For What It's Worth

here is something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear...
You better, stop, children what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
“For What It's Worth” by Stephen Stills recorded by Buffalo Springfield

The above lyric comes from a song that first became popular when I was in the 9th grade. I remember it clearly the first time I heard those 2 single high note harmonics played through the vibrato of a Fender amp that is the unmistakable introduction to Stephen Stills, protest song about the 1966 Sunset Strip Riots. Now these riots were not related to any antiwar protest as many believe. This particular set of protests was relating to curfews established by the city of Los Angles regarding when and how late bands could play in music clubs. These curfews were believed to be necessary because the clubs were filling up with young hippie types, listening to what was considered counter culture bands such as Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds and others. The young people took matters in their own hands and gathered in the streets to get the ordinance overturned. However, as a high school freshman in Jacksonville, TX at the time I knew nothing of that. But, I was transfixed by the odd music and the reference to violence and confusion as opposed to the love and happiness/sadness that were in most popular songs of the day. Well, we are again in a time of such turmoil in the music business and each of us must decide how to deal with the fallout. "For What It's Worth". How do we come to grips with a sea-change in our business?

A word of warning here, before I start. This blog entry will spread the blame for music's current situation to everyone. So please bear with me, I have a point to make but it will take me a while to get there. When you feel steam coming out your ears just put it down for a minute, cool off and come back. I promise there is method to my madness.

Let me provide you with my nutshell opinion of the current state of the music business; digital music and it's distribution has killed the traditional music business of record companies/retail sales & radio airplay, leaving it to each artist/band to use the many tools of the digital music world and the internet to create a viable and hopefully profitable music career. That is all fine and a great but folks seem no longer willing to pay for music and my friends, that is a problem.

So what has really changed for the average artist/band? I will start with pay. In the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, I played in a variety of bands in East Texas and the DFW area. In those days it was pretty standard for band to earn $50 a man per night. So a 4 piece band could earn $200 a night and a trio could sometimes make the same if they were very good. Not a lot of money, but lots of musicians were out there in the honky-tonks, bars, VFWs & American Legions every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night playing current and classic cover tunes with the very occasional original thrown in. Now I should point out that most of these bands had no CDs/Cassettes or Records to sell. Almost all their money was earned by what the clubs chose to pay and tips from patrons. To be honest, I never made my sole living like that many of my friends did. But I can assure you, nobody got rich but more than a few got by.

So let's fast forward to 2012. Very few clubs have live music and those that do expect you to play for free but you can collect tips and sell your CDs, T-Shirts and other merchandise. The saddest thing is that there is a line of folks trying to get into these places to play for free. I will be the first to admit I am also in many of these lines. I will as will many musicians, do whatever it takes to get my foot in the door. But here is the rub, the real problem in a nutshell. I don't have a clue what it takes to create and run a profitable coffeehouse, bar or restaurant but I do know how to run a great music venue (I ran the Piney Woods Pickin' Parlor) in Mineola for 6 years as well as an weekly outdoor dance venue in the 80s and we had great music and great audiences and guess what? Folks paid to see great music. I believe, no, I KNOW they still will. But the thing is most club owners wouldn't know great music if it fell in their lap. They may know what they like but they typically aren't connoisseurs of good music. Good music, the music folks will pay to hear is almost never what is being or has been played on the radio. Many folks have never thought about it but the reason music is played on the radio (with the exception of public radio and listener supported radio) has nothing and I mean not one tiny iota to do with the music. It is and always has been about the products being sold before and after the songs are played. Now, every rare once in a while good music accidentally finds it's way to the radio but that is a rarity and getting more rare by the day. It is not my intention to get into a deeper discussion about musical variety on the airwaves but challenge me if you want. I would be happy to respond. I may not know how to run a club/coffeehouse but I know music.

Before I get finished with my insulting the players in this game. I would like a word the audiences. People please, please pay for your music. You pay for food, you pay for cable TV, you pay your doctor and your plumber so why in the heck won't you pay for music? It does not create itself. It is a job as full of stress, sweat and disappointment as any other. I will admit it is infinitely rewarding but if you are good at it you should be able to at least get by. And, don't walk into a club listen to a song, say I don't know that song then get up and leave. I personally, would rather you never came in. Digesting art requires effort. If you don't want to provide the effort then I would prefer that you stay home and save the seats for those with ears, minds and hearts.

So, I have accused musicians of piling on to play for free, the venue owners for not knowing anything about music and the audiences for being ignorant and cheap. So, who else can I offend? All I can say is I don't intend to offend anyone but I do want to get your attention so I can give you my solution. Yes, I believe there is a solution.

The solution to this whole mess is for the 3 aspects of this trinity, the artists, the club owners and the audience can work together. What do I mean by that? Well, the artists could demand that the venue owners charge a cover. But if the audience pays a cover and the artist is no good then they won't come back, right? The solution to that is for the venue to only hire good to great artists. The way to do that is to partner with local artists, ones you respect and are popular and let them help you choose talent to book. When the audience knows that no matter when they go down to venue X that there will be great music they will make it a habit to stop by. Because they know the music will be great they don't mind paying a cover so that the music at venue X can stay great. As word gets around to other artists about venue X, other even better known artists will start clamoring to play there. When they play there the audiences will get bigger and the artists and venues make more money. Wow, simple capitalism. Provide a great product at a fair price and everyone is happy. How can you go wrong there? Free music or free anything has no value. Isn't that what free means? So that is my thoughts on the matter; for what it's worth.