Reflections on a Failed Music Career: The Music Scene
By Wil Forbis
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Why do we go to the shows that we do?
I have spent innumerable evenings over the past 20 years watching live musical performances. From reggae shows in Honolulu, Hawaii, to grunge clubs in Seattle; from the Sunset strip of Hollywood to dimly lit bars in Patras, Greece, I passed many a night with fist wrapped around vodka tonic, ears being tantalized by music. Some might observe these after-hours activities --- more than a few which ended in nausea inducing public drunkenness, the inhalation of mysterious powders or poorly performed sex in the back seat of cars --- as merely ritualized hedonism devoid of redeeming social value. Perhaps... perhaps... to the untrained eye! But the more erudite among you must realize that my focus was academic. I was studying the art of performance; I was learning what made some bands successful and some fail.
Originally, I had a Horatio Alger view of the music business. I presumed that if a band worked hard and perfected their songs and playing, the audience would come around. But as I've slogged through hundreds of clubs while playing in dozens of bands, and watched friends do the same, I've realized it's not quite that simple. Sure, audiences do get drawn to good bands, but listening to music is not the only reason people go to shows.
On some level, this is obvious. If music was simply about listening, we would all stay home with our iPods and expensive stereo systems --- devices that undoubtably do a better job of presenting music than the crappy PAs and conversation laden environments of music clubs. Even the best bands can barely capture the experience of their recordings live.
Nonetheless, people flock to shows, and musicians eagerly anticipate their chance to perform. Why is this? Clearly there's a social element at work in viewing live performances. Shows are often akin to a party. They give us a chance to socialize, to talk to old friends, to catch up with people we haven't seen in a while. And, of course, shows are where people go to meet prospective love interests/sexual partners.
There is, I think, a more subtle and third reason people go to shows, one piggybacked on the first two. Human beings, in the current stage of our development, exist in very complex, sometimes hard to define social hierarchies. Certain people are "cooler" than others. As in the hierarchies enjoyed by our primate cousins, the chimpanzees, some people are "alphas," some "betas," and on down the line. And we are intrinsically curious about where we, and others, place in the social hierarchy. (I've argued that the genius of social networking websites like Facebook is that they allow us to actually quantify our value in the social hierarchy.) Our curiosity is not just driven by idle gossip: alphas tend to thrive in society --- both romantically and financially. It's intrinsic to our well-being to place ourselves as high on the social ladder as we can.
At your large-scale rock show, it's pretty easy to point out the alphas --- they're on stage. (This isn't always true; I've gone to more than one performance simply to mock the ineptitude of the performers.) Next down the line are the people with the backstage passes or some indicator that they are in close proximity to the stars of the show. (You could think of these people as the modern equivalent of the courtesans of the kings of the Middle Ages.) We can take more steps down the social hierarchy until we finally arrive at the people sitting in the lousy seats, either because they were too broke to afford decent tickets, or so out of the loop they didn't realize the show was happening until it was too late. (This is been me on many an occasion.)
This complex, multitiered social hierarchy often has a name: "the scene*." When I was a teenager in Honolulu, I was part of the "punk scene." Years later in Seattle, Washington, I was part (a small part) of the "grunge scene." More than a decade later I was part of the "alt-country scene" in Los Angeles, California. In some ways, these scenes were very different from each other: the music was quite dissimilar, as were many of the people involved. But in other ways, the scenes had a lot in common. They were all structured around a sometimes ethereal but omnipresent social hierarchy, with "scenesters" on top, and, well, I can't think of another name, so I'll say "losers" on the bottom. And a person's role in the scenes often correlated to their connection to (or membership in) the popular bands. You could, fairly accurately, predict who would be at what show based on their "hipness" and their general investment in the scene. And, when a popular band broke up or moved, their fans bemoaned the loss, partly because it was a diminution of their social status.
* There's one interesting side point related to the scene: its power and effectiveness is related to its size. A scene consisting of five people is not likely to hold much power or attract new members. But scenes can also get too big and feel gentrified. When does a music scene become too big? To my knowledge, no research has been done into this important scientific question, but we can refer to what is known as Dunbar's number. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar noted that when primate groups expand past 150 members, members lose their ability to recognize each other, and the large group splits into smaller sizes. When I think of the various scenes I've been involved in in my life, it's fair to say that they rarely got beyond 150, at their core.
There have been several teen oriented films made in the past half-century that foment the following plot: geeky teenager picks up guitar and suddenly becomes "cool" because of his or her ability to "rock." This is, of course, baloney. It's much easier to develop a following for your band if you're already popular. (A movie which honestly portrayed the mechanics of musical popularity was the 60s rebel teen flick "Wild Guitar" in which actor Arch Hall Jr.'s character discovers that his record company is paying the "cool kids" in nearby towns to promote his records.) Think of the innumerable movie celebrities --- Bruce Willis, Kevin Bacon and Keanu Reeves come to mind --- who, while possessed of middling musical talent, formed bands and toured rock clubs most bands would die to play.
So what's the moral here for the struggling musician? Simple: be popular. (Ha!) Of course, it's not that easy. I'll delicately throw out the proposition that the reason most people form bands is because they're not popular, or at least not popular enough (in their view.) In the 80s, when I was a teenager, being in a band did seem to slightly increase your ranking in the social hierarchy. These days, I'm not so sure... with a Guitar Center on every block and guitar tabs strewn across the Internet, the barrier of entry is so small that being in a band is not so much an a accomplishment as it is a cliché. It may be that the only reason to start up a band these days is simply because you love playing music.
Next month: the politics of being in a band.
Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.