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.
One “gig” downtown was enough for me.
Excellent article, I remember when shows used to start at 9:00. My aging body has a lot of trouble with the one hour walk home starting at 3:30 AM which going out entails in 2017, and cabs are too expensive so I stay home. Trouble is, if you promote a 9:00 PM show nowadays, no one comes out before 11 or 12 anyway.
Speaking as a now retired but former long time musician in St. John’s, leaving a bar at 3:30ish on a semi-regular basis was just draining. Sure, it’s a whole lot of fun when after the show comes the after party etc., but sometimes, you just want to play your gig and go home. Starting the routine at 6PM or so by rounding up the gear, setting up for soundcheck, finding something to eat, getting home, having a few drinks to pass the time (but not TOO many drinks – that’s irresponsible for the musician), getting back to the bar, having to go home again because “oh no man, we don’t have a bass amp,” getting back to the bar, playing/watching the show… by the time all is said and done, you just punched a 10 hour day. For $20-40 bucks or so. Yes yes, it’s not about the money, it’s about the love of the art, etc…. but, a little payout wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, would it? Did I just sell out by writing this? Oh no, my cred.
I think the problem here is very much a “it needs to change, but no one wants to MAKE it change.”
Take your average three band show. “Show starts at 11” says the poster. Well, at 11, there is no one at the bar whatsoever. So the opening band waits until 11:30 so that they can at least play to more than the door guy/gal (note: most of the later bands haven’t arrived at the show yet, because like the article mentions, they too are at home getting primed)
So band 1 finishes at 12:15ish. Another 15 minutes or so drifts by for setup, and to make sure the middle band (who basically always organize the show themselves) gets the prime real estate at 12:30-1:00. That’s the golden ticket. The friends have showed up, people are happy to stop in after the first round of White Russians at Lotties. The crowd is enjoying themselves, so band 2 plays on until 1:30 or so.
Now the crowd is starting to thin out a little. Friends of the bands showed up to be polite, but it’s time that they’re off to their other bigger and badder plans for the evening. So after the mid band takes the obligatory “that was awesome!” “what kind of pedal is that?!” “you want a beer?” “my brother plays guitar, man!” questions from the increasingly tipsy strangers, the third band begins to set up.
Now we’re approaching 2 AM. Band 3 gets to play to a few loyal show-goers, a few yawning friends, some very bemused girlfriends who by gosh are just there to support, that same door/guy girl who is on their 12th smoke break of the evening (and has long since stopped charging cover at the door), and those random people who seem to enjoy still carrying on their conversation about their seventh grade crush over ear-splitting sound levels. Note – members of the other bands have likewise checked out for the night – understandable given that they “have to work in the morning,” “my buddy’s having a party up at his place, you should come after you guys play!”, and “oh man, I was out all last night, I’m dead, sorry man.”
So, 3:30 rolls around, the lights are, a few stragglers are looking to find the next happening after hours joint (RIP Scanlans). The band has to tear everything down so the bar looks good for the morning. The money is doled out. Questions are raised that “hey, it seemed like there was way more people here than that,” but then it is realized that 80% of the crowd was on the guest list, lots more were friends of the door guy/gal/bar staff, and that the $5 cover times 30 patrons is not a whole lot of money when split between three bands with five members each. Time to wait for a cab (who usually drive past musicians because time spent loading gear could be time better spent driving the crowd stumbling out of Shamrock back to CBS). Finally, all is said and done, the show is over. The musician rests, one step closer to fame and fortune (after spending $50 at the bar to make $40 at the bar). But it’s for the love of the art, right!
Great comment. Completes the article for me.
Jerry, great article and great points. Music-centric venues are not so common. The Levee can’t make a go anymore etc. Black Sheep is trying (and open to all genres which is very cool). I hope the earlier show idea (9-1130 etc) comes back. It would bring out a lot more music fans, and there still are some (i hope).