In defense of the regional music scene…

Over a series of blog posts, extending from now to the not-so-distant future, I’m going to be advancing the proposition that the healthiest thing for music in the coming years will be a return to regionally specific music scenes. There are lots of reasons I can think of why it’s probably not necessary and/or wise for us to expect all “real” bands to spend a hell of a lot of time touring. We all know that the future is not going to be one of many bands selling a lot of records–we may be seeing the last generation of “rock stars,” as we understand them: culturally transcendent bands. Maybe our ideas of what constitute real bands should be changing, too. Anyway, these following reasons are just a few that I think a change is necessary.

1. Bands are going broke:

Prior to the 1980s and the DIY touring revolution (spurred by bands ranging from Black Flag to the Butthole Surfers; Our Band Could be Your Life should be required reading for people interested in underground music), bands didn’t really spend much time touring without significant label, promoter, and management support. Post DIY revolution, a band’s not a real band unless they log significant time on the road. I think it. Labels think it. Managers certainly think it. Moreover, bands are generally expected to do this kind of thing before getting label/management/etc.: it shows you’re serious. The problem is that this situation forces bands into a revolving door of shitty jobs, barely-break-even tours and seriously strained personal relationships. Inflation and fuel costs are exacerbating what was already a pretty difficult situation.

I’ll give you an example. The standard guarantee for the first band on a package doing 200-400 person rooms (i.e. what the majority of bands are doing) is anywhere from $100 to $200, and probably has been since the mid 90s. Let’s do our calculations based on $150, just for the sake of argument. First off, that $150 in 1995 is equivalent to $114.35 these days (based on figures taken from the Department of Treasury): any time wages don’t automatically increase with time, the value of that labor is being eroded by inflation. Second, fuel prices have increased dramatically, from $1.28 per gallon in 1995 to $2.68. That is, wages have declined by 24 percent while fuel costs have increased by over 100 percent. That’s bad math, and affects bands at every level of the food chain.

Let’s take a simple San Diego to LA jaunt for a $150 guarantee: 240 miles, round trip. Assuming 15 miles to the gallon, it takes San Diego band 16 gallons of gas. In 1995, that gas cost the band $20.48, or 13.6 percent of their guarantee. In 2006, using constant dollars, that gas costs the band $42.88, or 37.5 percent of their ($150, really $114.35) guarantee. That’s for a relatively short trip when you think that the most common routing for a touring band leaving SD and headed east is San Diego-Phoenix/Tucson (420 miles)-El Paso (317 miles)-Austin (576 miles). It adds up quickly, and helps make sense of why musicians ask for so much booze in their riders: otherwise, they probably couldn’t afford it.

2. Our sense of place has been lost:

There’s a reason why, in the pre-internet days, you heard talk about a place being the “next Seattle” (San Diego was that for a while, apparently on the strength of the Stone Temple Pilots). Before that it was “the next Minneapolis.” Without constant touring and internet promotion, music scenes used to develop in strange, closed-0ff ways, promoting the kind of strange diversity and importance of place that’s as missing nowadays from our cultural landscape as it is from our physical surroundings. It made being there exciting. It also allowed bands to form their sound and ethos without being influenced by everything on Earth at the same time (or worse, being compared to and dismissed in lieu of everything on Earth at the same time).

3. Our environmental impact is significant:

Laugh all you want, but the collective effect of 200 bands that all sound like Jawbreaker (or Wire, or Wilco) criss-crossing the United States in vans that get 15 miles to the gallon (and probably haven’t been tuned up in five years) is significant. My band did almost 45,000 miles of driving in 2006. That’s about 3750 gallons of gasoline. Our ecological footprint last year was, to be kind, much larger than our record sales warranted. In case you’re wondering about us doing the responsible thing and buying carbon offsetting, see point number 1.

Anyway, those are just a few reasons. I’m interested to see what people think about this, so please comment away.

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3 Comments

  1. yeah well, considering the considerable sacrifice that bands make to tour- loss of jobs, apartments, etc, i would advance that as an additional grounds in support of a “regional approach”.

    As long as you are playing Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York and have fans there, you’re just as well off.

  2. I generally agree with you, but my question would be, “as well off in reference to what?” National press? National exposure? In a world where touring will only be feasible for a tiny proportion of bands, what’s the point of even having all that?

  3. Personally I would rather see my favorite band put out an additional record each than have them come through town 2 or 3 nights out of a year. Although these days indie record sales are looking about as fucked as average touring revenues huh?


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