The “Business” of Music in the 21st Century
By Michael Gee, KVBA Board Member and Co-Founder of the Bosco-Gee Blues Band
One dark stormy Sunday morning in early 1995, I was sipping my “morning” coffee at 2PM after a 4AM homecoming, on the end of week five of a three-night gig in some little town 65 miles from home. Two weeks earlier, for various reasons, the members of the band had given our notice and decided to dissolve and go our separate ways. As I poured the second cup, my mind turned to what might be next. Look for a new band? Start a new band? Go the on-call “guitar/bass for hire” route? After weighing all the factors, one thing, more than anything else, was stuck in my craw.
I had just finished 15 dates in three weeks and made less money than I made in the 70’s , back when neither I nor any of the bands I played with were really very good. And I quit. Aside from helping out a few old friends here and there and taking one summer-long “fill in” stretch with a blues band whose guitar player had taken a cruise ship gig for the summer of 2001, I stayed “quit” for over thirteen years, in favor of concentrating on “real money”.
When the “Jones” to start playing again hit me so hard I couldn’t ignore it any longer, in mid- 2008, I accepted an offer to put something together with some cats in Battle Creek. Most of the first year was a constant reminder of why I quit back in 95, but as I knew too well, that was the nature of the beast. After a period of getting my legs back and re-learning some old lessons which had become distant memories, but not completely forgotten, I kindled some new relationships, reached back into the past to renew others and walked, or perhaps fell backward into what has become one of the best “bands”, if not the best of my career, a group of guys and a female singer who not only play well together, but actually interact in harmony as partners/brothers/sisters/friends. No big egos and no one person more important than “the band” or “the sound”. That is rare, and when you find that, you need to hang on for dear life for as long as it lasts, because it never does.
In many ways it is very exciting because every new band is a new beginning. At the same time, this directly addresses the question of “does there ever come a point when your dues are paid in full?” My experience is “no”. The world and particularly the music business constantly change around us. The differences between the early 1970’s and now are like stepping from the Beverly Hillbillies into a Star Trek movie. The record business has been decimated by the internet and “self publishing” capabilities, and the radio industry has become so far detached from the “music” business, with programming services, syndication and a complete lack of human input, it is just ridiculous. The radio industry used to be a huge ally in the process of building an artist’s popularity, and the DJ of olden days had a substantial degree of say in his programming. Those days are gone with only very few exceptions remaining. Radio play is no longer a part of the building process, it merely a byproduct of success already achieved. It is the record label and the media provider, rather than the artist, who see the majority of that reward.
Only one thing has remained a constant over all this time. Down here at the local level, meaning the clubs and other small venues where many of us have remained for 30 years or more, artists are still artists, club operators or hosting venues are still business people, and communication between the two is still problematic at best. Amongst my peers I still find a prevailing opinion that promoting the venue and bringing in a crowd is solely the responsibility of the venue. From the club operator’s side of the conversation, it sounds something like this: “If I am the one spending the time and dollars to advertise shows, promote the venue and establish a brand, with all the risk on my own shoulders, I can afford to align my decisions based on having ‘a’ band rather than ‘which band’. So I will take the one who will play for $200-250.” And believe me, that well never runs dry.
The truth is, there are flaws, as well as merit in both sides of the argument. The bottom line is, many artists concentrate all of their time and effort on the “art” and very little, if any, on learning “the business”, while many club operators make decisions based on what or who they like and think is “cool” rather than taking an honest, objective look at what they can sell and make money with. Worse, they become so frustrated with the entire process that they either turn the decision- making responsibilities over to middle management, putting it in the hands of someone with no real financial stake in the success or failure and ride it out until they nearly go bankrupt, or they take the “Cut off the Head to Cure the Headache” route and stop having live entertainment altogether.
In the early 80’s, I sat in a classroom with a very smart, successful and “streetwise” college professor named Harris Dean. In the first 15 minutes of his opening lecture for Intro to Business-101, he made the following statement: “If you remember nothing else I taught you in this classroom, remember this. Any business relationship remains successful, only as long as everybody involved is making money. The moment that one party begins to place his own goals above the goals of the other(s, is the moment it begins to fall apart.” If you take a close look at the pitfalls of the “local” music business, almost invariably this very factor is right at the heart of of it. At present, here inKalamazoo, we are seeing the results of this ongoing dichotomy beginning to hit very close to home.
So… as musicians, or in the Association’s case, supporters of this LIVE music roller-coaster ride, what can we do? By now some of you may be on the edge of your seats, waiting for the moment where I start to divulge trade secrets or offer a “silver bullet”, one line solution… Ain’t gonna happen. Where my band is concerned, yes, I do have a plan in mind, but my true goal in this article is to stimulate thought.
At the same time that modern technology has in many ways had an affect on the decline in the radio and recording industries and on a troubled economy, and stricter regulation and the increased cost of doing business have seriously affected our small venue & club music business, technology has also provided us with boundless opportunity in the form of mass networking, self publishing capabilities, numerous media outlets at little or no expense and a new world to explore. In short, it is time for us to start thinking “outside the box”. We must find a way to bridge this communication gap between the venues and artists and get everybody speaking the same language in terms of “conducting business”.
The 60’s and 70’s are long gone and the world has changed around us. I choose to reach for a degree of balance between both worlds. The art, aside from technological improvements in actual instruments, remains the same. The blues is in your mind and in your soul. It can’t be found in downloaded tablature and it can’t be taught. The product takes care of itself, and it is what it is. Whether you are measuring the distance between Michael Gee and Dave Allemang or Robert Cray and Buddy Guy, it isn’t about better or worse, It is about “different”. The way you play, the way you sing, your own feel is like a fingerprint, no two the same. Where we can find common ground and work to make things better for everybody is “The Business”.