Local musician Chase Hall recently opined in this very section of the paper that a lack of “critical thinking” among fans and artists in San Luis Obispo contributes to what he sees as a lackluster music scene. More critical thinking, he claims, could lead to a better experience for both artists and attendees. As a former musician and former New Times arts editor, I can unequivocally say there is nothing wrong with the local music scene. It’s awesome, and it’s the one San Luis wants.
Hall believes if we all thought more about why we like the music we do, the act of seeing a band play live would take on greater importance, resulting in fewer people texting and chatting during the set and more people in a blissful, music-induced trance. My problem with that is I don’t want anybody telling me how or why to enjoy a band or a song or a show. To be honest, I often go to see live music specifically to shut my brain off. I think for a living, man. At a show, I’m off the clock.
The main problem in Hall’s piece—and believe me, it’s a common mistake—is he fails to look outside his own sphere of experience. One of his complaints is that people don’t come to his shows. He states this after admitting that his band’s songs often reach the 10-minute range. Dude, I wouldn’t even stick around for a 10-minute song if Springsteen was playing.
Well, maybe Springsteen. But no one else.
Each city’s music scene serves as its own meter of the age-old rule of supply and demand. “If you build it, they will come” does not apply to rock shows. Quite the contrary: The paying customer decides which bands and shows are successful. I’ve seen Saturday gigs by talented musicians playing to a near-empty room and Tuesday night shows at bars packed with engaged fans. (For the record, none of those acts ever played a song longer than, say, four minutes.) When it comes to performing your music live, being good isn’t the most important thing. What matters most is the answer to this question: Does anyone care? And before you try to answer that, keep in mind that you can’t make anyone care.
Successful local bands pay attention to their audience. They know what nights they have off, what cover they’ll pay, what songs they like. One thing they never do: Tell their audience how to experience the show.
Hall observes, “San Luis is supposed to be a college town, filled with a decent number of young people who know art when they see or hear it.” This is a college town. But not all college towns are the same, not everyone agrees on what makes good art, and for every college student you show me who “knows art,” I’ll show you 30 who think Boondock Saints is the best film ever made. Besides, without wading too far into this part of the debate, I’ll just say that I don’t go to a bar to hear a band make art. I go to hear them rock.
I know where Hall is coming from. As a musician in a college town, my band played to empty rooms for just about every performance while bands I considered sub-par filled venues. I had the same thoughts: The scene sucks; they don’t know good music when they hear it; we need to change that. I didn’t realize how wrong I was (or how cliché my perspective) until I moved away and experienced other scenes in other cities.
In Seattle, the question isn’t “What are we going to do tonight?” but rather “Which band are we going to see tonight?” In Kansas City, a few venues host the same throngs of locals who cheer on whoever plays, any night. In L.A., everybody does their own thing, which sometimes overlaps at a club during a show. In my college town of Richmond, Va., loyal listeners supported bands in their favorite genre, and you always saw the same handful of people at every show. Each scene is different, and each one is right for that city.
Back to that supply-and-demand point, the people who come to see live music often do so at a price. The cover, the drinks, parking—it all costs money. Exchanging money for goods or services means it’s a business. Yes, musicians have fun, but playing for an audience is a transaction.
Ultimately, musicians like Hall should ask themselves if they perform for attention or for the joy of playing. If the answer is the former, they must look at the market and adjust accordingly. If the answer is the latter, they should just play. Don’t worry about the near-empty room or the guy texting in the corner or whether or not the people who came to see you apply critical thinking to the music.
In either case, never presume to know how to fix the music scene. It’s not broken. It’s been here for a long time and will be here long after this latest crop of students graduate and move on or drop out like I did to become a full-time musician.
Clearly, that path didn’t pan out for me, but I don’t blame the scene. I blame myself.
David Vienna is the author of SLO Little Theatre’s upcoming production My Generation, the locally produced film More Than Stars and the parenting blog TheDaddyComplex.com. He can be reached via Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach at email@example.com and hopes Arts Editor Anna Weltner doesn’t get mad at him for this.