Monday, July 27, 2009

Where Do We Go From Here?

Over the weekend I did 3, count 'em, 3 big shows.

Not shoes, as (rock royalty) Ed Sullivan would have said.

I had 3 gigs and it was nice. The venues were pretty cool, the guys (and gals) I worked with were nice, and the insurance and utility companies have been satisfied for yet another month (do they work as hard? I wonder.)

There was, however, something missing that I couldn't quite place. An odd feeling, really. But then it hit me, after reading a letter from a club owner that is now out of business. His take on the industry was right on, and I found myself reflecting on my own life as a pro.

The first gig of the weekend was just a restaurant gig, a money gig.

A boring gig.

We need these, let's face it.

I did a duo show with a piano player. This particular venue used to employ quartets. Then trios, and now they've downsized to duos. Plus you have to pay for parking (downtown, ouch) and there is no drink deal for the musicians (not that it's absolutely necessary to drink at work. Or is it?) So really, the money gig was not that much money (although it was good enough, as they say, whoever they are.)

At least the gig still exists, although I wonder why, considering how oblivious the audience was (mostly) to us. Now I know that the people are there for dinner and drinks and trying to get some and all, but, tell me, how can you just ignore someone standing in front of you jumping up and down waving their arms in a frenzy. Even if you're not interested, you must know we're there, right?

Maybe not.

There was a woman sitting at a front table, eating dinner, reading a book, and actually listening to her I-pod while we were playing.

No kidding.

The next night was at a club. A large and well-known music club, at that. Capacity for the joint was around 250 patrons, but only about 100 showed up. One could blame the weather (it was beautiful) or the multitude of free things going on in the city, like Venetian Night, or the Lincoln Fest, or the Wicker Park fest, or whatever.

The size of the crowd was irrelevant, though. Rather, it was their attitude which was nothing short of blase. Sure, all in all a good time was had by all, and the show was very good and everything. But the people seemed very... I don't really know what they seemed like. But I had the feeling that they would have been just as happy sitting with a drink and listening to the radio.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with that, but at 15 bucks a least it's cheaper than a Jonas Brothers concert. Wanna know how they justify their costs?

Finally, I capped the weekend with an outdoor performance at a suburban village town hall. It was a beautiful venue, with tall trees, lush grass, and thousands of fairy lights all around, giving off an abundance of soft, pleasing illumination. People came out to see us, several hundred strong, with picnic baskets, lawn chairs, and libations in tow. Finally, a seemingly attentive, and therefore attractive, audience.

Hooray. Incentive to give a good show. I was ready for some real action.

The sound guys were terrible, though. Their incompetence was nothing compared to their nonchalant attitude towards actually getting the sound right. It was almost like they were phoning it in.

Buzz kill.

So now you've made it this far, and you're probably thinking, "But what about this letter you mentioned earlier?"

Glad you asked.

I was feeling down about the events of the weekend, and this guy just made things very clear to me. Here are a few samples:

"Dear Friends:

Ever since the creation of the (club), it was my sole intention to do nothing more, or less, than present the finest contemporary artists in this country, on the best stages and in the most pleasant halls.

The scene has changed and, in the long run, we are all to one degree or another at fault. All that I know is that what exists now is not what we started with, and what I see around me now does not seem to be a logical, creative extension of that beginning. Therefore, I am taking this opportunity to announce the closing of the (club), and my eventual withdrawal from producing concerts."

You can see why this caught my eye. He continues with his reasons for closing down:

"1) The unreasonable and totally destructive inflation of the live concert scene. Two years ago... I associated with and employed "musicians." Now, more often than not, its with "officers and stockholders" in large corporations - only they happen to have long hair and play guitars. I acknowledge their success, but condemn what that success has done to some of them. I continue to deplore the exploitation of the gigantic-hall concerts, many of them with high-priced tickets. The sole incentive of too many has simply become money. The conditions for such performances, besides lacking intimacy, are professionally impossible according to my standards.

2) I had always hoped to be able to present artists whose musical worth I felt was important: artists whose music was valid, whether commercially popular or not. There are more quality artists today; but many of those that do exist do not appear in public regularly. Therefore, in order to stay in business, I would be forced to present acts whose musicality fell below my personal expectations and demands. I could do this, and in having to book fifty-two weeks a year it becomes tempting because it is so much easier to do. Thousands might even to come to these concerts, but I personally would prefer not to present them. For who would gain?

3) With all due respect for the role they play in securing work for the artists, the agents have created a new rock game called "packaging"; which means simply that if the (club) wants a major headliner, then we are often forced to take the second and/or third act that the agent or manager insists upon, whether or not we would take pride in presenting them, and whether or not such an act even belongs on that particular show. To do so would be to relinquish the essential responsibility of being a producer, and this I will not do.

4) In the early days of (the club), the level of audience seemed much higher in terms of musical sophistication. Now there are too many screams for "More" with total disregard for whether or not there was any musical quality.

I sincerely thank the artists and business associates who contributed to our success. But, I warn the public to watch carefully for what the future will bring.

The rock scene in this country was created by a need felt by the people, expressed by the musicians, and, I hope, aided to some degree by the efforts of the (club). But whatever has become of that scene, wherever it turned into the music industry of festivals, 20,000-seat halls, miserable production quality, and second-rate promoters - however it went wrong - please, each of you, stop and think whether or not you allowed it, whether or not you supported it regardless of how little you received in return.

I am not pleased with this "music industry." I am disappointed with many of the musicians working in it, and I am shocked at the nature of the millions of people who support that "industry" without asking why. I am not assured that the situation will improve in the future."

So where DO we go from here? If any of you have something to contribute, please share it. I, for one, want to know what happened.

This letter, by the way, was written by Bill Graham in 1971, and published in the Village Voice on May 6th of that same year. The "(club)" was, of course, the Filmore, East and West.

So it goes...

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