"... the changes had more to do with social, cultural and economic factors coming to bear in a more or less free market place".
This blog is in response to another blog which had circulated all over the world damning open-mics for helping to ruin opportunities for pro musicians and degrade music quality in general. 95% of this blog has to do with the perception that open-mics negatively impact pro musicians where it hurts most. In their wallet. I'm starting with some history of how rooms use non-pro acts.
I agree that it has become nearly impossible for most of us to make a good living as local musicians. But interestingly, a few still do; a very few. Yes it's true, making a living as a local musician is nothing like it was in the 70's or 80's but that's not because of amateur shows, jams, open-mics, local talent shows or even Karaoke. American communities have supported local events featuring hobbyists and amateurs at least since the early thirties.
I believe that our plight has everything to do with social, legal, cultural and technological changes in our society which are beyond our individual control. We live in a free market economy. This market place is ever in flux. Sometimes it really sucks for us little guys. Sadly, it is not 1926 anymore and we are all not good piano players with decent sight reading chops. Back then if you could play piano well, you worked on live radio, in silent movie theaters, speakeasies, brothels as well as the familiar: hotels, restaurants, functions, lessons etc. Work was all over the place. Someone always needed a piano player.
Things changed. Movies went to talkies. Radio and phonograph technology improved and the radio DJ was born. The great depression destroyed many of the big rooms. But some made an extended stand, partly by using low cost amateur shows, non professional dance and talent contests. The big bands kept going despite a devastated economy partly because of the revenue generated for the big rooms by these non-professional shows. Eventually, things totally tanked for the big bands in the mid-late forties. The cause? Ironically, some cite the musicians' union and subsequent strikes as the primary reason for the demise. I think it was due to a combination of changing societal attitudes and related economic factors etc. Men got home from the war. They wanted to stay home with their loved ones. Money was tight. People wanted to return to an illusion of control and calm. People were building bomb shelters, McCarthy and his zealots created a culture of dread and fear. The frenetic jazz and dance craze which, according to some, was an informal means of social control and perhaps even national survival was not no longer needed. The phrase “Rock and Roll” appeared first in print in Variety magazine in 1945; a hint of a phenomenon which would once again embrace black music forms but which excluded big swing and jazz bands. But the biggest reason the big bands went down the tubes is that the numbers just didn't work out for the promoters, big rooms or the big jazz bands. When the investors, promoters and owners stopped making money on artists, the artists that made money via the big shows stopped making money too. It's like trickle down economics without the political rhetoric.
Many said that the amateur hours on radio and the non-professional contests and shows helped to ruin it for the pros even back then but once again, I think that these types of changes have more to do with social, cultural and economic factors coming to bear in a more or less free market place.
Notwithstanding the lack of work we all are trying to cope with, some local (damn few) people are making good money performing music in our own backyards. They are not spending a lot of time and energy complaining about inequities, the good ole days, the owners who betrayed them or amateurs who have stolen opportunities from them. There is not enough work to go around that is sure. If however, we are creative, if we persevere, if we are diligent, if we minimize our negativity and maximize our individual talents, I believe good things can still happen for all of us pros and non-pros alike. I agree with one thing though; It ain't 1926, nor is it 1967 nor 1972 nor 1988.
Big factors that I believe, negatively impact local Musicians' Wallets
1 Stiffer drunk driving penalties and stiff enforcement means jail time in humiliating, dangerous, uncomfortable conditions and outrageous fines and legal costs which effectively deter folks from having more than one or two. Predictably, this results in much lower receipts for bars/restaurants and consequently, less work for musicians.
2 Ever increasing quality and portability of Cheap light shows, sound systems and specialized equipment makes being a DJ much easier and cheaper. Now with $2,000 to buy some used equipment any reasonably bright, halfway glib person can do it. The portable DJ presents the biggest competition as it pertains to weddings and functions. What was once the best money is now largely unavailable. They were kicking our ass 40 years ago and now we have multiple generations who equate function music with DJs. Mom had a DJ at her wedding, grandma had a DJ too. With DJs people don't have to be worried about the band not playing what they want, the way they're used to hearing it on their MP3 players and people playing recordings don't need breaks: “well honey, I've been thinking about if we should get a DJ or a band for our wedding. I like the idea of hiring our favorite local band but your family likes country, mine likes classic rock and contemporary gospel. Grannie likes 60s, grandpa likes Frank Sinatra and our friends like hip-hop. Remember the band at Annie's wedding. They didn't know our favorite songs and the when they tried to play them, they didn't sound like the CD, they started late and they took long breaks. The DJ only costs $700 and the 5 piece band costs $2500. We'll save $1,800 and we'll take that money and buy a huge TV and an ass kickin' audio system. I love you snuggums. Let's get the DJ.”
3 The availability and low cost of really nice home theater systems. “Well honey, should we go out to hear a local band and drop $70 - $120 on food, drinks, tax, tips, gas, parking and the gate or should we stay home and drop $11 on a mag of drinkable wine and get pizza delivered for $14 including tax and tip for a grand total of $25.00. We'll invite our neighbor, Jane. She'll appreciate it since Jane has no money due to lawyer fees and fines. Besides, she can't drive anywhere since she got out of Sherriff Joe's tent city for having 2 glasses of wine in a bar in an hours time which put her over the limit. The money we save will cover most the payment on our 60 inch smart TV and monster sound system with huge sub-woofer we got for only $1,800.00 on payments. We'll watch that Lady Gaga concert video or one of hundreds like it with all the wild effects and brilliant photography. The sound we get on our home system will be better that most the PA systems in the clubs featuring live music. We can order it for $2 from an internet provider and won't have to get off the couch.”
4 The cost of doing business for restaurants/bars is much higher while the competition for the remaining trade drives the prices down for what they can get for their products. There are clubs in town where you can buy a happy hour draft beer for $1.50 at the same place you can get shots of potent Schnapps for 75 cents. First time alcohol and liquor licenses fluctuate in price dramatically over time but people often spend well over $20,000 for the privilege of selling you a $2 beer and $2 shot. Insurance, rent, workers comp, supplies, equipment cost, licensing fees, ASCAP and utilities costs skyrocket while employees steal from you. There was a time when bars flourished and not only could they afford to pay a respectable amount out to a band but they had to. If they were located on a strip where there were other popular clubs and one joint had a popular band, they'd better have a band or all the folks that were spending were out dancing at their competitors place.
5 Historically useful methods of bringing people in the door don't work anymore It is both harder and easier to advertise nowadays but the traditional advertisement methods are largely ineffective. Players complain that owners don't advertize bands anymore. Look, owners try stuff. If it works, they continue it. If it doesn't work they discontinue it. If they see it working for a competitor, they replicate it. The printed, local entrainment weekly guides are not making it on ads for rooms with entertainment like they once did cause those don't work out for the owners. Unlike the old days, radio ads are completely cost prohibitive. How many $2 drinks do you have to sell to 3 drink limit customers to justify a $2000 radio spot or a $5000 billboard. Effective advertizing is done on the internet and bands can easily let hunreds or thousands of people that are familiar with them know where they are playing. Why expect owners to continue to throw away money that doesn’t work for them.
6 Most people don't give a damn about local arts. The arts they do care about are dictated by mass media. They are brainwashed by the mass media which is driven solely by a desire to sell advertizements to other big business. Can you imagine if people were into local bands like they were into watching all the glitzy, amateur talent contests on TV today? What if you could pack a 50,000 person arena 3 nights a week with local music acts instead of a pro sports team at $30 - $200 a head? You won't see it because most people don't give a darn about local arts. Oh well. What can you do? This is a reflection of a dumbed downed populous whose taste in entertainment is dictated to them by brilliant international marketing firms. Do we blame mass media and professional sports teams for eating up all the available entertainment dollars? What about musicians and writers, the local ballet, and the art gallery's and jewelery designers, and local theatre and bloggers like me? Where's our piece of the pie? The answer my friend... is blowin' in the wind...but one thing is for sure Mr. pro musician, very little of your share is being eaten up by open mics.
7 Our whole society is part of an Impersonal international economy: On the East Coast, when I was young, most sit down restaurants were independent, family owned places. Even Walmart is getting Subways and pizza joints in them lately? Franchises completely dominate the landscape. The competition for the consumer's dollar is won hands down day after day by international conglomerates. I have played at many restaurants/bars that were individual proprietorships or partnerships. I have never played at an Olive Garden or a Walmart. They don't care about the arts or the people in it. It's 100% about maximizing profit; and every blessed penny they can keep they will.
8 Modern forms require fewer players. Go to a club with live music with customers in their 20's and 30's and you will likely find a single or duo using samples, scratching discs, using backing tracks, loopers, ass kickin' light shows, Pounding sub-woofers, foggers etc. If you think it takes no skill to do this stuff well, guess again, or better yet try it yourself. But one thing it doesn't take is musicians. The people I know who complain about open mics stealing their money are usually over 50 years old. Remember when we were young and the old timers complained about how everything was different and no one cared about the good music anymore? If you, like me are over 50, you are one of the old farts of today. We are now on the cutting edge of not liking nor understanding current trends and bitching that the good ole days are gone.
9 Musicians have brought some of the problems on themselves. We show up late, we show up high, we are disorganized, we have poor social skills, we hit on the owners daughter and engage in illegal behavior on the owners premises. We are arrogant, entitled people living in a world of our own. We are unwilling to try to see the owners' point of view as they work 60 - 90 hours a week trying to support families they no longer have time and energy for. We think we are special, we come in with big, heavy gear while people are trying to eat. We squabble and bitch in front of customers. If things go good for a few weeks, we want more money, we want comped meals, we want comped drinks for ourselves and spouses, we want people to pay attention to us...we want, we want, we want. We leave cases out for customers to trip over, we play too loud with feedback ever on the horizon. We refuse to play certain songs 'cause they're too tired or we can't play them. Imagine a cook refusing to make a cheeseburger and fries: "I'm not cooking that, I had to cook too many cheeseburgers in the 70's". We start 1/2 hour late and think it's our right. Our 10 minute breaks turn into 25 minute breaks. I believe the biggest hurdle I personally have to get over in regard to getting work as a musician is overcoming the highly negative opinions owners have from years of dealing with the so called "pros".
When I'm hosting an open mic and participants complain the busy bar is too noisey and the customers are rude and don't care about them, I sometimes remind them that if you are not getting the result you want with any endeavor, you need to try something different. It's up to you to maximize your potential to get the results you want. I saw a ukelele player and singer quiet down a busy bar room recently. He didn't complain about anything, he just got it done! It's difficult to accept responsibility for the results you are getting in life. It's hard to change our attitudes and our behavior to get what we need or want:
Many years ago after 5 years of college and multiple major changes, I became a social worker. After 22 years, (The last 13 years in crisis intervention) I realized that the worse thing imaginable for any social worker had happened to me. I had gotten really freakin' good at it. As an idealistic, sensitive, insightful and analytical artist type, there was no way for me to work in systems that I had come to despise. I had become painfully aware of the harm I unwittingly caused people despite various administrations' bullshit claims to the contrary. I myself became so emotionally screwed up over it that I left the field. Then, I couldn't find other work or found work only with businesses motivated solely by profit with no regard for integrity or their fellow man. I couldn't do it.
By comparison, now I'm hosting at venues for pros and amateurs alike who come in to a place cause they like the supportive atmosphere and they like it when I play guitar behind them. I also get paid to play for elderly folks with dementia. I suppose in some distorted way, I'm stealing a few pennies from the mouths of the pros by doing these things but I will continue. We all leave a legacy, no matter how insignificant. I've always wanted mine to reflect caring, conviction, healing and the creation of beauty for my fellow man. I believe the events I host promote those values. Perhaps you will come to one of my events sometime? We have some great players and great people there.