PASSION OF THE CRANKS: PART TWO
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.