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.