As South by Southwest terminates in its usual glut of pudgy arm tattoos, over priced craft beer, and beta male posturing, I must wonder, how do bands get popular these days?
How do musicians make money?
I’m trying to figure this out, because I remember how easy it was to find music that I loved, when I was young and skinny, and poor.
Back then I bought records that made someone rich, even though I had no money at all. My paper route – along with many, many others – kept Van Halen in groupies and leather pants.
The biggest part of my life during the late 1970’s was riding my bike (a green banana-seated Schwinn) along San Mateo’s El Camino Real to the Wherehouse, (that’s how it was spelled) where, for 5.99 I’d buy Cheap Trick’s In Color, maybe a Stranglers record, or Rick Derringer’s latest opus. And I couldn’t wait to get it home. And while my parents fought, I would turn it up.
That thing – that feeling – is dead. Of course I’m old. But the adventure of seeking and then finding something new – it’s impossible for most kids, I’m thinking. Sitting in bed perusing ITunes doesn’t cut it. You need a record store, and the excitement of discovery – of being first, or close to first, in finding a band like Panther Burns, the Gun Club or X.
My first concert – maybe it was 1979 – was a blur. I’m not sure whether it was Blue Oyster Cult/Cheap Trick/Pat Travers at San Jose Civic Auditorium or The Police/The Knack/Robert Johnson at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Auditorium. They were months apart, so the confusion is understandable. All i do remember is that I didn’t have a drivers license – and some dude threw up on my feet during Cheap Trick’s set (which was amazing. the set, not the puke), and also that The Knack blew the place apart in Berkeley. Oddly– the opener for the Police– Robert Johnson, was an amazing, young goofy looking session guitarist who disappeared from sight after releasing a beautiful pop record called “Close Personal Friend.” Here’s how you play one of his songs:
If anyone knows what happened to this guy – please write. I hope he’s not dead.
I spent my teens in northern California listening to KALX, KUSF, and KFJC finding people that changed my life. Back in the 80’s – Howie Klein’s Outcast show – I think it’s was on KSJO – offered 2 or 3 hour window to a world that wasn’t Jefferson Starship or Asia. I discovered British punk, then SF punk (the DK’s the Mutants, the Bobs, Tuxedomoon, etc), and LA (X, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks). It’s how I found the Cramps – in my mind one of the purest rock bands to crawl the earth. I had called Klein one night to ask him how I could hire the cramps for my high school dance. He was shocked anyone would think of the idea, and told me it would probably cost five grand that I didn’t have. I think I went with a band called the Push.
How do you trigger that emotion of raw discovery now? How do you find these bands? And how do bands make money now that the public can’t find them?
I look at the bands I love now, and wonder, if they had erupted in the 1970’s, how big would they be?
Torche – a colossal pop metal juggernaut infested with riffs and melodies galore would have headlined Bill Graham’s Day on the Green. Torche is a band that digested all of Van Halen and Black Sabbath’s best parts, and pooped out hard polished nuggets like delectable frozen Play Doh.
Ariel Pink would be a regular on the Mike Douglas Show. Both a master songwriter and a charismatic figure – he’d wander the set like a cherubic, more likable Jim Morrison. His songs would be all over KFRC– the way Boz Scaggs ruled for one summer with Silk Degrees.
Tame Impala would be bigger than Led Zeppelin. And how could they not be? Their first album has more melodies and riffs than Zepp’s entire catalogue. Do you know them? Do you know where to hear them? You should.
In the 1970’s and 80s– when radio was a best friend: The Black Angels would get you laid, Black Bananas would get you high, John Grant would be bigger than Elton John, Deerhunter would be the Eagles, everyone would know Fever Ray instead of Lady Gaga (who appropriated her style), Ty Segal would be on the cover of Time, Goat would scare parents, The Horrors would be bigger than Air Supply, James Taylor would open for Kurt Vile, Mac Demarco would BE James Taylor, Matthew Dear would be David Bowie, the Melvins would be the Who, Mike Patton would be Elvis, Thee Oh Sees would be the Kinks, White Fence would be better than the Kinks, Washed Out would be Fleetwood Mac, and Tobacco would be some insane god everyone would want to hire. (Brian Eno)
My point is this: music has never been better, but the compensation for such greatness has sucked big time. And it’s becoming harder to find the better bands.
These days, you could sell ten records and get on the Billboard charts. Because no one is buying shit – except for 14 year olds.
Life may be easier on tour now (vans are nicer, you have iPods, and fast food options have changed to accommodate vegans), but everyone is broke. Some of the best artists on the planet are working day jobs (which is not an injustice – just a reality)
At a certain point we need to figure out how to reward those who choose a path that offers, often – almost no reward.
There are just too many good bands out there, and SXSW is just one day a year, for weenies.