Music Biz 101 / Lesson 2: The Missing Middle

Without a path, the journey becomes near impossible

The Supply side of the live music industry — the players offering their talents to the marketplace — can rationally be broken down into three distinct classifications for analysis:

The Locals:

These are the hometown heroes; the weekend warriors; the bar bands that we as consumers typically run across more than the other two groupings @ below. The majority here will be playing cover songs to get the crowd dancing and are mostly indistinguishable from one another, with the usual couple of exceptions to the rule in any given market. Sprinkled within this collection will be a few original acts cutting their teeth while seeking to make their way into the next category; of …

The Dreamers:

Here are the middle market grinders that have graduated from the local scene and are taking their shot at glory by hitting the road and bravely venturing into outside towns and cities with their original repertoire. Included here may be those individuals that have pulled the trigger and made music their full time careers as well as those that still rely on day jobs. Their shows are destinations; fans are specifically coming for them as compared to their being just background music for a scene. The dream for them, of course, is to become…

The Big Shots:

They’ve paid their dues and it’s finally paying off. The rooms have gotten big(er), listeners across the land are hearing them and actual “tours” can consistently be arranged effectively and efficiently. The comfort level increases; no more sleeping in campgrounds! Additional income sources such as publishing and synching open up. You’re a star, baby; and that’s what it’s all about.

Same as it ever was, same as it ever was: this 1-2-3 has been in place as long as the game has been played, except for the blessed-by-giants manufactured acts (American Idol comes to mind) that hit the lottery and get to skip the first two steps. But there lies the basic formula for most. Some are content to stay at Level One and just play the popular hits at the local joint with their high school pals; others strive for something bigger and better. It’s not a one way staircase; traffic goes in both directions, up and down.

Unfortunately, there’s a hole in this ship: a serious shortcoming in the current business dynamic that is playing a major role in today’s dysfunctional live music industry that we are faced with. That shortcoming is the troubling realization that the Middle Market – which serves those Dreamers as we called them – is slowly disappearing from the formula. Heck, the better term might be rapidly. Just file it as an endangered species.

Ask your typical casual music listener – those for whom the music experience is not a deeply set passion – the simple question of “where’d you last catch a live band?” Their reply will more often than not be one of two answers: they saw a cover band at a local bar or they saw some mega act at a mega venue. Go ahead and try this experiment. It should jive.

The magic and critical in-between of having caught a rising (or falling) original/touring artist in a, say, 200 to 1000-capacity room is an increasing rarity. That setting is now the spacious domain of the impassioned music-centric / deep music crowd; which is an increasing niche breed of cat. The casuals make up the vast majority of consumers and their game tends to be heavy on the youthful nostalgia and light on the cutting edge. Their 1.4 live original music experiences per year (as per a study by none other than iHeart) is attending that aforementioned Big Shot, hero-worshipping show that serves to put the real money into the pockets of the lucky but not always worthy .01% sector at the peak of this food chain.

That right there is a sign of both an industry and an art form in existential-level type of trouble.

The WHY’s to this now long-running phenomenon are identifiable yet, well: complicated. These why’s? will be a recurring theme in future installments of this series, so be sure to tune in! Right here.

But at the top of that list is the detrimental effects of widespread Industry Consolidation within the music sphere, which has resulted in such negatives as the near-death of local radio (ownership and programming) and local media, that can’t kill it genre called Classic Rock, the near-total market dominance of Big Music (labels, promoters, ticketing), the disappearing of the tribal communal listening and the lack of easily-accessible new-artist discovery methods. The result is less demand for those smaller touring acts and their original music for the oh-so-basic reason that fewer and fewer people are exposed to any of them.

The rosy promise of the Long Tail never happened. If you don’t know what that means; (as we mentioned) you will @ right here in the near future.

The direct effect from all this which concerns us is both simple and obvious: there are fewer and fewer venues and stages for that Middle Market, which when combined with the aforementioned reduced demand is robbing the industry of its proven formula for developing and growing valued and worthy art. The demand < > supply meltdown feeds on itself. These rooms are fast disappearing; it seems like we read of a new music venue closing daily, somewhere in the wider region. It’s a death march that was in play even before COVID.

It didn’t always work that way. Live music used to thrive in small venues, whether they were located in the urban centers (back when the rent was cheap, anyways) or in those all-but-extinct roadhouses located further out of town. Without these places, there can be no so-called music scene. But that’s where we are just about at. Those locales that can still be labeled as so-called “great music towns”? Name a few. Can you? Probably not.

The formula is broken. While there is certainly a tremendous pool of great music out there across this land, it’s almost a “but what good is it if it isn’t being heard?” situation. And that right there is a legitimate question.

Can it be fixed? That depends. The biggest roadblock to that fix is gaining consensus that there IS a problem here, to begin with. Unfortunately, this observer doesn’t think that there is such an agreement. We’re a nation that’s been lulled to sleep and which seeks being spoon-fed those things that are easy to get, are easy to digest and which don’t make a mess.

So ya wanna go into town to hear a band that you probably never heard of (but is really damn good) in a standing crowd of three hundred other people on a Wednesday night?” Probably not will be the most popular reply. Besides, there’s a Moody Blues concert on cable, anyways. Our Good Enoughculture wins out.

Meanwhile, the industry remains frozen in the ground, with all the bucks going to the chosen few from Big Music’s “for the masses” playlist. But rest assured it’s expertly brewed for serving to the lowest common denominator.

But gee whiz that band at Smitty’s Saloon last night sure played a great rendition of Africa, didn’t they? It sounded just like the original!

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