Jan 24Liked by Damon Krukowski

At some point last year Shawn Reynaldo of First Floor (it's paywalled so I'm not posting it) noted a similar phenomena in dance music circles, where increased volatility in ticket sales/audience attendance has led promoters and venues to book lower-risk events like tribute acts or themed dance nights--'Broadway raves', 'Shrek raves' etc.--that are more likely to draw a crowd than an original touring act general audiences are not as familiar with. (Never mind, of course, that these 'raves' take place in proper venues and, spiritually, cannot in any way be considered raves like the underground dance namesake.) I'm sure attempting to repair pandemic-damaged finances also plays a part in those booking considerations. I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that industry consolidation of venues and an increasing fiscal conservatism of major industry players in favor of established 'old music'--I'm sure you're familiar with Ted Gioia writing about this on streaming--has led to similar effects in live music in primary and major secondary markets.

I know that many of my mid-20s peers here in Chicago, historically the sorts of people to first check out and champion up-and-coming acts, lack the money to go out to live music regularly like previous generations, which leads many of them, when they are able to go out, to avoid taking the bigger risk of potentially being disappointed at a show like Big Joanie (compared to the highs of them being phenomenal) and instead go to a tribute act or something with better prospects of being good not great. Or, you know, they only have the money to see a handful of their favorite acts like Taylor Swift or Blink-182 at phenomenally inflated prices. That might help explain things, but it doesn't make the situation that promising, vital young acts are being further excluded from breakthrough opportunities because of the risk of a bad show, from a business perspective, any more dispiriting and disappointing.

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Jan 24Liked by Damon Krukowski

Great read.

The tribute band scenario does sadden us. It's the same in most of Europe, certainly Portugal (where we live) and the UK. Of course you can't blame the audiences as many of these band do a very good job and give them what they want at a fraction of the price of the real thing - if of course the real thing still exists.

As artists we manage to keep going but the pressure by promoters and venues to sell out shows is getting stronger and stronger and kind of puts you off presenting new material, especially if it's a departure from your normal genre. I personally would rather pay to see an unknown original band with a bit of a vibe, but it's hard to find gigs to attend! I have been in the business a loooong time and these are the trickiest years I have ever encountered.

PS Ryan, if you read this I love Ted Gioia, can you send me a link to this or series of articles? --I'm sure you're familiar with Ted Gioia writing about this on streaming--

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Jan 24·edited Jan 24

This is a great piece with some interesting insights. Thanks.

A few points:

-Here in NYC, the only club that booked anything resembling rock'n'roll music in the Times Square area for many years was BB King's that mostly had tribute acts, when it didn't have a high dollar geezer headliner. It's gone now, and I honestly don't know where one would even find listings for a tribute show with no Village Voice, Aquarian, what have you, for the ads in the back. I'm sure it's happening somewhere in midtown and the Village, but who knows where.

-As noted by the other commenters, the music industry essentially turned its back on developing new talent and they're focusing exclusively on only huge, established artists. This really goes back to the '70s/'80s/'90s when formerly countercultural types like Stephen Stills and George Harrison raged angrily against punk and other new forms of rock'n'roll — with almost every rock DJ following suit — and creating a cultural hegemony ("rock music under glass") that exists to this day. This sort of anti-business led to Taylor Swift having all ten of the Billboard top ten at once, tickets for her shows selling for $25K while barely anyone else can sell out a show/having to do package tours, and every record manufacturing plant pushing her "product" (or Adele's) to the front of the line and making everyone else have a two year turnaround.

-The theoretically "great democratizing" internet music nerd/blogosphere-creator era ultimately ended the healthy network of the college music charts, the respected music scribe/music magazine, the established tastemakers at the heads of indie labels, the purchasing of physical media, and the development of young artists on the road. And their tastes were much worse, and fickle, and middling, and transitory. These weren't even lifers as before, but dilettantes, and they've mostly moved on (to ruining other parts of our culture and politics).

-A lot of what's happening now doesn't really reflect what people who'd likely be interested want to see, to hear, to listen to. The newest tastemakers, besides having little-to-no taste, aren't even being honest with themselves. They're pushing what they think people, including themselves, should like in this day and age, even when it's half-baked, nascent, or mediocre at best. There's no network of respected journalists, very little left-of-the-dial radio, almost zero record sales, and not a lot of sweating it out on the road as an opener and building up excitement and word of mouth, and most music fans — or potential music fans — are passing on it. Is it any wonder that people would rather go to a Bruce Springsteen tribute show? (I mean that sounds dreadful to me, but what do I know?)

Put all of this together, and you wonder how much longer any of this stuff — the great, lifelong obsessive culture of popular music — will even exist, and if anyone will even care if it goes away. I read so many articles about how maybe music performance (and theater, movies, shared workspaces, parties and restaurants) should go remote or fade out permanently after the pandemic, as if that is the desired outcome for humanity.

There's a so much great stuff happening right now, with almost no network to support it. I can listen to WFMU and over the course of the day and hear a good 10-20 new records that are just fantastic, and most are by artists pressing maybe 200-500 copies of their LP. It's a tiny cult, and I'm happy to be part of that tiny cult, but the music industry — at all levels — needs to really reevaluate what they're doing if it has any chance of survival.

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Jan 24Liked by Damon Krukowski

The tribute band phenomenon has been pretty surprising. When I moved to the Bay Area twenty years ago, it wasn't uncommon to see tribute bands around the fringes of the Bay Area. Now they're frequent at one of my favorite live venues in SF, The Chapel. Unfortunately, I've also seen bands that I thought were local heroes struggle to fill up The Chapel.

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We used to make jokes about tribute bands! Thinking up the most insane tribute band like the Butthole Surfers, the Residents, Devo, Cramps, etc. We even used to think it was hilarious to buy up all the old Chuck E. Cheese's and outfit the robots as the Grateful Dead and have them perform whole shows while you ate bad pizza! Well, after reading your article, none of that is funny or even outside the realm of possibility! Yikes!

Once CBGBs opened a souvenir shack in Vegas, all bets were off.

Also, I'm ex-Cambridge now outside DC, and a lot of more indie bands will skip DC altogether in favor of nearby Baltimore or even Richmond (college town). Redd Kross blew by us for Richmond on their last tour and I just can't see myself driving home (2 1/2 hours) at 2am! Luckily, I got to see Acid Mothers in the Pizzagate place (Comet Ping Pong); which was a total fluke, as they only play Baltimore on every tour since then.

Clubs that used to feature indie/alt music are now massive tourist destinations. The last time that I was at the 9:30 club was about ten years ago to see Kraftwerk. While the tix set me back 80 clams, drinks and parking only pushed that over 100 just to see geezers in spandex press buttons to sound exactly like their 40 year old albums. After that, I said 'nevermore'. (Kraftwerk really are en route to becoming their own tribute band, no?)

Also, if you go further off the beaten path, there's a few tiny places that still host decent alt/indie bands. I saw Wet Tuna in an old house that's now an arts center of sorts (Rhizome). Very intimate to be sitting 3 feet from the band in the living room/dining room area and buying merch and beer in the kitchen!

I will do my best to catch Big Joanie though!

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Interesting how this tendency toward tribute acts/covers has a mirror in the digital marketplace too, it seems like most of the "music content" that I get served on social media is musicians playing covers, often with a hook of changing the genre or playing it under some artificial constraint (drumming with one-hand etc). I'm guilty of this myself, but it seems like playing old/established material is one of the quickest ways to get eyeballs on your work these days.

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Feb 1Liked by Damon Krukowski

Apropo of nothing, I was at that Bruce-opening-for-Bonnie show in ‘74 at the great Harvard Square Theater. And it was every bit as good as everyone has said.

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Damon, Have you seen Bruce, at age 73, most recently with Howard Stern? Fabulous show.

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