Sunday, October 03, 2004

What did we get when we combined a winnebago, an election year, and 100,000 indie bands? We got smelly, very smelly. And dirty, too. The real elements of this experiment?
  1. A different set of independent bands in each city rather than one set for all cities
  2. Municipal venues (parks, amphitheaters), rather than traditional club venues
  3. Using press interest as the primary promotional vehicle.
What were the results? Twenty-five great bands. Beautiful outdoor concerts. TV cameras to film intimate crowds.

"Packaged Tours" have become increasingly more common: combining bands from different parts of the country on to one bill and trying to create a regional or national buzz. Labels of all sizes follow this model - smaller labels may actually combine more bands on a bill. The reason for this is that the costs of touring are rising, and well known bands can't even pay the bills (let alone make a profit, which is tough since touring is often a young band's only source of living). So the headlining bands extract "placement fees" from the support bands to cover the bills. Such a situation creates an exploitive centralization where the headliners extract rent from the support bands who hope to someday be tribute-receiving headliners themselves.

By contrast, GarageBand is as much local as it is independent and therefore can structure a large tour that is far more decentralized. Since bands participate on a voluntary basis, the opportunity for cooperation is much greater. In a sense, all the bands act as if there were no headliners. Economically, there isn't the same risk of taking bands to localities where they don't have a natural draw. But the potential is still there to capture the economies of scale of a larger tour (for instance, this time around we had the same sound equipment and staff travel from venue to venue). Each band band gets a smaller piece of a larger, more efficient pie.

Time was when musicians were designated members of a community: like the medic or the milk man. As with many professionals, they decreasingly have a sense of place. They used to live within community and sang songs for and about that community. With the nationalization of pop culture through outlets like MTV, the soundtrack for life in Columbus increasingly comes out of Los Angeles.

By having free concerts in public spaces, I hope ChoozaPalooza went some way towards reversing this trend. Usually these public spaces are used for high profile national touring acts, while local bands are sequestered in dark clubs. It's a hard sell to both bands and fans, but those that participated seemed universally pleased with the results. People that wouldn't have gone to a club, discovered a a new band they liked. And bands mostly saw the concert as an act of civic-mindedness (we brought in non-partisan local voter registration groups) as much as a career opportunity.

I've always been of the opinion that attendance at local events has two key drivers: the number of times and variety of ways people hear about an event. Assuming your promo material adequately speaks to the audience of the event, you compete with other events in creating the appearance that your event is the place to be. Perhaps the riskiest test of the tour was seeing if media publicity could translate into people at the shows. Considering the short time frame and small staff, we did a remarkably good job of attracting media attention. We were covered in three newspapers, two radio stations and one TV station. Measured in publicity the tour did quite well. Measured in people it did worse. The attendance at shows varied from ten to thousands, but on average it was probably less than one hundred. The good news is that we're not in the business of finding novel ways to promote local events and we can fall back on tried and true methods next year.

And yes, we do plan on next year being less smelly.