The idea that live music will somehow save musicians livelihoods has probably been worn the whole way through at this stage. How many people believe it now? Certainly few musicians do, as they see crowds get stretched too thin and their wallets stretched even thinner. Costs go up, guarantees go down, unless you’re already a well established act. Even big-name indie acts can struggle. They have to spend more time on the road, along with every other band in the world, always carving out another few weeks in this part of the world or that, filling the schedule up as tight as they can to make it count. Talking to many musicians about their tours now, there is almost a sense of dread, the feeling that they will never end and they’ll just be back where they started once it’s all over. While many musicians love being on the road and playing for people, they are tired and it’s easy to understand why.
The current climate would appear to be unsustainable. No one can afford to go to gigs seven nights a week, promoters can’t afford to take as many risks, bands can’t take the risks without guarantees, the media don’t have the space or time to promote shows, smaller labels don’t have the resources to push their music to these local media heads anyway, etc. Not everybody can or wants to tour. Festivals are at saturation point, competing with each other for a diminishing audience. We’ve gone over all this before.
So what to do? When reading a Grizzly Bear interview in Vulture last year, the need to think about alternatives was obvious. It’s clear that there is no one-shop solution, but individual bands need to start thinking about their individual needs, their own audience and what they can do to make their visit to a given town or city more than just another touring band passing through. In electronic music, we see DJs and producers playing AV sets, selling themselves as a multimedia package. Labels do showcase nights, with their artists combining their pulling powers. This can work but the same problems persist in that this doesn’t fundamentally change the system these artists are a part of. Any change will have to re-imagine what’s possible rather than simply moving the straw around to suck the last drops blood from an increasingly penniless audience.
The example I kept coming back to in my mind over the last while was Jandek. Admittedly, the Jandek “career” path is unique but his sporadic live appearances over the past few years have usually seen concentrated tours in small venues in regional areas. This allows him to spend time in each place, not having to drive so far from town to town, maybe staying a few days to get a feel for the place. Liz Harris (Grouper) has also expressed a wish to tour like this, spending a week somewhere and playing a few shows there before moving on. A few months ago Thurston Moore was playing small pubs in Limerick and Clonakilty. It’s not always going to be feasible, sure, but it’s something that artists with the sway to get it could possibly begin to ask for.
The economics are obviously different. The cost of one night in a big venue will almost definitely be considerably less than three or four nights in a smaller one. Accommodation costs money. Food costs money. Multiply those costs by three of four and they will definitely add up. The time/money ratio is going to skew quite considerably compared to the current system of “get in, get paid, get out”. But from an artist’s point of view, will it be worth it? The gains could be considerable. Less travelling (or less frequent at least), the chance to play different sets on different nights, even the opportunity to play different venues in the one town or to collaborate with local artists. Maybe the ability to charge less per night for tickets. The chance to get to know the place more than is possible in the 12 hours or so one spends there on an average tour, to get a feel for the city and for their audience there. For the audience, the more intimate venue is bound to be a draw and the choice of nights to attend on can only help. Smaller venues have something a lot to gain too, especially if bigger bands come through on normally quiet mid-week nights.
As an example, The National are playing the O2 this November, having graduated up the ranks from Whelan’s many years ago, via the Olympia. Where do they go from here? More festival headline slots, more big shows in huge venues until the crowd moves on and the venues get smaller again? It would be interesting – unrealistic as it may sound – to see them play a week-long residency in Whelan’s. Or two nights in Whelan’s and two in the Olympia? Just ideas, but they are a band with the muscle to make them happen, if they wanted them. The band get to spend a week in Ireland, get time to travel around, meet people, enjoy themselves. They’ve taken part in Other Voices, they clearly aren’t doing everything just for money.
It’s not a perfect idea, not by a long shot. But we’ve seen enough small hints of it working for certain people to make it seem like something that larger bands could pursue and make work for them, lodging the possibility in the heads of the venues and promoters who can make it happen. Eventually someone is going to have to innovate if the current circuit cannot sustain the sheer volume of acts who are relying on it. If the example of those more underground artists who actively seek alternatives to the established way of doing things can be taken up by bands (and their agents) with the power to influence promoters and venues to do things their way, then it’s possible that we could see a more artist-friendly and audience-friendly way of touring emerge.