Friday, April 11, 2008

Bill McKibben on Music in Iowa in 1900


I was rereading Bill McKibben's excellent book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
and came across his interesting discussion of changes in the music industry, and the possibility of an economic model that might be more focused on the local. Talking about the music industry's resistance to the changes occasioned by new digital technology, he writes that "if they can't protect their profit margin, they argue, [the music industry] argues, there will be a 'reduction in creative activity' because without the possibility of growing rich, fewer people will write songs."
Perhaps. But people wrote songs for millennia before they had any chance of making big money at it. At most, you could make a decent living as a wandering bard -- a profession that seems to be coming back into style....Such changes aren't only taking place in America. In England, government figures showed 'a live music renaissance underway across the country,' with half of pubs, clubs, and restaurants featuring at least occasional live acts. Bands still sell recordings, but more and more, they sell them to the people who come to the shows, audiences that are interested in a shared community at least as much as virtuosity.
It would be interesting to brainstorm about how theatre might follow this model. I attended a Christmas concert here in Asheville, the Swannanoa Solstice, that featured a couple traditional Celtic musicians, and during intermission and after the shows, people were lined up six deep trying to buy CDs. I know: I bought three myself. In England, they sell copies of the script in the lobby, and people buy them. How might a theatre create something that could be taken home by enthusiastic spectators?

McKibben goes on:
It's as if musicians were suddenly like the new wave of farmers able to grow smaller quantities of more interesting crops and find reasonably profitable markets for them. The live shows that provide more of their revenue are the equivalent of farmer's markets, places that customers love not only for the product but for the experience. No one gets supperich ala Mariah Carey or Archer Daniels Midland or Exxon Mobil, but plenty more people get to do something lovely, whether it's grow berries for their neighbors or write songs for their region. This parallel universe may not replace the centralized global one, but it's clearly gaining.
It is this vision of a more low key, localized arts scene that continues to motivate me to write about the theatre tribe idea.

Then McKibben introduces a historical fact that made my jaw drop:
How far might it go? Here's a statistic that gives some small indication: in 1900, in the state of Iowa alone, which was then crowded with small farmers, there were also thirteen hundred local opera houses, all of them hosting concerts. "Thousands of tenors," writes Robert Frank [in Luxury Fever], "earned adequate, if modest, livings performing before live audiences.
Imagine that: 1300 opera houses in Iowa alone in 1900 when the population of the United States was roughly 1/4 the size it is today. The idea that the arts require a large urban setting in order to survive is a recent prejudice that is brought into question by historical facts like that offered by Frank and McKibben. It might more accurately be stated that the current corporatized, globalized, business model that is built on the dream of fame and fortune rather than the art itself requires a large urban setting. Disconnected from that model, and reimagined on a local scale, other options may be possible.

At least, that is what I believe.


1 comment:

Director said...

Well, for one thing, a tribe with its own playwright and composer could easily burn cast albums for original musicals. I imagine Broadway and Broadway touring groups make a fair bit of money from selling cast albums, T-shirts, postcards, key-chains, etc. Maybe a tribe or regional theatre could adapt it on a smaller scale. The big problem, of course, is that on a small scale the costs go sky high.

The other thing is marketing. Local bands thrive because they bust their asses to get their names out there. They utilize resources like Myspace, Facebook, and other social networking tools. They put ads in local newspapers, paper the town with flyers and such.

Most theatres I know only list an ad in a handful of papers and the local (and I mean local-local, not local-metro) paper occasionally does an article on the upcoming show.

Before I moved to Atlanta, I was planning on gathering a group of friends together to produce our own play, perform in the town square, and advertise the hell out of the small town we lived in. A family-oriented production in a public space with virtually no costs associated with it would undoubtedly be SRO, especially if everyone knew about it.

Take this blog, for example. You're reaching people that you never would have reached before. My generation is addicted to the Internet. Don't be like the music industry and resist it -- embrace it! Grab the ball and run with it!

You want to get more people involved? Make like the Irish and sell merchandise at the live shows. Sell custom programs, T-shirts, etc.

Last year I taught at a local high school and at every football game, a parent designed a different T-shirt for each game, and she pressed the designs onto the shirts on the spot for whoever bought one. There was no leftover inventory, just plain T-shirts that could be used to sell at the next game with a new design. Local theatres can do that kind of stuff, too.

Interesting stuff.