Is live music dying?

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We spent months preparing for the Gemini Soul tour, booking performances in Phoenix, Hollywood, Fresno, Santa Cruz and Orange County. We covered it all: a publicist, advertising, free ticket give-aways, flyers, posters, concert listings, postcards. We tried holding a charity benefit. We tried having an opening band. We tried free promotional concerts at colleges. We tried passing out free admission cards on the street. And still only a scattering of people came to each show.

The people who did show up always raved about the music, as did the doormen, the bartenders, the club managers. “You’re the best band I’ve ever seen play here, and I’ve heard a lot of bands,” was a typical response. So where was everyone?

Live music in the United States is dying. Several decades ago, a band could count on regular club dates. Unknown jazz bands could “do the circuit” and make at least some money. Not anymore. I talked to the manager of a two-thousand seat theater. She said everyone in the industry is talking about how difficult it has become to fill venues, and speculated that people have too many entertainment options at home — the internet, iPods, cable TV, Netflix — that there is less incentive to go out on the town. Fewer people are willing to take a chance on unknown music. As a consequence, many venues can’t afford to pay bands and expect you to play for tips — which is fine to get a career going, but how can you sustain that?

Live music as viable entertainment hangs on in some ways. Me’Shell Ndegeocello, thank goodness, can draw a large crowd on a Monday night to San Francisco’s The Independent. Festivals and cruises still feature performers (although they are increasingly interested in musicians with national reputations – which begs the question, how does one get a national reputation?). But if talented guitarists like Mick Fleetwood (co-founder of one of the most successful bands of all time, Fleetwood Mac) can fill only half of that two-thousand seat venue, and if Yoshi’s resorts to giving away free tickets to Lee Ritenour’s second show, where does that leave us?

Have we become too accustomed to music at the press of a button, day and night, and worse yet, many of us now expect it for free? Radiohead released their latest CD online and asked buyers to choose how much to pay. Only 38% of those who downloaded the CD paid anything. The rest — an unbelievable 62% — felt they should get the album for free! [Forbes.com]. Because of the band’s stature, they still made a considerable amount of money on the sales, but at those percentages, a four-person band selling only 10,000 CDs at an average of $8 apiece would make just $30,400. That amounts to less than $8,000 per person, not including any deduction for production expenses.

I recently discovered a dozen inter-connected English-language websites based in Russia selling my music as well as music by big-name artists, unauthorized, for download for less than $1 per CD. If most musicians can’t make money performing and can’t even make money from CD sales online, how will our culture be able to nurture and sustain the next wave of musicians? Like climate change, we will glibly go about thinking nothing is wrong (or at least many of us will) until it is too late. We will have chopped down the tree that nurtured our music and gave it life.

7 Comments

  1. Yes, live music is dying, most recorded works are being downloaded rather then bought, it’s becoming more and more difficult to live as a musician. Musicians become freelance business men, I know plenty of really talented musicians who couldn’t market themselves as artists and make their money teaching, we can only hope people will begin to see the industry die and learn to appreciate the hard work musicians do and pay the extra money to see live music and buy albums.

  2. Not the most encouraging of reading but you know – I can’t argue with it. We just spent the last 6 months securing ourselves a booking agent (Nashville here we come) because the realities of the club circuit proved economically unfeasible.

    I still have faith that with enough resources we’ll be able to reach the point where we break even – but then we haven’t actually been out with Kelli yet – we’ll see. I’m listening to some Gemini Soul – very smooth yet funky too – I’m hoping that the Country / Rock market is a little more open to seeing a live gig

  3. Congratulations, Andrew, on securing a booking agent. I know how hard that is — and believe me, after the work I put in booking the Gemini Soul tour, I know that a booking agent truly earns his/her pay! You’ll probably have somewhat of an easier time in the country/rock genre — jazz since the 60s has become increasingly marginalized — but the general indifference to new artists that permeates our culture will take a lot of blood, sweat and plain old luck to overcome. A typical comment that our publicist encountered from reviewers was, “Who is Gemini Soul? I’ve never heard of them.” Duh! But then I guess it was naive to imagine that music critics care about music. I’m speaking generally, of course, because some journalists have been responsive and supportive. But the “I’ve never heard of them” attitude is indicative of what we are up against. Which is to say, again, that our culture is killing the tree that nurtures new music and that has made American music such a potent force around the world. Those days are coming to an end if they haven’t already.

  4. Live music is definately on it’s way down! I live in Nashville and performed for several years at the Gibson Guitar Theater Showcase next to Grand Ole Opry and trying to fill a 500 seat Theater was a challenge, even in Nashville! There are several reasons why people dont care about live music but one reason is cover charges, people dont like to pay a cover charge..And todays youth dont want to see a star, they want to BE a star and that is why American Idol and Karaoke Bars attract so many..Todays youth dont want to set idle and watch the action on stage, they want to be part of the action on stage..So my solution to help you increase your audience is to find a way to get people to be part of your show, find a way to put a few in the spotlight with you!! Think outside the box and change your way of thinking and rid your old ideas of how you think live shows should be performed (cause it’s not working) and get creative and think up new ways to get people in the door!

  5. That’s a creative idea (make audience members part of the show), and we’ve actually tried it. Sometimes our bass player dances with audience members (similar to Prince inviting the audience to dance onstage). That’s pretty safe. But once we tried letting an audience member play his instrument with us. That was disastrous. (Maybe letting someone play tambourine would work better). Bottom line: it doesn’t make much of a difference. I’m convinced the only surefire draw is to be young, pretty and female.

  6. I agree with you on the cover charge thing. People do NOT want to pay. If it’s a bar, they figure the band is there only as an enticement to get s-faced drunk. Some clubs even expect the band to do their own PRE-sales, then split the money with the bar owner/promoter. In other words, the musicians PAY to PLAY. But you’re right about kids today. Yea, we’ve heard the older gen dissn’t the younger thru-out history. (Not as good as we were, walked 20-miles in the snow, yadda-yadda’) since time immortal YET I think it’s finally come time where generalization is right on the money. Kids, and I include anyone below 30, EXPECT things ot be handed to them on a silver platter. Few actually work OR have EVER had to FIGHT for anything. The last generation of parents are TOTALLY to blame for this too. They wanted their kids to LIKE them, be their buddies, instead of being the “parent”.

    I’ve actually had people get in my face recently when wanting a basic 5-buck cover. (We aren’t a bar. Every dime of the door went to the artist. ). I had to almost call the cops on one because HE wasn’t going to pay, and get out of his way.

    There are cities where this isn’t the case. Asheville comes to mind BUT you won’t get rich there. BIg Venues with huge covers (55 bux, like Live Nation/Filmore in Charlotte) are hurting trying to bring in the dinosaur acts. I think charging that much is indeed greedy and I hope they fail. BUT 25 bux an under, I consider fair. Plus, you gotta’ admit, there are few really original good acts left anyway/ Alot of the 1990’s acts and you know who they are, all sounded the same to me. Blah.

    AND, then there is the economy. People having to work undesirable jobs sometimes resent paying money to someone who in turn, is lving their “dream”. Sex, drugs, and rock n’roll is a hard stereotype to get over. Then some of the venues, expect you to pay large covers, sit in their dive, for some unknown, just-out-of-the-garage band that hasn’t even paid “their dues” yet.

  7. Digital downloads, everyone watching youtube, uploading free downloads instead of buying, the end of small record labels, the lack of small venues and basically little support for indies – it’s all contributing to the death of music. It’s like watching a freak show!

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