by Alex Cosper (9/29/14)
Everyone knows that local music has some type of value to each region's culture and that a town without a music scene must be pretty boring. While most cities and towns do have some sort of music scene, it's still rare that the local newspaper, which by now is probably an online publication, puts the spotlight on the local scene in its top stories, unless it has something to do with a huge festival. Even then, most huge festivals are not like Woodstock, which remains memorable because of its size and message. But what if some of them were memorable just because of the message instead of the size of the event?
As history has shown, big local festivals are usually about making money for organizers and vendors instead of promoting causes. The San Diego Music Festival, for example, was one of the biggest music festivals in the nation from 1984 until its demise after the 2009 show's financial disaster. The festival was obviously about being big and making money instead of about concern for the community. If the festival were about the community there would have been more of a focus on artists from the community instead of national headliners and it wouldn't have mattered that the final show lost money because the event itself would have been worth the investment if it had a worthwhile message to deliver.
Instead, the San Diego Music Festival, which was once named best music festival in America by Rolling Stone, was not about a community message, otherwise the size and cost of the event would not have been the issue. The fact that it grew into a huge event became the message, which depended on costs and return on investment. It's actually possible to throw a concert in San Diego for just hundreds of dollars instead of hundreds of thousands of dollars, as long as the venue isn't too big and the crowd doesn't get too big. As soon as you get a huge crowd, the message of the event is inevitably drowned out by the cost of talent, security, permits, energy and a long list of other items.
The reason the San Diego Music Festival fell apart after so many years of success with big name bands, was the fact that the headlining national superstar act The Beastie Boys pulled out of the event in 2009. They were replaced by The Black Eyed Peas, which did not even sell half the tickets at half the price. The event turned into a huge financial loss for the organizers and the annual concert has ceased to exist since then, as of 2014. One of the morals of the story is you can't trust what's big on the national pop charts to create a huge local event.
If the show were about a community message instead of a list of big name acts, the venue size would not matter. The reason for big name acts, of course, is to attract a crowd that already likes popular artists. But big name acts, unlike local acts, are usually paid upfront big money regardless of how many tickets are sold. It's essentially a gamble for organizers and promoters, just like making a multi-million dollar film is for Hollywood. Like the music industry, most film industry releases do not generate a return on investment.
Local music, however, does not require massive expenses partly because local music is not as popular as national music even within its own region. That's the irony of local music, which is a big reason it suffers from lack of growth. Local music could potentially be huge in every local market if local media helped promote local artists and if local artists created art that mattered to the region.
So why doesn't this happen? The real reason is the topic rarely comes up. Local media pushes local talent to its back pages as an after thought or as crumbs to show the bare minimum support for the local scene while local artists mostly stay trapped within their own little worlds. Out of the thousands of local acts in every major city, very few break out beyond their regions. The fortunate acts that make it to the next level did so usually because their music became more mass appeal or they latched on to management that got them bookings on bigger bills.
Consider that local music might get better press if the artists themselves created some kind of value in the music for their community. It could be songs that raise awareness or events that raise money for causes. Below are some key points to remember why local artists rarely make local headlines. Perhaps the more local scene makers become familiar with these issues, the more they will envision solutions:
-- Local music is treated as back page news because it's unfamiliar even to its own region
-- Venue owners typically prefer cover bands over original acts due to familiar music attracting bigger crowds
-- Community message is not well developed in many regions, whereas commercial concerns become the bigger message
-- Many local jurisdictions have laws that restrict where music can be played and require permits, noise limits and curfews
-- National media does not encourage the development of local music scenes
-- Even local media devotes little attention to encouraging local scene development
-- Songwriting, even on a local level, often reflects national trends
-- Much of local scene activity occurs at venues serving alcohol, in which alcohol sales are the economic driver of venues
-- Concert organizers are more concerned about return on investment than investing in community messages
-- The cost of recording an album is still too expensive for even some of the best songwriters who might write community-empowering songs
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