subjects should go, simply by being where some of them already are.

“Ellen covers the bar scene,” Stevermer said. “And if I really need some photos, I know I can go to the Espresso Royale in Dinkytown. And there’s always Too Much Love (Saturdays in First Avenue’s main room).”

Unlike More Cowbell’s model – a calendar to help people find the best indie-rock on any given night – The Minneapoline reserves its digital estate to report on what happened the night before, and more specifically, how people looked when they were there.

The fashion-conscious magazine l’étoile has had a slightly different motivation for its blog than either More Cowbell or The Minneapoline (linked from the magazine’s homepage, letoilemagazine.com).

“The blog was originally created to keep the brand fresh and l’étoile in people’s minds in between print issues,” Arts Editor Kate Iverson wrote in an e-mail. “Our online format definitely gets more attention since it’s constantly being updated, and we’ve got tons of loyal fans that plan their weekend around what we say is cool.”

Editor in Chief and Publisher Beth Hammarlund first introduced the Twin Cities to l’étoile in 2004 as a sturdy 8×5-inch magazine devoted to fashion. The magazine has since blossomed into a respected name in the art, culture and fashion community, averaging one issue each year, including its fourth and most recent issue, a 160-page, 9×12-inch collectible published last spring.

However, owing in part to the limitations of an all-volunteer based operation – the notoriously bound elements of time and money, for instance – and the need for a more cost-effective business model, l’étoile will only appear online beginning this year.

“Being a privately published magazine with an all-volunteer staff, going online will not only be more cost-effective, but will allow us to have a constant flow of content,” Iverson wrote. “It also opens the door to many more contributors and readers from all over the world. The blog is a great events calendar, has

cool interviews, art, music and style picks, but we think we can take it a few steps further with more extensive content and interactive features.”

The decision to transform l’étoile into an exclusively online magazine is only one example of print journalism’s continued exploration of (and at times, frustration with) the Internet’s impact on the trade. As February wound down, The Rake, a free monthly magazine whose scope spreads from the Twin Cities to the surrounding metro area, cited a lack of advertising revenue and unmanageable printing costs when it announced that it will print its last issue this month, the month of its 6-year anniversary, before moving exclusively online.

Yet as the term “blog” trudges through the uncharted terrain of the 21st century, it continues to tow along the stigma of being a personal journal, and therefore amateurish.

Emma Berg is the director of mplsart.com, which she runs with Kristoffer Knutson, owner and curator of the contemporary art and design retailer ROBOTlove, located in Uptown. The site receives 8,000 hits and 2,500 unique visitors per month. (Simply put, a “unique visitor” is you. If you visit a site twice in a single time frame during which statistics are recorded, you are only registered once, unless you use a different computer.)

The site, or as Berg described it in an e-mail, the “resource” and “service,” documents virtually every art event in the metro area. It publishes reviews of exhibitions, listings of featured artists (portfolios and miniature profiles), and of course, it has a blog of its own. But unlike More Cowbell and The Minneapoline, which are blogs first and foremost, Berg maintains her reservations.

“Kristoffer and I really treat (the blog) more as a place to post stuff,” she wrote. “But it isn’t too personal; that would be irrelevant to our visitors.”

“(Kristoffer) really put it best,” Berg continued. ” ‘Blogs are an opportunity to view the opinions of people we admire, trust, are curious about or even cannot stand. They are outlets for personal opinions that give context to our own lives, and often times validation Ö but of course, sometimes they’re just boring.’ “

Back at the coffee shop in February, Hirte seemed to share Berg’s view when he expanded on how he became involved with More Cowbell: “This just started because I would see some show that I was excited about and then I’d hurry and post it on More Cowbell.”

And really, when stripped of the entire technical lingo, that’s all these blogs are doing. Their relative independence in the market, combined with the low cost – and for many, no cost – of launching and running a blog or Web site, allows them to keep doing what they want, to share “their personal opinions that give context to our own lives, and often times validation,” as Knutson put it.

But that’s not to say big name endorsements don’t have their benefits, especially for Web content providers and bloggers who, at the beginning of each month, still need to write out a couple of checks.

In another Dinkytown coffee shop, freshman Katie Pederson sat with her friend Mark Hanson, drummer for the local band Spiritual Mansions. When asked how she learns about shows or what to do on the weekend, she said one word: “Myspace.” She thought about it for a second and then nodded. “Yeah. Definitely. Friends and friends of friends. Messages and bulletins.”

“Myspace has replaced the band Web site,” Hanson said with a hint of irony. “Instead of w-w-w-dot-bandname-dot-com, you have myspace-dot-com-slash-bandname.”

When asked if they had ever heard about More Cowbell or The Minneapoline, or any of the other blogs or Web sites mentioned in this article, they shook their heads.

“Myspace,” Pederson repeated. “That’s the way to go.”

“I just pick up a City Pages,” said American studies senior Allie Fleischmann as she stopped by her workplace, Everyday People in Dinkytown, to buy a shirt. “Or I go on Myspace.”

“I don’t even have a computer, so I’m way behind,” her coworker said before dipping between the thick hedges of clothes.

Which all seems to lead to an old adage you can probably Google in a matter of milliseconds. At least for now, it carries some powerful currency. It goes something like this: “Just because you’re big on the Internet, doesn’t mean you’re big in Japan.”