Opinion: Paying Dues Still Matters For Touring Bands

I’ve always admired longevity. Track record. History. In the era of viral videos and the 24 hour news cycle (probably closer to 4-8 hours), when notoriety can be gained overnight and lead to instant stardom and commercial acclaim, I’m reminded why the proverbial paying of dues is and will always be the true currency to staying power, especially when it comes to performers who make a living baring their souls on a nightly basis in front of a live audience.

In 2020 it feels like the flavor of the week has become the flavor of the day and then maybe even two or three. But, when I look at the music that I return to on a regular basis, and in particular, the acts I continue to pay money to go see, they all share a common thread of having put in the hard work when no one was watching, literally and figuratively. The countless hours of rehearsal. The monies spent on lodging, promotion and gear. The miles traversed east and west, north and south. The half-empty venues played to where the staff outnumbers the patrons. We’ve all heard these stories of growing pains. Yet, there is inherent value in these things that ultimately lend themselves to a gradual and healthy maturation of the art.

Show me a band who relentlessly tours, picking up gigs wherever they can find them, regardless of the size of the venue or the payday and I’ll show you a band that values process and vision. They uncompromisingly stay the course and hone their craft. They nurture their talents and when their opportunity comes, they’re prepared to rise to the occasion. They go from an opener to the top of the bill, an under-attended day time festival spot on a small, out of the way stage to closing out the main stage in front of thousands.

I find a real authenticity and humility in bands who work their way up from venue to venue and who are also willing to take risks musically. I may not always like a certain direction in which they’re going, but I can appreciate their inclination to step outside what is working for them and expand their palette beyond what is already in their toolbox, especially when it may not be popular. Hello! Heard of Bob Dylan at Newport Folk Festival 1965?

This factor endears an artist to their fanbase. There is a certain risk/reward correlation for a concert goer who follows and invests in an act over a period of time. It’s like investing in a stock. Many times, and I know I can vouch for it personally, fans can recall their first experience seeing a performer to the present day and take great joy in seeing positive growth along the way. After all, there’s hardly anything better than being able say, “I was on the ground floor when I saw so and so play in this small room 10 years ago and look at where they are now, playing huge amphitheaters and arenas.”

Additionally, in the lost year that has become 2020, touring acts have had another obstacle thrown their way, a due to be paid heaped onto them through no fault of their own. The COVID-19 pandemic has largely relegated them to their couches with the rest of us. At least initially.

Performers have gotten creative in recent times in finding ways to get their music out and connect with their fanbases. Initially, we saw a number of them take matters into their own hands, broadcasting themselves on their social media platforms or through other streaming sites, but lately, there has been a savvy utilization of previously unconventional, untapped or converted spaces for live, socially distanced concerts that from all accounts have gone over well.

It will be some time before full-scale, traditional touring will return. Some analysts and promoters suggest not until the summer or fall of 2021 and maybe not until early 2022. While it may not be a cliched stepping stone or due to be paid, touring acts will certainly have this time period etched into their memories and certainly won’t take for granted (if they ever did) what it is to perform in front of a packed house to hundreds or thousands of admiring fans.

All that being said, we do occupy a space in time in which our culture prefers if not demands immediacy and now-ness (I don’t know if this is a word), but there is a merit and I would even argue a necessity for dues being paid along the way for meaningful and lasting art to be made. 

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