2015-01-06

What's Wrong With Local Music

I came across a couple of articles on Facebook that seem to encapsulate everything I hate about being a musician. I'd like to discuss this in some level of detail, but before I do, let me quickly describe the three archetypical "what's wrong with music these days" articles/blog posts.

You'll notice that a running theme in my own music posts is that musicians in general are lazy and don't have an original bone in their bodies. (Okay, bad metaphor, since no human being should ideally have an "original" skeletal structure, but you get the point.) Naturally, we would expect that the articles written by musicians would also be lazy and unoriginal. That's where there are really only three kinds of articles, and here they are:

  1. Articles about how bad the record companies are. We can safely dismiss most of these articles because the number of musicians who have any real experience with record companies is much, much smaller than the number of people who write about how bad record companies are. 
  2. Articles, written by band members, admonishing music fans for not coming out to "support" the local music scene. 
  3. Articles, written by club owners, admonishing bands for not drawing a crowd.
Today's blog post is about these latter two kinds of articles. I've brought a couple of examples with me for illustrative purposes, but the reader is strongly encouraged to locate his or her own examples.

Get Out There And Support Live Music, Maaaaan!

I really hate these articles. Today's example comes from a blog called No One Likes Your Band (.com), and whining gets started in paragraph two:
One of the main things we need in order to get a better music scene is for people to get off their asses, stop complaining, and go to a show. That's it, it really is that simple. “Oh, but I don't know any of the bands playing.” Shut up, and go discover something new! What are you waiting for, the radio to tell you it's good? “But it's like five dollars to get in the door.” There's four bands playing, and you spent ten dollars for coffee this morning; stop with your lame excuses, and get your whiny ass to a show! You want live music? It's out there, go find it, and for the love of all that is holy, unholy, and chaotic neutral: stop thinking that the damn radio or television is gonna help you find anything.
I've always been nonplussed by the type of person who reasons this way. "Nobody came out to see my band play," therefore "People are lazy idiots who don't know what good music is!"

Notice the question that is never asked: Would people show up to my concerts if my musicianship and songs were better?

Our friends at No One Likes Your Band (.com), however, do come closer to this than the more typical examples of this kind of article. How does the author of the article address the criticism that local bands suck and aren't worth seeing live? Thusly:
If you think everything going on here musically is crap, then I can assure you that the only thing that's “crap” is your attitude. Take it from someone who actively searches for new, underground, unsigned music; we're sitting on a goldmine here. 
If you don't like what you hear, you have a bad attitude. His local music scene is a goldmine! I wonder...

True, he does levy a little bit of criticism at the musicians themselves:
A lot of you musicians need to step up your game as well, no one is innocent in this, especially not I. Sure, you should hone your craft, and work towards making the greatest music you can, but you should also step up your overall professionalism.
In hindsight, I'm impressed that his complaints are all consistent: Music fans have a bad attitude because they don't want to see these lousy bands perform (oops, there goes my "crap attitude"), while musicians themselves also have an attitude problem. He's right about musicians being unprofessional, of course, but notice how he takes it on assumption that they have "honed their craft" and worked "towards making the greatest music" they can.

I can count on one hand the number of local musicians I know who have a basic understanding of elementary harmonic theory, I mean the absolute basics of putting chords and melodies together. I know dozens of people who don't even know what key they write their own songs in. And I'm supposed to believe that these "musicians" have "honed their craft?" Please.

Well, that's the "He Said." What about the "She Said?"

Local Bands Are Soooooo Annoying!

Somebody at a website called Metal Sucks (gee, I can already tell they have a great attitude over there!) has a special bullet point on a 39-point list of complaints for the No One Likes Your Band (dot com) guy:
31. Bands that give big lectures on stage about how important it is to support “the scene” but at the end of their set want to get paid ASAP and don’t want to wait until the other bands get done.
The guy at Metal Sucks (dot com) is right about point #31, but for the wrong reasons. Remember, he's a club owner. He wants a packed house. He's not upset that the band isn't sticking around for the scene, he's upset that the band isn't sticking around to buy more alcohol.

That's right, club owners, I'm onto you. I've seen how you run your business. It started out that clubs would organize a quality show for their existing patrons. Then one day they realized that if people can't hear, then they can't talk to each other; and if they can't talk to each other, then they drink more. So the PAs got bigger and louder and everything seemed to work great until... people stopped showing up because they couldn't hear anything. Do you realize how bad any music sounds when a 50-inch speaker cone is distorting?

So what did they do next?  They started compensating for the dwindling crowds by booking more bands. The bands have to stick around, at least until they finish playing, and that means that clubs get to sell lots of alcohol to the bands themselves. Suddenly, twelve bands are playing 10-minute sets. Welcome to your local music scene. The performers are the customers. But if you don't stick around for everyone's 10-minute set and hang out until 2 AM on a Thursday night (are you joking, sir? You expect me to sit in your crappy wooden chairs and broken bar stools until 2 AM on a weeknight?) then Metal Sucks (dot com) has a bullet point #31 for you!

Seven of the thirty-nine bullet points on this list, by the way, are variants of "we don't like bands who don't bring crowds." I would be sympathetic to this argument, were it not for the combination of factors I just mentioned: PAs that are cranked far too loud for a crowd to actually enjoy the show, and shows that are booked late on weekday nights.

Listen, speaking as someone who has on occasion drawn hundreds of people to little bars to see my performances, I can tell you that it is virtually impossible to bring a good crowd with me if I'm booked to play after 7 PM on a weeknight. You're simply delirious if you think it's going to happen on a regular basis. It takes an exorbitant amount of effort to draw a crowd like that on a weeknight. I can pull that off once or twice per year in my local market, but that's it. And some bands are too young or inexperienced to ever do it. So club owners should moderate their expectations accordingly.

Also, keep in mind the arrangement: Clubs pay musicians to perform, not to advertise for your club. Take some responsibility for your own booking responsibilities!

Aha, Now I Get It

And there it is, the secret motive revealed. Clubs want to blame bands for not drawing a crowd. Bands want to blame fans for not being drawn. Everyone is shirking their responsibilities.

Imagine if these writers were correct about what they're saying. Imagine that clubs are so damn attractive that crowds are just lining up to get in late on a Thursday night - but unfortunately those crowds don't show up because the club booked the wrong dozen bands to play 10-minute sets. Imagine if the bands are so damn amazing that the pool of talent is a goldmine waiting to generate revenue for everyone - but fans are just so lazy that they can't be coaxed or whined out of their homes to see twelve bands play for 10 minutes each. (Don't forget about the thirty minutes of set-up time between each band!)

No, really. Imagine that. Imagine that what the music scene is writing about itself is true. What would that mean?

It would mean that it's your damn fault that bars and bands can't make any money.

Can you imagine the CEO of Ford Motors writing an article in Newsweek about how, "Sure, we had a rough year, but it's only because automobile customers are too lazy to get out there and buy our cars. They say our cars are crap, but the only thing that's 'crap' is our customers' attitudes! Lazy bastards!"

Wouldn't that be the stupidest thing you ever read? Wouldn't that be the lamest excuse for poor company performance you had ever encountered? Wouldn't you think that the guy was basically a delusional, entitled, self-absorbed idiot who had nothing to offer to the world other than blaming the universe that the many millions he deserved didn't just automatically gush into his bank account solely because he wanted them to?

If so, then you know exactly how I feel about musicians and club owners in this day and age.

Epilogue

I may not be right about this, but here's why I think I'm right: Every time I walk downtown and I see a talented busker - some guy playing classical guitar on a bridge, or someone playing unaccompanied jazz on a saxophone in a tunnel, or a couple of guys running a drum-line out of overturned buckets and milk jugs - I watch as the crowds gather, stay for a couple of songs, and then disperse with smiles on their faces.

People love music. People want to hear live music. They stop every time they hear it. They pay tips. They take videos. They post the videos on YouTube. They love it

But the difference between your local band and that guy playing classical on the bridge is that he's honed his craft for decades, he plays his music with simple joy, and he offers it into the world as music for its own sake. He doesn't dream of fame or fortune, he is simply an artist who chooses to beautify the air around himself. And the crowds flock.

Local bands, on the other hand, spend a few weeks wrangling 3-chords together in 10 different ways and expect to get hundreds of dollars a night from club owners who don't know how to fill their own establishments. And the crowds stay far, far away, because who wants to sit in a broken wooden chair at midnight on a weeknight drinking over-priced alcohol and listening to crap bands they can hardly hear, without even being able to discuss their experience with their date because the PA is cranked too loud?

I mean, seriously, does that sound like fun to you?