A friend of mine is an exceptionally talented bass player. He’s played all over the world with musicians from Michael Brecker to Andy Timmons and he’s also an excellent storyteller. One day we were hanging out and he started reminiscing about this gig he played during apartheid in South Africa. He began by saying that he had this six-month contract to play as the house band at a nightclub.
Everybody listening had to stop him before he made it through his first sentence: A six-month contract to play at a venue?
We were stunned.
“Was that just the way they did it in Africa back then?”
“No, that’s the way everybody used to do it back then.”
Thirty years ago, young local groups were actually contracted to play at a venue for numerous dates at a time. Allegedly, you could actually make a decent living doing it too. You’d play a bunch of small gigs and build a local reputation for yourself or open for a bunch of bands as they passed through town and get some exposure to managers and label reps on the way.
My wheels were spinning from his comment and I missed the rest of the anecdote (fortunately, like all great musicians, he’s prone to repeating his best stories so I got many other opportunities). This just seemed so crazy in comparison to what is going on in the live music world today. Another friend of mine, a very talented sax player, just got back from a gig up in New York and told me that insanely talented, well-connected musicians are playing at venues in New York for a free meal…
Look at the picture above from the Cavern Club: “THE BEATLES PLAYED HERE 292 TIMES”…
The musical landscape has changed dramatically over the past thirty years. Once upon a time, musicians were able to be musicians and support themselves with their music through a fertile, logical local system. Now the clubs are gone, the gigs pay so little that they aren’t even worth the gas, radio doesn’t care about the local scene any more, and (as previously discussed) it’s pretty hard to make it big unless you are already big in the first place.
During an interesting segment on NPR’s All Songs Considered, Carrie Brownstein and a panel of music bloggers discussed whether or not labels were useful in discovering new music. In a brief aside, Carrie mentioned that the label Kill Rock Stars almost passed on her band, electroclash darlings Sleater-Kinney, because they thought it was “just a side project”.
Now in Brownstein’s case, the group was a side project to her other band Excuse 17, but there is a prevailing philosophy among the decision-makers at labels that there should be some considerable measure of success derived specifically from the band in question in order for it to merit consideration.
That’s pretty difficult to do in today’s musical climate. I’ve always encouraged people to not define themselves by their day job—do enough to pay the bills and support your passions. The music business is now saying that that’s not enough. You have to be professional before going pro.
The problem is that we no longer have a system where amateur musicians can cultivate and support themselves in the process of turning professional. The issue is partly one of supply and demand. Back in the 60s, venues wanted bands and there simply weren’t that many out there. It was more difficult to even get an instrument, let alone be good enough at it to play for two hours.
All their success aside, Ringo Star and Mick Fleetwood would each tell you that they are not the most talented drummers (Mac Fleetwood doesn’t even know what 4/4 time is and he labored to explain that fact in Ken Robinson’s The Element). The fact is that they were the guys in their local area with a drum kit. Drums at the time were exceptionally expensive and too large for most in urban England to store. If you had the instrument, you were in a band. If you were in a band of any caliber, you were likely to land a gig playing at some venue with some regularity.
Every band needs somewhere to play. Unfortunately, these days venues are so financially strapped that they’d often rather put the iPod on shuffle than hire four teenagers and a sound guy. Consequently, the venues with live music are overrun with demos of musicians willing to play for peanuts.
In a world where it is virtually impossible to support yourself as an amateur musician, labels are left looking to people who are already famous to fill out their rosters: solo artists from previous hit-making bands like Gavin and Gwen, celebutantes, and contestants from reality TV.
Some amateur bands are lucky enough to catch a label’s attention and they land one of the precious few spots on a national tour playing a hundred dates with one band. Obviously these gigs are rare, but they also reduce exposure to only the fans of a certain band.
It has been said that all business is local. In the Digital Age, there is such a focus put on national and global considerations that the local concerns fall by the wayside. But ultimately, a return to a fertile local music environment is what will repair the music business. Labels have an interest in seeing musicians cultivated in their home environments, winning over a local demographic, and climbing a logical ladder toward regional and national success.
This was the model that worked thirty years ago and I believe it can still work with some adjustments for the digital age. In many ways and to their detriment, record labels are stuck in the old ways of conducting business. In this instance, I fear that they have overlooked a useful lesson from the past. Emphasizing a fertile local music scene and a logical progression from there toward a national spotlight is what encourages a diverse and creative musical landscape. There is no one better suited to make this happen than the labels themselves.