Traveling for a Living
The pace of recorded music consumption has never felt greater. Even massive pop releases seem to disappear from view after a couple weeks (albeit of total saturation, in their case). Streaming statistics might hold a clue: 66% of all streaming is catalog – releases at least 18 months old. That leaves only a third of listening for new tracks, and there have probably never been more: 60,000 are uploaded to Spotify each day.
But I think the pandemic has made clear that there’s another reason – without touring, musicians have hardly any ways left to promote our recorded work beyond initial release. Hot takes, “surprise” drops, overnight reviews, and all the other strategies for condensing response time to increase click counts have made the online world a single tour stop. You play the album to greater or lesser reception. You pack up. And you move on.
Problem is, there’s nowhere else to go.
Travelling for a Living is the title of an excellent mid-60s BBC documentary about folk singers The Watersons, who didn’t venture out of Britain at the time yet wandered enough to seem constantly on the road.
Musicians have always traveled, but maybe never more so than leading up to the pandemic. For music, an irony of global digital communications is that it’s made recorded work nearly valueless, forcing us to rely on physical travel as much as ever.
This has been no less true for bands like mine, which never made a killing on the road. There are simply fewer ways to be a professional musician now without constant movement, from town to town and country to country. Travel has shaped our music, and even our instruments. In recent years, when much of Naomi’s and my touring involved flying, we’ve had to fit our musical choices inside airline baggage rules – tape measures come out at the check-in counter for us too often not to anticipate them. As allowances diminished, we developed a live show for two 62-linear-inch objects: an acoustic guitar and a five-octave keyboard.
We’ve had to make ourselves this portable, because the profit margins from touring are thin, and without record sales they’ve become all important. (Next time you’re looking at a laptop on stage, you might see it not only as a technological choice but a space, labor, and cost-saving device for an artist trying to carry less and take home more.)
Back in our get-in-the-van days, the pressure to earn money on the road was far less. Record labels provided “tour support” to balance the books for outings that were primarily promotional tools for selling records. Even if you didn’t have tour support, you had boxes of records to sell at every show – indeed, label support often simply meant supplying the band with records and taking the cost back from future royalties rather than in cash.
Still, space considerations were crucial. A car trunk is just as rigid as airline baggage rules – your bandmates may not fine you for violating a 62-linear-inch limit, but an inch more for your amp is an inch less for someone else’s. And you have to leave room for all those boxes of records.
From the beginning, I limited my drum kit to four pieces: bass, snare, floor tom, rack tom. I started out with a 22” bass drum but soon swapped it for 20” because those two inches of diameter made a difference in a pack. When I felt the need for variation, I added small percussion I could slip in with my clothes, or extra cymbals which nested inside those I was already carrying. I sought out older, flimsier stands so I could stuff them all in a single duffle – even though that meant everything wobbled a bit on stage. Playing this smaller kit on lightweight stands, I found that striking them gently not only kept them from sliding around, but projected more tone. Soon I learned to tune the drums differently, letting that tone “ring” more than was fashionable because it gave them more volume and presence. I ended up hitting them less frequently, too, to let that ringing carry and decay. And I pushed more timekeeping on to the cymbals, which had become more audible over these quieter drums.
I didn’t invent anything doing this. But I did hit on some of the same solutions followed by jazz drummers who had to carry their own gear to gigs. Not the big band drummers who traveled by bus or train with porters and had kits as large and loud and elaborate as any stadium rock band, but the drummers of the 1950s and 60s who, as Max Roach later explained to Modern Drummer, carried their kits on the subway:
“I've heard people say that, historically, I introduced the technique of not playing the bass drum and concentrating on the ride cymbal, which was not the case. You didn't carry a bass drum around on the subways of New York — like we used to — and then not use it."
The trap drum kit is a perfect example of music fitting into the space it is allotted. It’s a kooky contraption, created by percussionists in theaters to squeeze in the pit alongside other, less flexible instruments. With pedals for the feet as well as sticks for the hands, it’s a one-man-band solution to making as much noise as possible without moving from a chair.
If you press the thought, you might start to feel that all music is fit to space allotted – from under a chin for a violin to the stacks of a PA filling the edge of an arena stage. And what is much on my mind of late, given the difficulty or even impossibility for travel at present, is how much music in my lifetime has been shaped to fit a space determined, above all, by fossil fuel. In retrospect, it seems the fuel tank in our touring vans took up the most space. That space - created by clearcutting, by manifest destiny, by racism, by imperialism, by wars – was all about cheap gas. And fuel tanks in planes are that much bigger.
When that space is gone – and it is diminishing not in geologic time but at a pace starting to rival the consumption of new albums – what will musicians do? We haven’t even begun to face that question. Maybe because we can’t imagine any other space that might be allotted to us. We’ve all been traveling for a living.
Listening to: L’Rain, “Fatigue”
Cooking: Eggplant and tomato salad on toast