For indie-rock fans in the late ’90s and early aughts, finding the heart of the music scene was as easy as joining the hipsters smoking and shuffling outside the Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub in Central Square. The Middle East built its reputation by introducing us to what was new, next, and hip. In the basement, the largest of the four stages, fans could get spit-spray close to soon-to-be-famous acts like Beck and the White Stripes.
Today, the lines outside aren’t dominated by twentysomethings wearing T-shirts advertising obscure bands. Instead, the crowds look downright collegiate. That’s because dance parties, reggae jam bands, hip-hop, and even tribute acts have come to dominate the main stage — a recent look at the club’s “Downstairs” schedule through April shows that those types of musicians prevail over indie rockers two to one.
As a result, rock acts are getting sideshow status, and fans are starting to wonder whether the Middle East is losing its credibility altogether. Members of some bands that used to play there now grumble that their calls go unreturned, and as a result, Crosstown, Brighton Music Hall, and Royale have started scooping up buzzy groups.
We get that clubs need the right mix of income-driving acts (dance night!) to help pay for obscure bands for the cool kids. As Randi Millman, a former booker for Cambridge’s other iconic rock room, T. T. the Bear’s Place, says, “That really cool band that you saw with 60 other people? We were able to have them because of the money the dance night brought in.” But the Middle East has gone so far in the other direction,they seem to have abandoned their mission of introducing new bands to Boston. Maybe it’s the economy, but it’s clear that at the Middle East in 2012, crowds always trump cred.