In April 1967 I was introduced to the music of Nina Simone by a girlfriend who insisted we buy concert tickets. The venue, Portsmouth’s Guildhall, was large but sparsely populated despite the fact that Nina was by then well-established in the USA and working through her third European tour. So, when she appeared on stage, dressed glamorously as for a big occasion, I squirmed in embarrassment at the rows of empty seats she had to face. She duly voiced her disappointment at the turnout but, despite that, made it plain that an audience is special, no matter its size, and that she was going to give us the best she had. And so she did.
I was reminded of this last Monday when I went along to a gig by another act from the USA, the 4-piece Becca Stevens Band. The venue was much smaller than the Guildhall but the audience was just as meagre. On this occasion, however, the artists politely refrained from commenting on the fact and simply set about fulfilling their side of the deal by delivering their act. The first couple of songs were intriguing and beautifully performed but I didn’t really warm to the musicians until they began to communicate with us in between their songs with some witty, bantering exchanges. They told us stories of their tour, praised us for being an appreciative audience, said nice things about our city, the venue and the beer and even apologised for the fact that their gig coincided with a very important football match. Oh – and they were so thrilled to be doing the next number because it was a cover of a song by local band, The Smiths. We were all won over: which, from the artists’ point of view, is quite crucial.
Musicians like to sell records and live performances are an important part of that process: they create a personal connection which makes it possible for them to convert casual listeners into life-long fans. And fans, as the football entertainment industry has proven, are an enduring source of income. The Becca Stevens Band, unlike Nina Simone, works at a time when sales of records are hard won in the face of copying, sharing and downloading so they need every sales technique they can muster.
Internet guru Jaron Lanier is currently arguing the case for reversing the general expectation that everything on the web should be open and freely available. Recipients of free internet stuff might balk at this idea but those, such as musicians, who provide that stuff and don’t get paid for it, will probably side with Mr. Lanier. Google’s business model illustrates the case: it takes the information about ourselves that we give it and turns it into a saleable commodity. In return it gives us free searches, calendars, email and so on but, since our information is obviously of value, should we not be able to sell it to Google and decide for ourselves what to buy with the proceeds?
I can see a future for this turn-about in our relationship with the web. It could even be applied to audiences and musicians. Suppose musicians were to pay us to attend their gigs: we could then use the payments to buy their recordings (if we so choose) and they, in return, would reap the benefit of having packed houses full of well-disposed audiences (free drinks would also help in this respect). Having paid out their own money they would, of course, be fully incentivised to put on a good show and to make the most of the opportunity to create fans by building personal rapport.
So musicians would have bigger live audiences and the prospect of steady record sales; audiences would be more likely to experience first-class performances, a bit of banter and free drinks; and Google would be transformed into an honest business at last.