June 7: The Reports Of Live Music’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated
I believe I’ve read about 473 articles over the past few weeks all sounding the alarm that live music is dead. It would be a classic case of dominoes falling: first musicians, then venues, then recording studios, sound guys, booking agents, etc. As venue operators/presenters, we need to see how it all fits together, we’re in the middle of bringing musicians and audience members together. What I see is short term pain, but in the long run, a far healthier universe for live music.
First, it’s critical to realize that the “music biz” is hundreds of different businesses. Does anyone really think the economics for a Taylor Swift are the same for some little local bar room blues band or or experimental classical music performer? I’ll go so far as to say this, and I’m betting it’s largely accurate: anyone you’ve heard of (unless your a fan of aforementioned experimental classical/noise generated electro-cello music) will be fine. The big venues will be fine. The amount of money that is held by the conglomerate Ticketmaster/Live Nation, in partnership with the large venues and artists is so great that they’re sounder than just about every national retailer.
For all the rest? That’s where the work needs to be done. By and large, save for a few performing arts centers, the bulk of music happens in bars or restaurants. Some may masquerade as a music venue, but make no mistake: without alcohol, they’re doomed. Some, like a City Winery, may shoot high with excellent food and beverage, while others are little more than rooms with folding chairs and an extensive beer list. This in no way denigrates that business model, it just shows that it’s a very pandemic-sensitive business model: no bar service means no music. Even those larger performing arts centers need the alcohol sales to survive. It’s a long-help tenent that the last two rows of seating are where the profit is for the smaller arts centers. If those don’t sell, you’re in trouble. Alcohol sales insure the venue from that worry. For many mid-week gigs,. the alcohol is what pays the band, not the cover charge.
Those folk clubs, the old survivors of the ’60’s that are still going, are slightly less vulnerable in that many have gone to non-profit status, which has enabled the stronger ones to develop a sound donor base and endowment. While things won’t be easy, especially for any employees of these clubs, they should able to come through the other side.
The “low venues on the totem pole” are perhaps the strongest in a situation like this. The volunteers who run those church basement or library hall music programs will weather this with relative ease. With no fixed expenses, there is no financial drain. The people who run these programs never were in it for the money; they never took a salary or cut of the door, so the lack of income isn’t a concept that relates to their venues. Yet, they’re the most important for the niche musicians who aren’t Taylor Swift. They put on the shows by the unknowns, in the weird genres that aren’t even labelled, and pay splits to the artists that are far greater than anywhere else. The people who run these programs simply do their day jobs until it’s financially viable to run shows again.
What was going wrong with the smaller side of the music business that this pandemic helps? Plenty. The first problem was that there were too many venues. Every fan with a living room started hosting house concerts. Every book store, music shop, church, bar, etc all started music programs. While initially the artists themselves thought this was great (More Gigs!) a few started to realize the music product in general was starting to be diluted. Their own individual brand, specifically, was in danger of becoming ordinary. It got too easy to book a week’s worth of gigs in one area, especially the low-paying house concerts.
The venues that had “skin in the game”, i.e. fixed expenses that they were willing to risk for guarantees, sound equipment, rentals, etc., had a hard time standing out. With music on every corner, on every night, for low prices, even the best players became ordinary. So what happened? To make sure that they could get a crowd, many of the well-paying larger performing arts centers turned to their most reliable audience members: old people looking for nostalgia. Why take a chance on some challenging new classical or jazz when you could throw a tribute band up there and sell the place out? So in an instant, all this talk of “music being inspiring, of enlightening, of educating and communicating new ideas” was just talk. You wanna stay alive? Get the Led Zeppelin knock-offs.
What was an already-difficult position for many arts organizations attempting to present more niche music became worse with the pandemic, and musicians weren’t helping. While these cell-phone concerts were fun for the first weekend, and generated a little income out of sympathy from the faithful fans, they quickly became too common. Musicians were Streaming Live! at every opportunity with poor sound and video. Worse still, they were unprepared for what a small screen does. It focuses everything just on them. A stumble with between-tune patter, or worse, a constant looking away or even walking off screen for a second, is magnified: there’s no one else up on the stage to distract the audience from an intense focus. As there’s no sound “help” from a large hall (think auto-reverb with sound-diffracting qualities of an audience, essential to live sound quality) even the best musicians sound pretty lame. In fact, even really talented ones looked quite ordinary. For a venue like mine, it’s hard to get excited about booking artists in the coming year who now appear quite ordinary.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
We are now officially in the era of video selling music better than music can. Artists, no matter how small or esoteric, need some really great videos to back up their promotional efforts. There’s going to be quite a log jam of artists looking for gigs in the coming year. Many of those available slots will go for events and shows that had already been cancelled, and are needing to be re-booked. That means an artist can possibly have missed most all of 2020, and then still be out of luck in 2021 if they don’t have the proper promotional program behind them. Use this enforced downtime to really up your video game. I believe that most people will forgive superb quality if the content is creative and engaging. While more than a few agents disagree with me, performance videos don’t cut it. They’re a cheap way out. I might use one or two just to preview how an artist engages a crowd, but that’s about it. Get creative, please.
And it’s not just up to the artists: venues who are on the fringe of mainstream will need to get really creative to make shows profitable when we can all open up again, and are limited to audience density or size. Can it be done? I believe so, but the goals have to be different. While I can’t say what will work for everyone, I’ll share what I believe will work for my situation.
I have a mid-to-small sized venue, but much larger than city clubs. I can hold up to 200 people, but if I lay out a 6-foot perimeter around various family units, I’m really only looking at about 50-60 people. That’s a big hit, and if I pay headliners with full bands their guarantee from a year ago, I’ll lose about 70% of the normal gate. That means, with one show, I’ll have lost so much money that I’ll have to shut down permanently. On the flip side, I won’t be able to fit a full band on stage while maintaining distancing anyway, so part of that issue goes away on it’s own.
In the very short term, I’ll probably book only duos, and either married ones or partners who live together. That allows them to stay close on stage and actually look like a unit, which is the point of their music. Fortunately, there’s more than a year’s supply of very talented couples to make this part work. There are alt/classical duos, folk, hard-core fiddle partners, R&B, you name it.
The other benefit for the musicians is that because they live together, they can travel together, share a room, and keep their expenses well under control. They need a lower guarantee to make the tour work.
For my part in helping them earn as much as possible, I’ll need to do the dreaded live-streaming thing. Yes, I’m not a fan, but as a supplement to their live show with a limited sized audience, it should help a little. I can also link to a local charity during that stream to help with their fund-raising as well. The artists now becomes part of a community, which in the long run will help with their own support on platforms such as Patreon.
In addition, we will start offering the pre-show workshops more often. The artists will get paid a little for this, and it helps with the pre-show publicity. If desired, we can even try to arrange private lesson masterclasses for the artists the day of the show (or eve the day after, depending on their tour route). Again, it’s community-building with a little extra income for the artist. This approach may or may not work, but it’s better than doing nothing.
As with any event causing great change, there will be winners and losers. The losers will whine, posting on social media about how tough their life is, linking to every article about how the world will end. The ones who make it through will be much stronger, with less competition. They’ll be the venues working to make the audience’s experience even better through better ambience, more access to artist interaction, perhaps investing in better sound equipment. The artists who excel in the coming year will the ones producing better videos, working on new material, perhaps initiating new collaborations they never thought of or had time for before.
In the end, the musical experience for everyone involved will be much better, and I for one am looking forward to it.