Live music is still on mute. I‘ve not been this artistically low for this long. Ever. As a lover of melody, I am heartbroken. As a lover of rhythm, I am motionless. I want this stinging emotional quiet to end. But despite what the suits are saying, I don’t see light in the tunnel. I’m still feeling my way in an existential darkness, experiencing a profound loss of the present and the possible.
I’ve spent many hours over the past year sawing and hammering on my kitchen. The renovation served as a noisy, yet welcome, Socratic meditation on questioning just what it was that I’d lost. Something I’d done my whole life had suddenly been deemed non-essential. I’d always thought playing music necessary—vital in managing the deepest angst. But I’ve been wondering if I’ll ever play again. If I do, I will not be returning to “normal.”
Before the pandemic, to be out on the road with Bovine Social Club was more than fortunate. Charmed, actually. We rolled from listening room to amphitheater as if the great sound, keen engineers, unhurried sound checks, sharp hotels, lovely food, and the camaraderie of good people would go on forever. Rock stars we were not, just really, really happy to have folks listening to every word we sang.
What made it seem so luxurious, I suppose, was the high contrast between the magical moments and the grind, the battle to survive, the trying not to suffer. Long before COVID arrived, the reign of the internet had already devalued the song with its flood of free supply, which is outpacing demand by 40k new songs uploaded every single day, just to Spotify. There are so many songs now that no one fucking cares about any of them. With sales in steep decline, touring musicians have resorted to hawking souvenir water bottles and beer koozies. Beer koozies. Really?
Quietly, over the last decade, live music promoters offloaded their promotional obligations and costs to the artists, all the while running up the price of a beer in a plastic cup to $15. And with the glut of everything from Netflix to network sports to tribute bands to movies to iPhones, competition for the entertainment dollar became brutal as ticket sales lagged. So for indie musicians it was a rare gig indeed that paid anyone expenses, let alone a living wage.
Without corporate tour support, as true indies we subsidized as best we could by begging from patrons and partners, robbing retirement savings, and living on the edge without health insurance. It was all pretty exhausting long before the virus moved in. On a personal level, musician to musician, and band to band, ego and competition has long upstaged cooperation, especially here in the Northeast.
No one wins in a zero sum music scene suffering from rock star syndrome. Those with wildly lucky breaks rarely if at all offered a hand up to those of us treading water. All that aside, and perhaps most critical of all, fans and performers alike have been ducking the ethics of recording, merchandising, streaming, and touring’s truly massive carbon footprint. It’s just not talked about. The buzzkill must be avoided at all costs!
As if all those struggles were not enough, everything ground to a halt as the virus surged. Lights out. For a while though, it was novel: all sofas and sourdough. Some musicians disappeared, taking up embarrassing “real jobs.” Others went wandering, some woodshedding, a few streaming low-tech Facebook content and begging via PayPal. Still others forged on over the winter, strumming cover tunes in tented bars, frozen and maskless, in disregard and disbelief.
As things warmed up here in the Northeast, cover acts set up in bar corners as they’ve done for years, awkwardly strumming the same dusty top 40 tropes. Many musicians, encouraged by the supply of vaccines, or even laughing at the vaccines, are hopeful the old normal is around the corner, as if any day now, someone’ll hit the breakers and the party will hum again.
But after more than a year of thinking this through, it’s pretty clear how gawdawful that old normal really was. I even felt some sense of relief the week it all went down. Most of whatever we were doing and however we were doing it was no longer morally nor financially sustainable, anyway. We were headed, as Hank Snow sings, “Ninety miles an hour down a dead end street.”
Few songs we wrote and performed ever came close to reflecting the reality of a planet and its people in distress. We are teetering on the edge of frightening political unrest, a raging virus, rising oceans, massive and unchecked economic, racial, and gender inequality. The party is over and rock and roll is the new Edsel.
No matter how or when we emerge from the pandemic, we cannot blindly return to the way things were. We desperately need a new music paradigm! We need a u-turn. A change of heart. A new way forward that preserves the very thing that makes us emotionally whole. Music, chiefly the live kind, works as social glue and heals us, especially in times grossly lacking in human touch.
We’ve been given a very fortunate moment to pause, take stock and remake our house of music. I don’t know how just yet. Just that now is the time. So then, I’m on a quest. A quest for some light in these dark days. A quest to find a way for my life in music to reflect my care for the earth. A quest for my life in music to reflect a just and equitable society. I dream of making beautiful music in beautiful places with beautiful folks who reject the myth of fame in favor of walking arm in arm. I’m wide awake and dreaming of possibilities.
©2021 Samuel Saint Thomas