A Gonzo Report On The American Music Scene
Now, regular readers of this site might know that I’m a French music writer who recently moved to America for college. While I did spend a good chunk of my youth in America, I had spent the previous 4 years (Representing all of high school) in France. So, when I got involved in underground music, I was doing it in France, until this summer, I had never even attended a show in the good old US of A. As my time here has progressed I’ve started to realize how little I know about your scene. Here are five quirks that show my difficulty. Now, I know these generalizations don’t hold true across the country, but they are simply an attempt to document my experiences.
5. You guys are beer Nazis
As you might have surmised, I’m only 18, which means beer, and 21+ shows are not an option for me here. But here’s the thing, you might think its cut and dry, but for a guy like me it isn’t. See, I had been drinking in public and going to 18+ shows in France since I was about 15 (The drinking age in France is technically 18) So imagine my horror upon finding out you guys are nowhere near as lax with those rules. In fact, my lack of comprehension has got me in a fair bit of trouble in the past couple months. Simply put, I’m not trying to be a badass, or an asshole, I simply don’t understand.
I think part of what I don’t get is that Americans are essentially more strict about beer than they are on weed. See, when I was living in France, bands would give me free beer all the time, but in return they would ask that I help hook them up with weed. Here, bands don’t (and can’t) offer free beer usually because they would get in trouble, however I have had a few offers to be smoked up. (I don’t indulge in the magical leaf, but I appreciate the thought) This perfectly represents the sort of thing I don’t at all understand. There is a whole new set of paradigms I have to learn in regards to my favorite beverages, paradigms that put me in a position I haven’t been in for years.
Simply put, I’m essentially an alcoholic. I have something of a drinking problem that was in large part brought on by constant concert-going in high school. I know it’s probably wrong to ask bands for beer at shows – hell, it’s very wrong, but it’s how I was brought up in the scene. I personally don’t think having a drinking age works, but in the end, you have to respect the law. Most people have been cool about the drinking thing, but it’s definitely not something a European will ‘get’ for the first few months.
4. 21+ Shows Suck
Directly related to the previous point is the idea of 21+ shows. I understand that the venue needs to make their money back at the bar, but seriously? Maybe it’s just because I’m younger, and a lot of my friends are younger, but is it that hard to simply X up the hands of underage concertgoers? I feel like so many musicians and labels are always talking about how ‘kids don’t come to shows anymore.’ But don’t you think they would if you would book a show they could actually attend?
I feel like there has to be a solution here that will make everyone happy, be it wristbands, Xing up hands or something else, the American scene needs to find a way to serve alcohol at all ages shows to remain vital. Sure there are a lot of really young kids on this scene (More on that later) but most of these folks care more about the music than they care about drinking. From what I’ve observed so far, it simply alienates a lot of young fans who don’t get to see their favorite bands when they come on tour because they’re not old enough. From what I understand, most of the musicians view this is as bullshit too, suggesting that it’s the venue fault.
That being said, can you really blame them? There is nowhere near enough money being pumped into the music industry these days and everyone has to scrounge up every cent they can afford. If the United States fascistic beer laws means that shows need to be 21+ in order to make money, I guess it has to happen. Would you rather have some shows that are 21+ or no shows at all? I guess it simply reflects one of the weaker sides of the American scene. With extremely limited support for the arts in the US people have to grub for every penny they can, they simply have no choice, and that makes me extremely sad. Don’t get me wrong, there isn’t a whole lot of money in the European scene, but at least in Europe they can afford to be a bit more lax and let anyone willing to pay into their show.
3. Outside of drinking you have fewer legal limitations (And that’s both a good and a bad thing)
One of the first things that stuck out to me about music here is that you have no decibel limit. In France, where we’re limited to 105 I was often a little let down by doom metal shows which never got as loud as I wanted. Sure, occasionally mixers would try to eke out a little more, but usually they stuck pretty closely to the limit. Now that I’m in a place with no limit, I find that I enjoy shows a whole lot more. You get more of a primal sense of the music, and it’s kind of beautiful.
However, there are a couple of significant downsides to the lack of legal limitations. One that struck me is the fact that you technically don’t have a time you have to end your shows by. See, in Europe, noise regulations meant you had to stop a concert by 11, in the US, I haven’t seen any of that yet. Now, at first I thought this would be good, no more rushing to shows after school, and now I can get properly drunk at shows right?
Not so much. The thing is, in Europe, shows ending at 11 meant that after a concert I would have time to go to the bar with my friends, or, if I had school the next day, I could be curled up in bed by midnight. In America where the public transport system tends to be worse, I consider myself lucky if I didn’t have to take a taxi and am in bed by two. This is something I really don’t understand at all because in America most people working in service jobs seem to start earlier in the day than their French counterparts. So, in order for a fan to go to a show on a night before they have work, they would have to be willing to face the next day on as little as two or three hours of sleep.
Another interesting side effect of the lack of legal limitations is that in America you’re not required to have a driver, and not required to have a license for a trailer. This means that bands can tour at a much lower cost than in Europe. The driving culture in America makes it easy to hit up a dozen cities in two weeks with no more than a couple of hours of road travel each day. That being said, it also makes life a bit harder for touring bands, they get less of a chance to rest, because, first off, they only were able to leave their show at two in the morning, and now they don’t have someone to drive while they sleep in the back. While some might just call this ‘tour life’ I think that it speaks to the difficulty that America sets in the path of any band seeking to tour the country.
2. There’s a lot of very young, dedicated fans and musicians here (And it’s awesome)
As I’m writing this I’m going back to college from a show where a sixteen year old friend of mine played an acoustic set. This is the kind of thing that would be essentially unheard of in France where there is not a lot of support for musicians under the age of 18 to play shows. Yet, in America, DIY venues are a lot easier to book (And a lot more common) and you have to deal with a lot less paperwork. For me, that’s extremely cool, sure, the 21+ thing keeps a lot of younger fans from going to see more developed bands, but at least this way young kids can play shows. It’s this culture that has allowed young bands like Unlocking the Truth to do some very exciting stuff.
See, in France, I was one of the youngest people going to shows. At most shows I would be the youngest by at least two years. At this show I was just at, I was actually one of the oldest people there. Young kids can even tour in America, Noisem, one of my favorite bands, have a sixteen year old drummer! That’s the kind of thing you would never get in Europe, because, sure they might be more lax about drinking age, but there is so much more insurance stuff they have to deal with on the bands end. It’s perhaps one of the most promising things about the American scene, that you have all these kids who have never been able to see their favorite bands, and are kind of creating something on their own.
I think a large part of this wealth of young musicians comes from the fact that in America you tend to have much bigger high schools than in Europe. In America, you can go to a high school with two to three thousand kids, so it’s suddenly a lot easier to find musician kids who you can start a band with. I came from a graduating class of 63, forming a metal band could not have been more difficult, we only had two drummers in the entire grade. In other words, getting any sort of band together in that environment was extremely difficult, and older guys tend to not want to play with high schoolers. I think this, tied in with the next reason, makes it a lot easier for high schoolers to get a wealth of live experience before college.
1. Shows are so much easier to book here, and by Thor does that make me happy.
I booked a show tonight, all I did was sign my name on a calendar and now the date is mine. I have to get some bands to come, but there is no contract to sign or money to be put down up front. Sure it’s a small venue, but I can still probably make a hundred bucks off of it. There are no questions asked, and I don’t have to worry about legal trouble or insurance money. There is no cash down to make sure that the venue doesn’t get destroyed, why, you don’t even have to be 18 to book a show at a lot of these places.
As I touched on before, the much more socialized system of Europe means that there’s a lot more insurance madness that you have to deal with if you want to book a show. For my 18th birthday I decided to try booking something to celebrate, right away the venue (A 150 person venue) demanded a thousand euros down as money in case of disaster. How is a young DIY booker supposed to handle that? On the other end of the scale, the squat scene in Europe, which is actually really strong, comes with its own set of legal difficulties. A lot of these places you can be arrested just for hanging out there, which isn’t always comforting.
So, simply put, sure things may be a bit more dangerous, but that’s actually really liberating. You have so much more freedom to negotiate shows in America, you don’t have to deal with any of the madness or bullshit that dominates the European scene, but you don’t have a lot of the protection that European shows might offer. It’s an interesting set of trade offs, but as for now, I think I’m starting to appreciate the American scene a whole lot more.