Remember the good old days? If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably caught yourself on more than one occasion muttering that rhetorical question while you waxed nostalgic about something or other that you could just swear was far superior ten or twenty years ago or more. Remember kerosene lamps? Those were so much better than compact fluorescent bulbs. And do you recall how great eight-track tapes were? Man, you just can’t get that kind of warmth and resonance from an MP3. And what about smallpox? Wasn’t that just the coolest disease? Ah, the good old days…
I’ll let you in on a little secret: The good old days never existed. They’re an ever-shifting, mythological epoch that we invent to make ourselves feel better about getting older. Sure, we might not have the vitality, creative energy, good looks and promising futures of the young people who threaten us, but didn’t we have it so much better than they do?
As far as I can tell, nowhere is the rearview, good-old-days phenomenon more prevalent than in the music world. I’ve heard people of my parents’ generation talk about how much more original and meaningful music was in the ’50s and ’60s, and I’ve heard twenty-somethings get downright poetic about the superiority of music in the ’90s. Both groups use surprisingly similar language and both sound equally absurd. Everyone knows the ’50s and ’60s had just as many prefabricated one-hit-wonders and marginally talented stars as they had true musical geniuses. And for every Jeff Buckley or Pearl Jam of the ’90s, you can point to Billy Ray Cyrus and Deep Blue Something.
I had the great fortune this week of hearing Barry Fey, a man I revere and idolize, speak about the history and future of live music. In many ways, you can credit Fey for putting Denver on the map, convincing touring bands to stop here between Chicago and L.A., creating a buzz and excitement about live music in this town, without which we probably wouldn’t have the rich, vital and active scene that first inspired this column. There are many reasons to be grateful to this pioneering promoter who sat on a panel this week at the Tivoli Student Union that also included Planet Bluegrass’s Craig Ferguson, Monolith’s Matt Fecher, LiveNation’s Peter Ore and Brian Nevin, drummer of Big Head Todd and the Monsters.
Fey spent a lot of his panel time sharing the lessons he learned and insights he gained from his decades of supporting and promoting live music in Denver. And he also spent a lot of time in the good-old-days machine. He decried the lack of loyalty and humanity in today’s music business. And he blamed skyrocketing ticket prices (mostly for superstar shows like Madonna and the Rolling Stones) not on bloated, inefficient corporate bureaucracy, but instead on greedy artists. And in all of this, he lamented the death of live music, calling for a revolution to revitalize a morally bankrupt industry and reinject some of the altruistic spirit he feels pervaded the music business in the ’60s, ’70s and even ’80s.
Maybe the Rolling Stones are greedy, and maybe they aren’t. Maybe Madonna is robbing her fans blind without a thought, and maybe she isn’t. It really doesn’t matter. Two things, however, absolutely matter and are absolutely certain: 1) things have changed, and 2) live music is very much alive and well. As for the first assertion, it would be naïve to pretend that the corporatization of the music business hasn’t brought with it some fairly violent and deleterious consequences. On the other hand, the means of music production and distribution have become so much more accessible to so many more people that the process of creating and disseminating music is completely different, and countless new avenues and opportunities have opened up.
When Fey was jumpstarting things with venues like the legendary Rainbow Music Hall, you probably could have rattled off the names of every band that had put out a record that year, and those bands could probably have named every venue available to them from coast to coast. Only a select few artists could even make a record, build a fan base and tour. And, at that time, those artists could count on making a few bucks by selling their records and another few bucks by touring. After all, when Judas Priest or Miles Davis played the Rainbow, they weren’t competing with a dozen other shows going on in Denver on that same night.
And that brings me to the second point: Live music is alive and well. Sure, we have superstars who spend millions on their recordings and tours, and who gouge $400 out of their loyal fans for a concert ticket, but these people are an irrelevant minority that say nothing about the state of affairs. Today, thanks to technology and the disguised blessing of financial constraints, musicians can make records, distribute them and build a fan base in true DIY fashion. On almost any night of the week in Denver, these musicians – motivated not by greed, but by the basic artistic desire to be heard – leave their blood, sweat, tears, free CDs, t-shirts, stickers, buttons, condoms and souls on the unassuming stages of dozens of venues throughout the city. And a fan doesn’t need an eight ball, a bottle of Jack or D cups to get backstage either. All you need is a smile – and maybe the four-dollar cover charge – for the opportunity to stand shivering and snickering on a sidewalk in front of the club with staggeringly talented artists who might never achieve the status of Madonna or the Rolling Stones, but who are every bit as deserving of respect, admiration and adulation.
As I listened to the panel’s insightful analysis of live music’s past and future, I found myself desperately wanting to take Barry Fey out for a night of live music at some of Denver’s fantastic clubs to see what it’s really all about. With more bands, venues and fans than ever, these are truly exciting times for live music in Denver. While some pine for simpler days and older ways, we know the truth – a truth that Carly Simon announced back in 1971 and that’s no less true today: these are the good old days.
– Eryc Eyl