Music scenes are a lot like the weather — lots of folks complain, but no one does anything about it. Burlington’s scene is no different. The town has a justified reputation for its vibrant music community, but, whether owing to its diminutive size or its outpost-like geographic location, it simply cannot be all things to all people. Many jaded musicians and fans simply grumble about it, or pine for the greener musical pastures of Brooklyn or Portland, Oregon. But in Burlington, five enterprising twentysomethings collectively called Tick Tick have taken matters into their own hands and gone about reinvigorating — nay, making — their own scene.
Over the last two years, the screen-printing and indie-music-booking collective has presented more than 100 shows around Vermont in both traditional and unconventional venues. From acts like Montréal’s Thee Silver Mt. Zion and indie-psych faves Pontiak to under-the-radar bands such as indie-folk darlings Horsefeathers and Vermont’s own Capstan Shafts, Tick Tick has provided a direct pipeline to a wealth of incredible underground music. In the process, it has helped to bolster the indie cred of an entire city.
“There was nothing calling to me,” says Tick Tick co-founder Dale Donaldson, referring to his first few weeks in Burlington following a move from Saugerties, New York, two years ago. Like many young Queen City imports, he was drawn by the town’s reputation as an artistic and musical hot spot. But Donaldson, 25, didn’t find the fabled music town he’d been promised — at least, not the kind of music he craved. “None of the national touring bands that I wanted to see were coming through town; they would literally just skip Burlington,” he says. “And it just seemed like something was missing. Somebody needed to start something that could give it a general direction.”
Like many a revolution before it, Tick Tick traces its roots to a watering hole — in this case, noted Burlington dive The O.P. on North Winooski Avenue. There Donaldson met Lyndonville native Graham Keegan, 26, who had recently moved to the city after earning an art degree from Skidmore College and living for a time in Montréal. Keegan also noticed a void. Namely, an absence of provocatively designed show posters that inspired curiosity and excitement. “When I saw them in Montréal, I would know that ‘Oh, my God, this is a show I just have to go to,’” he says.
To Keegan, those posters, often for shows at “alternative” venues such as studio spaces, suggested the sort of intoxicating and untamed experience you wouldn’t find in nightclubs. “There’s some sort of weird energy about going to those shows,” he says. “The people that are there are probably gonna smell awful. But it’s going to be exciting. And the way that you can tell is by the way the show is represented.”
Keegan had been in Burlington for four months and says he felt “reasonably tapped in” to what was happening here musically. “I didn’t feel like I was missing a lot,” he concedes. “I went to a couple of shows that were at alternative venues. But they were very quiet and subdued shows — as opposed to the shows I would go to in Montréal, where, if you’re in an alt-space, it’s going to be a raucous show. It’s going to be a wild and exciting time.”
Keegan and Donaldson thought the solution to their problem would be to open a new venue. Financial realities put that dream out of reach, but the seeds were planted nonetheless, and Tick Tick soon sprouted.
A music scene is more than just music. It’s a culture. It is sight and sound and feeling. It is an aesthetic, which is precisely what Donaldson and Keegan realized they were missing in Burlington. And, by combining their interests in music, art and people, they hoped to create exactly that.
Donaldson and Keegan found pockets of music that intrigued them and, more importantly, led them to believe a like-minded audience existed in Burlington, perhaps one that wanted more. Specifically, their curiosity was piqued by experimental music auteur Greg Davis, indie-pop oddballs Nose Bleed Island and shows at venues such as the late 135 Pearl and The Box. (The latter adjoined Tick Tick’s current Marble Avenue studio.)
“Things [were] obviously happening in Burlington,” Donaldson points out. “Things were happening before we got here, and will continue to happen with or without us.” But he adds that he noticed a frustrating and self-defeating sense of exclusivity at those hip shows, as if you had to know someone to be involved. Or even to hear about them.
“I think people might accuse us of the same thing,” interjects Julia Lewandoski, referring to the numerous “secret” shows Tick Tick books at alt-venues such at The Bakery and Fifth Element. Lewandoski, 26, has been with Tick Tick nearly since its inception. Like the rest of the group — which also includes Nick Mavodones, 28, and resident DJ Mike Porrata (a.k.a. Mike DeVice), 26 — she has a hand in most aspects of Tick Tick operations. But her primary duties are booking and public relations.
Tick Tick can’t publicize those off-the-beaten-path events through traditional avenues for fear of compromising the spaces. Most alt-venues aren’t zoned for entertainment and thus are subject to noise violations, which could put future events in jeopardy.
But the shows are really “secret” in name only. Though they are not promoted in Burlington’s mainstream media, anyone who wants to find them can — all of Tick Tick’s shows, “secret” or otherwise, are listed on their website. That sense of discovery, of seeing a curious poster and following the rabbit down its hole, so to speak, is key to Tick Tick’s mystique and, ultimately, to its success.
“Aesthetic” is a term that comes up frequently in conversations with the members of Tick Tick. It is the defining — albeit loosely defined — quality at the core of everything they do, and has played a significant role in the growth of Tick Tick as a brand.
Whether one spots it on posters or T-shirts, Tick Tick’s haphazardly hip style is easily identifiable and has become its most — if not its only — reliably bankable asset. That said, no member of the group has yet personally seen a dime. While shows often struggle to turn a profit or simply break even, screen-printing and designing keep the lights on. Tick Tick does contract work for a variety of local companies and organizations, including The Monkey House, Burlington City Arts, the University of Vermont and, in fact, this newspaper.
“To sum it up simply, our visual aesthetic is hand-drawn,” says Keegan, who now manages Tick Tick’s business aspects and heads its screen-printing operation. “I think that when you hand-draw things, your character as a person comes through in a way it might not with photo layouts with text on top of it.” For example, a T-shirt recently designed by Donaldson for secondhand vinyl-and-book shop Speaking Volumes on Pine Street depicts a trio of crudely drawn birds regurgitating the store’s name. Keegan adds that he frequently receives compliments on posters Tick Tick had nothing to do with. Perhaps that’s a sign of how influential the group’s aesthetic has become in Burlington.
While Tick Tick’s visual aesthetic is hand-drawn, the best word to describe its musical aesthetic is “handpicked.” Or, as Lewandoski and Donaldson put it, “personal.” Not that Tick Tick has to rustle up its acts these days: Thanks largely to word of mouth from bands and booking agents who’ve had positive Burlington experiences through them, they’re now contacted about shows more frequently than they seek them out.
The group listens to everything that is sent its way, but its members look for styles of music they feel are underrepresented in Burlington. And, of course, that they like.
“We probably wouldn’t ever book a bluegrass band,” says Lewandoski. “It’s not that we don’t like bluegrass. But that genre is pretty well covered here.”
They also often try to pair out-of-town acts with local artists, reflecting a twofold strategy. First, local groups typically have their own fans and help the overall draw, especially if the import is relatively unknown (which it often is). Second, the double bill exposes artists from outside the Burlington bubble to the city’s musical offerings. The approach has fostered fruitful cross-pollination.
Since most of the bands Tick Tick brings to town have never been here before, the visitors’ expectations can be low. “At the best, our shows have this wonderful, warm crowd that is donating extra money and asks for an encore, and it’s a huge dance party,” says Lewandoski. And at their worst? “It’s a rainy November Sunday in Winooski, and we, at least, have a good time,” she says, chuckling. “A bad turnout is just a bad turnout. All of these bands have played for nobody. It happens.”
There will always be rainy, slow nights. But as Tick Tick’s reputation grows, both at home and beyond, those nights ought to be fewer and farther between. Of course, success can be a double-edged sword, especially when it relies on homey, arts-and-crafts charm.
“If things kept going exactly the way they are right now, we would get so burned out,” admits Lewandoski. “I wouldn’t want to abandon the tier of bands we’re booking. But I don’t see anything wrong with booking some bigger shows, too.” Those larger shows, such as Thee Silver Mt. Zion, generally bring in larger profits, which allow Tick Tick to fund smaller, lesser-known acts.
Eventually, the group hopes to turn the booking part of its operation into a nonprofit, which could enable it to seek artistic grants. For now, though, each member has a day job (or two) in addition to the 30 to 40 hours per week they invest in Tick Tick individually.
On the nearer horizon is a new label called Everyone Records, which also involves Futureclaw magazine’s music-and-arts editor Drew Stock. The first planned releases include the self-titled full-length from Burlington ex-pat Dick Heaven, a Crinkles 7-inch and a re-release of Ryan Power’s Is It Happening? with help from States Rights Records in Portland, Oregon.
Tick Tick aims to use the label — and its growing network of friends — to help export Burlington music, too. “Tick Tick would be nothing without the community of people we have grown to love,” acknowledges Donaldson. “And we meet more and more people who are really into what Burlington is becoming, and making Burlington where they want to be.”
In that sense, the record label is a natural extension: While booking bands brings music in, Everyone Records will send it out — in spiffy packaging, no doubt. For Tick Tick, it’s all part of the aesthetic.