Rock-and-roll musicians have always been associated with survival, tagged as scrappers and road warriors who party all night after eating copious plates of food at wedding and corporate gigs, washing it all down with the host’s top-shelf liquor and still able to charm the garters off bridesmaids for a scandalous evening. Back in the day, it was a well-earned badge as your equipment-loaded van screamed into a slide of death at 3 a.m. on a recently closed mountain pass in a white-out blizzard. All this just to get to get to that next club gig, which paid a pittance, comped greasy burgers or nachos and if the bartender took a shine to you, free drinks. If you really scored, the club put you up in the band crash pad with the unidentifiable sticky black gunk on the shag carpet, cigarette burns on the couch and the sagging mattresses where half the town’s women spent the night with one or all of the previous weeks’ band members. But hey, they were paying jobs and for most of the musicians who were fortunate to live through the historic cornucopia of mountain gigs twenty and thirty years ago, the times have now changed. It’s an evolution of perspective, economics, aging and staying afloat. No, we’re not growing up, just redefining priorities and transposing the way music is created, performed and sold.
Music business is conducted in a far different manner than it was a couple of decades ago, primarily due to the internet reinterpreting how audiences all over the world access and listen, as well as how artists promote. Mountain musicians who have had to be especially good at creating market have expanded the parameters of their careers by reaching a limitless online audience.
Once upon a time, when gigs were plentiful, talented musicians could make a decent living playing full time and not have to take second jobs waiting tables or cleaning toilets until discovered by a talent agent. But much of that changed in the mid-’90s, according to Chuck Hughes, who’s been a band leader for forty years in various incarnations of Top 40 to Rockabilly with Chucky & the Cyclones and currently the Colorado-based Hillbilly Hellcats. “The DUI was the downfall of band gigs. That’s not to say that you don’t have several bands at any given time whose popularity will overcome any social or economic condition, like Big Head Todd, The Fray, Leftover Salmon, String Cheese, but DUI affected the fortunes of eighty or ninety percent of the bands.” Chuck attributes his musical longevity to a very basic essentiality. “I had no other marketable skills. I started out in the ’70s playing six nights a week in a Top-40 band and teaching guitar lessons in a store. Back then, for three-nighters, a quartet would be making $100 per person per night at a club and on six-nighters, maybe $80 a night. In the mid-’90s, we’d play mountain gigs where you got a condo, a ski pass and food for a six-night gig.”
Chris Daniels and the Kings formed back in 1984, and they’ve been playing consistently for the past twenty-seven years. “It’s very difficult these days. Bands now have to be incredibly versatile to make a living just playing music. In the old days, we could do a circuit,” he says of the glut of clubs, many which no longer exist as music venues. “You’d play six nights a week and, after six weeks, you’d come through and do the circuit again. Now it’s three or four bands per night at one club. Instead of making a $1,000, you’re making $200.” As far as traveling to mountain-town gigs, Chris says, “We do mostly mountain festivals; summer concert series are what we tend to play now as opposed to the mountain bars. Our crowd is older now. They want to go out with their kids and a basket full of chicken. They don’t want to go out to a bar with twenty-one-year-olds and do Jager shots and throw up.”
Back when there were agents doing much of the promoting and booking, bands didn’t have to hustle as much as they do now. Musicians do their own marketing these days, advertising in specialty magazines on both local and national levels. With a single posting on your band’s Facebook page, your closest one to five thousand friends across the globe get the party going and the club packed out in their town. “Artist management is basically handled by the artist these days as opposed to the old days where the first thing you tried to do was get a manager,” Chris says.
With club venues generally shrinking for live music, bands have taken their sound abroad, especially to the lucrative European market, where audiences are educated about the music itself. Chris, who also teaches music business and both rock-and-roll and jazz music history at the University of Colorado’s Denver campus, believes, “Europeans understand the history of the music that’s being played, whereas most American audiences tend not to know that they’re hearing a blues band or the roots of the music.” Chuck found that Europeans don’t look at your age. “The Europeans are first impressed by the fact that you’re an American band playing American roots music and not the newest commercial flavor of the month. They feel they’re experiencing authentic American roots and they’re much more interested.”
The indie musician licensing business started to kick in through the internet around 2001. Chuck’s band, which had forty songs on MP3.com, was contacted by pumpaudio.com. “They wanted to license all of our songs for TV and movies. I thought it was typical music biz jive talk but nonetheless I filled out all the paperwork and checks started coming in. By 2005, our income had switched to music licensing, music downloads and live shows.”
Apparently age and experience also initiated a generational paradigm shift in the band collective concerning the continual sex, drugs and party-seeking factor of rock-and-roll. Chuck feels, “When you’re twenty-something, you’ll think nothing of staying up all night and getting wasted if you think you’re gonna get laid, but when you’re older, you ask yourself, ‘Is it worth it?’ And it’s not novel anymore,” he admits in a been-there-done-that tone. Chris agrees that stereotypical endless rock-and-roll recreation is not for his age group. “The days of groupies end when you reach your mid-forties. What becomes important for me is the music, more important than the party, much more important than hanging out with a twenty-year-old who wants to talk about Lady Gaga.”
One thing hasn’t changed and won’t likely anytime in the future — musicians are still paying those hard-earned, steamroller, low-down, whippin’-post dues … but that’s what gives them the rock-ribbed, metamorphic tenacity to carry on.
Dawne Belloise is a freelance writer, photographer, traveler and musician living on an alley at the end of the road in Crested Butte’s paradise. A feature writer for the Crested Butte News-Weekly, her musings and photography have been published in numerous mags and rags around the planet. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org