NYCD: The Blog

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


I spent a good part of the late 70's and most of the 80's playing drums in various bands. One band in particular, Pep In The Cat, was the working band. We made several demos, played many gigs, had some interesting opening slots (Badfinger -- minus Pete Ham & Tom Evans -- Big Joe Turner, and Defunkt), but most of all, had an amazing time. Now when I say it was a working band, I mean, I'd go to the gig, play all night, and get paid very little or nothing, a lot like my current job as a CD retailer. Yet, both jobs have one very important thing in common. Joy! Yes, amidst my complaining, I had a wonderful time then, and for the most part, I am having a wonderful, poverty-stricken time now. At Pep In The Cat's peak, a moment in time where we were close to being signed and we all thought we were going to be rock stars, the band would literally pack the clubs. A one A.M. showtime on a Tuesday was the norm, and STILL, people would come out. Lots of people. To see...well... a bunch of nobodies.

Earlier this week, I played my first gig as a (mostly welcome) new member of a band in almost 20 years. The Cool Jerks, a band of friends who have been playing music together for 25 years, invited me to sit in with them. I was a utility man, the Randy Velarde of cover bands. Over the course of two hours and two sets of good, old fashioned rock, rhythm & blues and soul, I jumped from drums to congas to tambourine, all the while, doing my best "Pip" or "3rd Top" on background vocals. Again, joy! Even on a frigid night, friends and family came out and had a good time.

Something struck me though, as I tried to focus on the crowd from the stage. This was obviously a crowd who came out to have some fun. (Well, all but 2 or 3 of them.) There were no big names on stage. There were no articles in The New York Times praising the Cool Jerks for their influence on hip-hop. This wasn't a one-off reunion. It was simply, "Come see your friends and hear some of your favorite tunes, have a few beers, and dance."

Now, for all the bellyaching about the price of concert tickets, the Stones can still pack 'em in by the truckload for slightly less than the price of a used car. Kids will always go to see their favorite bands because, hey, what else are you going to do when you're 18? But a lot people in my age range -- roughly 40-50 -- seem, for whatever reason, to have lost whatever impetus that used to get them out to see live music by someone other than a friend or a living legend from the classic rock era.

One obvious answer is this. Once you hit 40, you'd really rather not stand nuts to butts in a crowded club for your 10PM headliner. Sometimes, the start time is even later. And while monsters like The Stones and The Who can get away with the crippling price tag, others such as Lindsey Buckingham, Boz Scaggs, and the long absent Bob Seger, seem to be having trouble filling smaller-than-stadium size venues for less than half the price. $125 a ticket for Bob Seger seems like a bargain when the Stones' premium seats are $450. But really, $125 is about $75 too much. Basically, no one can afford to go to the big shows anymore.

And what about new music? Band of the moment Arcade Fire is playing a small church, and tickets are fetching $1000 on eBay. That's right, $1000. Passion? Or stupidity?
I say, some of the former and a lot of the latter.

What concerns me is what falls in between these extremes. Good bands, in tiny places, for little money, NOT selling more than 75% of the room. What's worse is the sad, empty jazz clubs of NYC. It shouldn't be easy to see ANYONE at the Village Vanguard on any night of any week! If Branford Marsalis plays a rare club date, then OK. Make your reservations early because, a special event like that, will no doubt draw the crowds. But when jazz legends like Curtis Fuller or Louis Hayes play to a half-full club, for an admission price of $15, it seems to me that something is terribly wrong. The Village Vanguard holds approximately 100 plus people. Are there not 100 people in NYC on any given night who want to see live jazz for 25 dollars? Hard to believe.

It's not the fault of die-hard music fans, who will go out to see pretty much anything, any time, at any cost. It's certainly not the fault of the artists. Maybe it's nobody's "fault." But the casual music fans, the people who can take or leave going to see a show, are choosing to leave it. Maybe to music fans, it's just too hard to understand how someone could choose any other sort of entertainment, or in some sad cases, no entertainment, as their choice for an evening. But in the words of a wise old friend of ours, "Just like if you build it, they will come, if you don't come, they will tear it down."

I know to many of you readers, this just sounds like fanatical music retailers taking out their frustration on a bunch of strangers. And in some ways, it is. But you can't deny the fact that music has been on life support for too many years now. And all of us have our hands on the plug.


Blogger Michael in New York said...

Life support? Cool tiny little band The Arcade Fire sells out four or five nights at Judson Memorial Church for $29 a ticket -- and probably could have sold out five more -- and you think that's bad news? (Don't blame them for scalpers.) I think that's great news. They're a truly exciting band and people are clamoring to see them even though they haven't moved millions of albums or made a wacky video a la OK Go. That's like getting upset that you couldn't get ticket to see Talking Heads at CBGB's. (Not that I'm comparing....) The very complaint of Tony below -- the overwhelming availability of music -- is what's so exciting right now. In the UK, an unsigned band hits the top 40 simply by putting a digital single for sale on their website. No record company, no indie label, not even their own label and paying to press some songs with money out of their own pockets -- they just posted a song online like a million other bands and struck paydirt. Sorting through it all is work, but the ability to listen to a handful of songs on myspace by almost any new band in the world is ridiculously wonderful. To hell with radio. I hate going to the Blue Note and Birdland and Iridium even for free because the sets are so short and the prices of food/drink so exorbitant. Is Village Vanguard notably cheaper -- including the extras? Then I'll have to go. Yep, concert ticket prices for top acts are insanely out of control. Even midlevel acts at the Beacon think nothing of charging $100. Live music is in a weird place. But music in general -- too many exciting new changes to despair.

8:51 AM  
Blogger NYCD Online said...

No, I think that's good news. It was the middle of both extremes that I said was bad news. Passionate Arcade Fire fans will shell out a thousand bucks to a scalper, but the average music fan, it seems, must be courted, convinced and coerced to go see a great band for 20-40 bucks.

My dislike for the overrated Arcade Fire has nothing to do with what their tickets fetch from scalpers. I am simply baffled that so many fairly inexpensive shows are half full.

9:39 AM  
Blogger stax920 said...

Sal wrote: "a lot people in my age range -- roughly 40-50 -- seem, for whatever reason, to have lost whatever impetus that used to get them out to see live music by someone other than a friend or a living legend from the classic rock era."

So where were all the 50 year olds hiding at the 1994 Pavement show. or the 1993 Dinosaur show. or the 1991 Replacements show. They must have been in the bathroom shooting smack, because I didn't see them.

My point is: 40-50s year olds don't go to see bands in clubs. I don't think they ever have. Not at Brownies in 1992, Not at the Peppermint Lounge in 1981, Not at CBGB in 1976.

So why is their absence evidence that "music has been on life support for too many years now?"

The premise seems wrong and the conclusion seems wrong.

The people who troll through clubs looking for the next big thing generally fall into one of two categories: the unemployed and the unemployable. AKA young people.

I can only speak from experience. But as a 37 year old man with two kids and a full time job, I have a limited amount of money and an even more limited amount of time. That time and money will be spent on entertainment that I'll be reasonably sure I'll like. I'd love to see Arcade Fire, The Wrens, The Shins, or take a shot on any number of new acts. But maybe I get one night a month to go out, because I have responsibilities at home and I get up at 4:30 a.m. to get to work. Something has to give. So I can't afford to be as adventurous as I once might have been. And I don't think my situation is unique.

But there are other factors as well. NYCD has already discussed the price of such entertainment. But competition is also a factor, both within and without the industry. In the 1970s, there simply weren't as many places to see live shows. I don't have exact figures, but I'd be willing to bet that the number of places booking national acts in New York has at least tripled in the last 30 years. That's three times as much capacity. Supply has increased and unfortunately demand has most likely declined. I'll get to that latter point in a minute.

It's easier to create a buzz or have a scene coalesce when there's only two or three places to go hear music. This is the main reason scenes cropped up in Seattle, Athens, even Chicago. New York won't be that place anymore because the city, its residents and society overall is too fragmented.

As for demand, people have more choices now about what they do with their spare time. Many of my co-workers rush home on the early train to their wives and family. Some go to bars to meet people. Some work late. Some go to movies. Some play video games (yes the 40 year olds too). Others have TiVo where they can watch endless amounts of television, movies and the like. When music may have once been a first resort, it no longer is because other forms of entertainment compete for our attention.

It's unfortunate that this is the case, but that's how society has developed. Technology and economics have created more choices more cheaply. We as a society are still working out what those biases are -- i.e. who wins and who loses.

Is music one of the losers? NYCD seems to think so, although I have a hard time believing that music means less to 18 to 34 year olds than it did 20 years ago. People are just as passionate about music as they have ever been. They act out this passion in clubs that we old folks don't go to. They act out this passion online, in their garages, on ProTools and lots of places we old folks may never see.

They're still buying music, maybe not as much as they used to and maybe not in the same places or the same ways they used (I still love you, NYCD). It's clear that the industry has alienated many of those customers. But don't blame old people because we don't get around much anymore.

The music business is cyclical and it will rise again, mostly likely in places that we least expect. We may be too old to realize it. But that won't make a recovery any less possible or powerful.

2:14 PM  
Blogger NYCD Online said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:24 AM  
Blogger NYCD Online said...

I think both Michael & Stax missed my point. I believe I DID say that 18 year olds still go to shows. Bands like the Arcade Fire can still pack 'em in. What I was saying is that it is the old folks who seem to have lost the drive to see live music. They don't have as much disposable income as they used to, they don't stay out as late as they once did, and they don't troll the scene searching for new bands anymore. OK, that all makes sense, but it doesn't explain why people won't see a show at a jazz club at 9 PM for $20 or $25, or good ol' Boz Scaggs at a nice sit-down joint like Town Hall for $40 or $50 or whatever it is. And Michael's comment about not seeing jazz in clubs "because the sets are so short and the prices of food/drink so exhorbitant" seems unreasonable. Jazz sets have never been more than 50-60 minutes. It just doesn't happen. And no one says you have to eat. Many clubs, more often than not, allow you to stay for the second and third set, for just a drink minimum. The Blue Note is not the place to see a show, just like you wouldn't go to the Rainbow Room for dinner. That place is just a nightmare.

Tony says: As for music being on life support, I agree with Sal again. There's always exciting music out there. But as far as I'm concerned it's the bad old days of 1989 all over again. Nothing in the last five years or so has made me feel that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And this time around, I don't know if the apparatus is there to make people feel that music is something bigger than one's personal taste anymore. But now I'm quoting "Passion Of The Cranks Pt. 3.

5:37 AM  
Blogger Michael in New York said...

So you miss the old people who should be going to Village Vanguard and BB Kings, not the old people who never did go to rock clubs and stand for hours while checking out obsucre acts at Mercury Lounge? Fair enough, though BB King's has been overflowing the last three times I've been there. Maybe the jazz clubs are empty because nothing exciting has happened in jazz in AGES. It makes rock seem positively vibrant, don't you think?

1:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brad Mehldau, Bill Charlap, Bobby Previte, Charlie Hunter, Corey Wilkes, Skerik, John Ellis, Sean Jones, Eric Reed, Herlin Riley, Robert Glasper, Jonathan Batiste and Maurice Brown. This is just some of what's being heard in NYC jazz clubs by too few people. Miles, Bird, Diz, Hawk, and Sweets weren't born with nicknames. There was a time when people would just go out. It didn't matter who was at The Ritz in the late 70's and early 80's. People saw who was at the Ritz. Go to Sweet Rhythm on a Wednesday. The Garage on a Friday. Jazz Gallery anyday. This IS exciting music.

1:44 PM  
Anonymous soundourcenyc said...

just got around to passionaltley reading the crankiness and it's too dense for me to weigh in other than to say i hear that you were not only a very welcome guest cool jerk but that you have been made a permanent guest cool jerk. hope your feeling better.

11:03 AM  

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