What’s it like playing Pop Music when you’re not a Pop Superstar?

Some time ago one of my friends and one of the owners of a local record shop/venue, Modern Cult Records, posed a question (friends only post, unfortunately) on Facebook:

Why do so many bands tour directly around Louisville? How can we change this frustrating f**king trend? Do I need to open my own damn venue?

While a number of folks piped in with their explanations and suggestions for how that might be changed, anyone who’s been in any local scene outside of the big music meccas like New York, Chicago, and Nashville has probably felt this way at some point. Indeed, a few (including me) brought that point up–namely, that it’s a pretty regular scenario in most cities. This comment by Syd Bishop, musician and music writer for the LEO (Louisville Eccentric Observer) Weekly, sums up the sentiment nicely:

It seems a little absurd to assume that whatever sort of cliques may occur in Louisville are either unique to our city, or of such widespread knowledge that they would make it out of town. I doubt very much that anyone in, say, Des Moines, is sitting around bemoaning how clique-ish the Louisville scene is when they are booking a tour. This is all about logistics and money and nothing more.

Local music scenes are pretty much like this everywhere. It’s primarily about the logistics of touring and the money that can be made from that kind of activity. One of the running themes in the Classical Music Crisis is “becoming a part of the wider world” and all that position entails with regards to being relevant and sustainable. As readers of this blog know, this all begs the question of whether [Euro-American] pop music is still a part of the wider world and whether it is relevant and sustainable. The same studies using metrics to show the decline of Classical Music are showing similar decline in popular forms of entertainment (Pop Music, Sports, Movies) so using those industries as inspiration or models to follow are disingenuous and misleading at best, and dangerous for Classical Music as an industry at worst.

 

We’re in a Post-Pop Age; and by that I mean a Post Popular Entertainment Age. The socio-economic infrastructure which lead to the rise of popular forms of cultural entertainment are breaking down and creating fragmented markets. The myth of the homogeneous “general audience” masks the fragmented population with a wide variety of tastes. And here we’re just talking about the Superstar Economy side of Popular Culture.

The past few blogs here have been about the local side of pop music–the 99% of Pop Music, if you will. These musicians are the ones performing day in and day out locally; often to next to no audience; and with a high attrition rate. One of the other commenters in that thread summed this up:

I toured extensively for many years…times have changed…most band’s haven’t adapted…those that have are more than likely doing well….the others play every other weekend in their home town to nobody .

So the vast majority of pop musicians are experiencing revenue conditions similar to, or worse than most Classical Musicians. I started a Facebook thread (this one’s public so you can read the original) discussion highlighting four points brought up by Daisy Caplan in the original discussion

“A) cliquishness in and of itself isn’t a problem, it’s the outcome. What happens in my experience in louisville is that the majority of people aren’t even aware of what’s going on musically outside of their friend/peer/party group, which shrinks as they age. Not everyone, but definitely most of the show-going cohort. Everywhere is clique-y, but not in the same way Louisville is.

“B) there are more shows going on on a given night than the existing audience can support. This isn’t just Louisville, this is pretty much everywhere. It dilutes turnout across the board. This is one people can do shit about. BANDS: DONT PLAY EVERY WEEK OR EVERY MONTH. STOP IT.

“C) I now live in one of the cities that is being talked about as a feeder town for larger shows (Cincinnati) and what you’re seeing is actually a problem here as well. There’s more larger shows, for sure, but just as often tours skip here and just do Chicago / Nashville / (maybe) Detroit. This is symptomatic of both that people from here will drive there and also this larger thing y’all may have noticed where…

“D) way, way, way less people go to shows or are willing to pay for music at all than were in the past. I know, vinyl resurgence, blah blah blah, but the overall trend is downward. It’s a smaller pie being cut more ways. if there’s little money / turnout offered in coming to a smaller market then bands that need to give a shit about how much money they’re making aren’t going to show up. I don’t love it, either, but that’s how things work.”

The first point, A) just addresses one of the explanations for the lack of touring bands in Louisville–that “clique-y-ness” that Syd Bishop also addressed. It’s not particularly germane to this discussion. However, B) and D) are intimately related, and something that I (as well as numerous other folks) have brought up in the context of supply/demand in local music scenes as well as the proliferation of media content. There are just far too many shows in any given night in mid to large cities and fewer people are going to them. I’ve played and been to hundreds (if not thousands) of shows with local bands all throughout the US and have seen some of the most deplorable audience numbers that I’d come to expect when I was actively performing in the underground experimental and noise music scene.

The reality of playing out in any music scene is that there will be small audiences and very little compensation in any genre. It’s likely that this has always been the case, but it seems that the trend is “getting worse” as supply has increased well beyond demand for a variety of reasons. Any call for modeling any aspect of the Classical Music field on Popular Entertainment fields as a way to “save” Classical Music is doomed from the start. As Neil Davenport states in his review of Bob Stanley’s book about the history of pop music:

Stanley’s book actually stops in 1999 because it was at this point that pop music, as he sees it, ceased to be ubiquitous. Smash Hits, Select, Melody Maker and the BBC’s Top of the Pops are all gone. Chart hits no longer have much of an era-defining quality to them, and regional-based underground music scenes, based around small pub and club venues, barely exist in any meaningful way.

We’re living in a Post-Pop world, and I think it’s time to own up to that and stop reminiscing to a time when (and if) Popular Entertainment was possibly more ubiquitous and stop pretending that the whole phenomenon resembles what we see in media portrayals of the Pop Superstars that are a tiny minority of the field as a whole.

___________________

See also Andrew Syrios’, “The Continuing Decline of Popular Music” and Paul Resnikoff’s, “The 13 Most Insidious, Pervasive Lies of the Modern Music Industry…

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One thought on “What’s it like playing Pop Music when you’re not a Pop Superstar?

  1. Great post! I agree with everything you say.

    The Long Tail phenomenon seems to affect every aspect of culture these days, making it quite difficult for any given artist to achieve “critical mass.” Meanwhile, the Internet, used book stores (I just loaded up on $2 DVDs), etc., make it easy to be entertained without giving artists any money. It’s a tough trend that shows no signs of abating.

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