It’s often joked that no one shows up early to shows to see the opening band, but last night at Izotope, nearly everyone who attended the inaugural State of Live Music in Boston series was seated and ready at the proposed 7 p.m. start time. And for good reason — the series, created by Rock Shop Boston and Anngelle Wood Media, was limited to a mere 120 minutes within the Cambridge tech company’s cavernous common area, and there was a lot to discuss.
Participants and attendees, which totaled a little more than 100 via loose head count, ranged from seasoned music veterans to young promoters and booking agents, while a majority of people in the room were over the age of 30. Representatives from Bowery Boston, Crossroads Presents, and independent clubs like the Middle East, ONCE Ballroom, and Thunder Road were in attendance, and an open agenda meant that anyone could stop up to take the microphone and lead or continue the discussion.
That discussion, on this night, centered mainly around promotion, how to reach college students in a town dominated by them, and how bands and the clubs they play can work in better harmony. If the night was light on actual solutions, it was heavy on ideas, and in illustrating first-hand the struggle bands face in a changing live music landscape and evolving internet and media world. The dialogue certainly paved the way for future forums, promised by co-host Anngelle Wood, to take on a more specific and tailored nature.
That’s not to say the night was without some quotable moments. Nearly 25 people spoke over the two-hour session, with the moderators carefully allowing the room’s participants to lead the discussion. Veteran Boston musician and engineer Joel Simches was the first to the mic. “A lot of people perceive that the problems in the Boston music scene are that venues are closing, and bands are not doing enough to help promote,” Simches said. “And I think it’s a little of both.” He said that clubs are not advertising or actively promoting shows as much as in years’ past, and felt there is a growing divide between the venues and musicians. “The best thing we can do is stop thinking of one another as the enemy.”
Dan Millen, owner of Thunder Road in Somerville, painted a more promising picture of the current scene. “I think the state of live music in Boston is pretty damn strong,” he said. Millen added that, “the clubs that closed didn’t close because they weren’t doing business,” and cited examples for each, from Copperfield’s near Fenway Park closing because the owners took a significant financial offer for the building to Johnny D’s shuttering because the owner, after nearly 50 years of live music in a family-run business, would have less stress utilizing the space for retail and condos. “There’s a shit ton of fantastic bands coming up,” Millen said, noting that it is up to the bands and venues to promote and organize better.
Musician George Woods agreed, stating “One thing you have to ask yourself as an artist is ‘How do you cater to your audience?’ and ‘What is your audience?'” Woods said bands need to have realistic expectations, and if they only draw 15 people, approach smaller rooms where playing to 15 people doesn’t feel like a failure, and build from there.
A barrage of other ideas were floated out over the course of the night. Matt McArthur of the Record Company in Boston felt that more venues and stages around the city would help elevate the scene, and bands need to hone in on how people are discovering new music. Sean O’Brien of ONCE Ballroom said the venues and bands need to understand they are in a “partnership” with each other to create a successful event, and 30-year music scene veteran Jesse Von Kenmore stressed that bands need to align themselves with their “tribe” and older bands need to act as guides for younger musicians. Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys‘ Edrie Edrie, who also works for the City of Boston, stressed the importance of musicians getting involved with the city, vocalizing their struggle, and taking part in Boston Creates, the city’s ongoing cultural planning process. More than a few speakers stated that young people are still going to local music shows, just more in DIY spaces and basements and not in the traditional rock clubs.
Richard Bouchard of Good & Nice promo argued that new venues wouldn’t address anything given that most of the current ones are frequently half full, and drew the ire of some in the room when he stated that live music is a young person’s game. “Maybe college kids don’t want to see 40 and 50-year-old dudes playing rock and roll,” he said.
Some of the best comments and ideas came from Jasmine Hagans, the Museum of Fine Arts‘ Curator of Lectures, Courses, and Concerts and member of Rrrright. “Venues need tax breaks,” Hagans said. “If General Electric gets a tax break but ONCE doesn’t, what does that say about our city?” Hagans also stressed the importance of diverse bills and local bands opening shows by headlined by national touring acts. “We were never asked once to open to a national band,” she said of Sleep Crimes.
Sam Coren, of Shaved Head Britney and iZotope’s Demand Generation Manager, said that Boston “needs to rethink its entertainment licenses in town” and that as a scene, people are too focused on the venues that cater to the 21-and-up crowd. “Some of the best spaces to see live music don’t involve booze,” Coren said. Other ideas Coren had involved designating special parking areas outside venues (for both load-in and load-out as well as a space to keep a van while the show goes on), ending pay-to-play shows entirely, and being more accommodating to touring acts. “I want Boston to be a place where people want to play and not skip over because it’s a pain in the ass,” Coren stated.
As the night drew to a close, veteran musician Anthony Kaczynski, known for his work with bands like Figures on a Beach and Fireking, perhaps gave the best advice of all. “Write good songs, treat your music with respect,” Kaczynski said, before ending the public comment session with this: “Go out there, have a great attitude, make great music, and be nice to people.”
Note: This post has been updated. Follow Michael Marotta on Twitter @vMichaelv.