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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Want To Improve The Music Industry? Lower The Drinking Age

Recently there's been a national discussion for lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18, and several states, including Florida, Wisconsin, Vermont and Missouri, are actively studying the prospect.  The chief argument is that if you can fight for your country and you can vote for president if you're 18, you should be able to drink a beer legally too.  But lowering the drinking age would be a boon to the music industry and, I dare-say, even provide the engine for turning it around.

A little history.  We went through this same issue once before when the drinking age was a variety of ages from 18 to 21 across the states, but the war in Viet Nam brought about the "If I can fight for my country, I should be able to drink" argument that we're seeing again today.  By 1972 most states agreed that voting = legal alcohol and lowered the drinking age to 18, which opened the floodgates to accommodate a whole new set of thirsty patrons, and the way to get them in the door was to provide live entertainment.

Clubs sprang up everywhere and live music thrived.  If you were a half-decent band, you could easily find somewhere to play almost every night of the week and get paid for it too (none of this "pay-to-play" crap existed).

This was great for the music business because it gave neophyte musicians a place to get it together both musically and performance-wise.  Just like The Beatles did in Hamburg in 1962, you could play 5 sets a night 5 nights a week to really get your chops together.  Do that for a year or two and you were ready to take the next step towards doing your own thing, if that's what you wanted to do.

Unfortunately, it was also easy to fall into the trap of just playing clubs forever because the money was so good, but those with ambition took their club days for what they were and moved on up.  They had learned what they needed to by constantly playing in front of crowds.

This musical support infrastructure is largely gone these days.  A band that is considered to be playing a lot today is lucky if they play once a week.  That means it will take a group a lot longer to not only get to the point where they're comfortable in front of crowds, but to get musically and vocally tight as well.  The longer it takes a band to make progress, the more likely they will break up or change their direction, which means that perhaps the next great trend in music has shriveled on the vine.

Since the drinking age was raised to 21 in 1982, the excitement and diversity in music has steadily decreased.  It's bland, it's homogenized, and we've really not seen a new trend that's caught on big since Rap (which hit the mainstream 25 years ago). I attribute this mostly to the large scale closing of the club scene due to the higher drinking age (the tougher DUI laws too). Higher drinking age and more arrests = fewer club patrons.  Fewer club patrons = goodbye clubs.

Let's face it - musicians need the constant feedback and attention that only an audience can bring.  The more you play live, the better you get at it, which leads to more experimenting, which means the more likely you are to find your own voice.

I hope the drinking age is lowered soon.  Music (and the music industry) desperately needs a shot in the arm.

1. If you can fight and die for your country, you should be able to drink at 18.

2. If you are trusted to vote at 18, you should be able to have a drink at 18.

3. 18 year olds are already drinking anyway.  Just go to any college campus and see for yourself.

4. A lower drinking age means more clubs, which means more work for musicians.

5. More work for musicians means better entertainers, better musicians, more interesting music, and ultimately a stronger music industry.

1 comment:

Larry Jones said...

Bob -- I'm coming to this late, I know, but maybe you've got your blog set to email you when someone comments, so you'll see this. If not, well, most of what I write vanishes into the ether anyway, so what else is new?

Your "drinking age ruined the radio star" theory is a clever idea, and probably partly true. But I think it's just a contributing factor among many, including the rise of live DJ's working clubs and the generational difference in the musicians themselves.

In the year that you cite (1982), the U.S. was experiencing the Reagan Recession. Money was tight, and who needed to pay five musicians a thousand bucks when you could bring in one DJ with a stompn' sound system? You could give him $350 and he'd think he was in high cotton. Sure, the spontaneity was gone from the stage, but the music could be "perfect" and pretty much all audience requests could be fulfulled. Win-win, right? Except for the musicians.

And personally, I think there was a difference in the mindset of young musicians that was becoming apparent in the early eighties. You as a musician (and I) were the kids of WWII-era parents. The "Greatest Generation" saved the world in the 1940's, but then they set about eliminating all drama and nonconformity from their lives, focusing instead on earning money, buying homes and cars, TV's and dishwashers, and of course making babies.

Those babies, as babies will, rebelled against the gray flannel life and the carefully built social structures of their parents, and out of that rebellion grew the great music scene personified by The Beatles and others of that era. I don't need to tell you to go back and look at the old footage. You know those bands were having fun! You could hear it in their voices and see it on their faces.

By the eighties the music business had become just exactly that: a business, and a great big boring, dysfunctional one at that. Not to say you couldn't have fun playing music, but if you were a "serious" musician, fun was no longer the raison d'etre. With the economic potential so high, who wanted to play five sets a night five nights a week? What you did in those days was make demos, rehearse, and do a "showcase" maybe once a month, and only to try for a record deal. No wonder people stopped going to hear live music! It was just as canned as the demo tapes that were swirling everywhere you looked.

I quit performing in the eighties, and when I started up again a couple of years ago, I was surprised at how the scene has changed. Of course there are far fewer places to play, and -- at least in the L.A. area -- there don't seem to be any five-night gigs. But even more surprising is the fact that there are quality players who've been at it for 20 years who consider two sets and home in bed by 1 AM the norm! At my age that seems about right, but I don't think the kids know what they're missing.

On the up side, almost every venue I've been to, no matter how funky, has their own sound system. Some time in the past 25 years, club owners realized that a good PA had to be included in the cost of doing business, and thank God for that. But I digress.

If I'm right, we are in for a wave of new, hot musicians, shocking ideas, cultural intermingling and exciting performances, because there is a new generation and they will be rebelling against the mess "our" generation has made of the business, and the times, they'll be a'changin'.

If the drinking age gets lowered, all the better.


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