The Germans have a word, Verschlimmbessern, which means “attempting to make something better and, in fact, making it worse.”
I think it is entirely possible that over time this is what has happened to the St. John’s music scene. Not in terms of the music being made. We got that on lock down. Cool tunes every which way you turn. But one only has to be Facebook chums or Twitter pals with an SJ music type or two and you will eventually see the queries about how late the shows are, and why we can’t start them earlier.
This line of questioning starts debates that go on for days. The problem is it can’t be resolved by one or two parties. It needs the entire scene to make any changes happen. With that many moving parts it won’t do it by itself.
Generations before me, the first to hear strummed chords wafting out of bars on George Street, have told me how things used to be: musicians made decent livings gigging 3, 4, or 5 days a week; Matinee shows were always packed.
After the matinee, there were late shows that were also always packed. If the bar stayed open after the entertainment was done, people stayed and danced or chatted while the stereo played on in the background. Bars made money. Bands made money. Everybody was happy.
So what happened? The chicken or the egg? Nature versus nurture? Beyoncé or Adele? Like those arguments there simply isn’t one thing or person to blame. However there are facts.
Bars started closing later. Inflation went up and with it the price of booze (You should note that cover charge didn’t go up with it – but that is another article for another time and a much more sedate writer). More and more bars started popping up downtown, especially on George Street. More bands started coming out of the woodwork.
The bars AND bands had more competition and were competing for the same showgoer’s dollar. People started skipping the matinees in favour of staying home to prime up; a lofty attempt at saving a few bucks. So the bars pulled back the reins on matinee shows. Soon after, venues quit the guarantees in favour of “letting” the band take a cut of the door.
When this started, bars would usually also offer a cut of the bar proceeds – 10-15% in my early days. That, too, soon stopped. Shows got later, which meant people stayed home later for prime up potential, which meant shows got later again…You see where this is going? Suddenly St. John’s had some of the latest events in the country. And everybody seemed to be fine with it. Right up until they weren’t.
Attempting to fill up their venues, the bars started doing ridiculous specials that couldn’t possibly make money. Buck-a-beer was a thing. Yet as crazy as those specials were, people still stayed home to prime up. It was cheaper to drink at the bar, but priming up had become its own mini-cultural thing. So the special nights started cutting out live music or at least cutting back on it again.
This meant when bands played there were no crazy specials, so folks tailored their plans to go out on nonshow nights instead. Basically, to fast forward, we now have a ton of bars in a very small area with a small population who go out regularly (which seems like it is dwindling these days). Shows that often don’t start until it is almost tomorrow for little to no cover (but don’t let that stop the occasional gem at the door from protesting “Ten Bucks!?!?! …For what?!”).
For those of you who don’t know me, I have been a musician for over 20 years. Playing all over St. John’s and Newfoundland (haven’t made it to Labrador yet unfortunately), Canada, and elsewhere. I’ve got more than a little perspective on our idiosyncratic music scene. I’ve pretty much played any room that was a venue for more than five minutes.
I have also gleaned a lot of perspective from talking to those who came before me. From the generation who rocked downtown right before mine to the distinguished folks who ushered in the first eras of George Street bars before people even used words like “scene.”
I am also of an age where I have had my audience (or audiences as would be a more apt description) change several times over my career. Some fans stop attending late night shows cause getting home after the 3 am endof-show is simply not realistic when the kids are gonna wake up at 6. They get replaced with younger crowds looking for tunes and times, or wanting to be part of a scene like their older siblings and cousins did when they themselves were younger.
St. John’s has the latest show times anywhere in the country. While that can be a source of pride for some, it affects the lives of those putting the shows off. This is what some might refer to as the natural selection of bar turnovers and why some bands or artists suddenly stop playing. It’s a lifestyle for a much younger metabolism than mine. Even the youngbloods coming up now will eventually tire of the late night slog. No one is immune.
I have answers. But I don’t have THE answers. People have tried earlier shows, many had positive outcomes for a while. But they are the exception to the rule. Unfortunately they all fold in time.
Without the venues wanting to promote them and trying to hold onto the older audiences who don’t want to sacrifice healthy sleep and productive tomorrows for shows, the artists knowing it will take time to create a lasting early scene, and the audiences themselves going along with it all, the cycle will continue to repeat.
Maybe that doesn’t seem like a bad thing to you. But to me it means many great musical acts and venues will remain in obscurity because we don’t show them the support they deserve. I hear the word “scene” thrown around here a lot these days. But a scene shouldn’t just be accessible for the folks who can stay out all hours of the night. It should be accessible during the waking hours as well.