Performing Without a Net
The Internet is killing live music.
Hey, don’t shoot the messenger! And don’t think I’m bitter or angry. I’ve worked plenty and I’m well-compensated, and I’ve been doing it thirty years. No complaints here.
But between the dwindling ‘pay’ presented in clubs, the all-but-complete disappearance of royalty income due to online file-sharing, and the general indifference of the public to live music, it’s getting harder and harder for young musicians to break into the game. And plenty of older musicians are feeling the pinch as well.
For older cats, the sad truth is that if a significant part of your pay comes from playing in clubs, you haven’t had a raise in about thirty-five years. $70 a night wasn’t so bad when your rent was $200 and a gallon of gas was about a buck, but it doesn’t go quite so far these days. And since many musicians are pretty bad at setting money aside, if they ever had any, that hand-to-mouth living takes a toll eventually.
Many talented players gave up on music as a profession and moved into jobs with more security, becoming content with occasional weekend gigs. Others got creative and found water from new wells. But making a living these days in the clubs? Fuhgeddaboudit.
I read a post on Facebook recently by a talented guy who has made a living as a musician for many years, about a gig he played at a local listening room with several other well-known players where a whopping dozen people were in attendance, most of them personal friends and family. Meanwhile next door, the adjacent coffee shop was doing a booming business, filled with young people plugged into laptops with their earbuds and free Wi-Fi.
Austin audiences are notoriously fickle and jaded, but these young people haven’t had time to become jaded. Now fickle is another thing, but it’s not really their fault. These are the Cable Kids–from infancy, they have had hundreds of choices at their fingertips. The Internet is just the logical extension of years of habitual channel-surfing. And wouldn’t you rather sit and stare in solitude at a flat screen that demands no interaction from you, rather than witness a live performance of musicians asking you to clap along, or sing, or dance, or think, or feel?
I know I would.
But seriously, that’s just their reality. I grew up going to concerts, along with all my friends. My first major live show was at the Sam Houston Coliseum in Houston TX, when I was thirteen. That was in February 1970. And the lineup was absolutely preposterous. The opener was John Mayall and the Blues Breakers, followed by It’s A Beautiful Day, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Grateful Dead.
That set the bar pretty high, I must admit. But in those days, concerts were major happenings and they didn’t cost a second mortgage, either. I don’t remember the cost of that show, but if it was more than $12 I would be surprised. By the time Quicksilver played, we were all standing on chairs on the arena floor, dancing. It was a Collective Experience, and it was transcendent.
Now, in the Live Music Capitol of the Whirled, we have a smorgasbord of incredible talent any night of the week, much of it free or close to free. Some of it even transcendent. So you would think people would be out supporting these shows, right?
Not so much. Or maybe they just don’t dig what we do, which is to play music that grooves but is complex enough to make us feel committed to putting in the time and energy to make it happen. As soon as the music gets too demanding, the audience tends to melt away. Or flock to bands who can barely play their instruments, but have cool hair.
Don’t get me wrong. I have played in a lot of talented bands where hundreds of people are grooving to it, dancing, having a great time. Those are called ‘cover bands’. They pay well. And they are satisfying, in their way. But you’re not making a personal statement.
Of course, you’re not making a personal statement when you’re playing Count Basie or Mozart, either. Other than to say, “I value this music enough to work it up and present it in a way that I hope you will enjoy. This is great stuff, check it out.”
I’m less interested in the number of people in the room than I am in how many are really connecting with the experience and listening. People come out for any number of reasons, and only a few of them are there just for the music. When you connect with those people, it’s almost always worth it. Unless they’re drunk. Then it goes south in a hurry.
Have audiences changed? Yes, and not for the better. Is it the Internet’s fault? You betcha. Do I have to back up that assertion with research and cold hard facts? Not unless you pay me to. I’m blogging, remember?
It’s just always interesting to me to see what used to be hip, and what’s hip today. Like you watch these old Playhouse 90 TV shows from the 1950’s and 60’s, with scripts by people like Rod Serling, and heavyweight casts who were even sometimes performing live on national TV, and you think, “How did we go from this to the dreck we have today? What happened?”
The answer, of course, is: Money Happened. It’s just too risky for advertisers to be associated with something that might make people think. If they do too much of that, they might decide they don’t need that product after all.
It’s the same with music. I have been on a binge lately of watching bands that I grew up with (on YouTube of course; yes, I am not immune to the seduction of the Internet). So I’m watching vintage shows by Jethro Tull, and Gentle Giant, and XTC, and others. And I’m realizing–this music just wouldn’t make it today.
Oh, maybe there would be a fringe following. You can always find a few hundred people to dig you. But I really doubt it could catch fire the way it did in 1975, or even 1985. It’s just ‘too weird’. People have lost their ears, which to me is a whole lot more tragic than a bunch of people preferring their screens to a transcendent Collective Experience.