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Recently I tried handing out flyers for a show I was promoting and was told to leave several places. This incident left me scratching my head about the state of affairs in DIY music. I’m don’t usually get involved in discussions about scene politics, but this incident got me thinking about flyers and it got me thinking about the way venues operate as a business in Denver. Believe it or not both of these elements of music are changing rapidly.
For our readers who aren’t familiar with the Denver music scene, that’s OK, you can still relate to my point if you are involved with any aspect of live music and I can easily explain the whole scenario. Let’s say that you owned a club. You book the bands, you make the drinks, you even sweep the floors. Let’s say that somebody opens up their own club right across the street from your club. Would you let that rival club advertise in front of your club? You might be forced to put up with it because of legal reasons. But you could (if you wanted to) make it very hard for them. Would you let them hang up flyers for their shows in your club? There is no easy answer. It’s a tough spot to be in for all parties – for the bands it means a kind of cronyism and favoritism has become the norm. For the club owners it is a gray area of civic morality.
But before we get into that – let’s talk about flyers. I love flyers. For as long as there has been live music, there has been an accompanying element of advertising to go with it: posters, flyers and paper leaflets. This ephemera has been produced for decades in the form of handbills, wheat pasting, photocopied flyers, or elaborate multi-colored screen-printed posters. Originally a simple tool of promotion, music advertising has taken on a life of it’s own and has become a legitimate art form that is both lucrative and well respected. Art and punk go hand in hand. This is not up for debate. Those of you that openly poo-poo art must realize its importance in the grand scheme of things. Without art, punk wouldn’t exist.
Before I even heard punk music I was captivated by the artwork and the aesthetic of the genre. When I was 9 years old, I moved to Trenton, New Jersey, which was home to a club named City Gardens. One of my earliest memories of punk rock is being at a grocery store on North Olden Avenue with my parents in 1985 and seeing a group of leather clad, spikey haired Quincy punks. They had colorful hair and strange, hand painted lettering on their jackets. They had spikes and chains and they made a lot of noise when they walked. Like any kid growing up in the 80’s, I was told that punks were stupid morons and that I should stay away from them. These early punks gave me an impression of their movement that may or may not have been true to the form. But in a way, City Gardens had a boom effect on our local area and probably influenced my life as much as mainstream top 40 radio and MTV did. What I’m trying to say is that I knew what punk looked like before I heard it, and that says something about the art and the form.
Because of the proximity of City Gardens to my house, the artwork those second wave of punk bands produced for their shows seeped into my life at an early age. I can remember getting handbills for 7 Seconds and The Dickies shows in the late 80’s. I remember seeing crazy, edgy band names on elaborate black & white flyers filled with detailed line drawings and hand-made fonts. One thing was sure – it wasn’t just posturing. Punk was dangerous. The names of the bands were dangerous. The art was dangerous. The shows were dangerous. The crude artwork showed decapitated soldiers and half-naked women with machine guns. It was violent and out of control when compared to the tame artwork of popular bands of the time like Whitesnake or Yaz. Yaz wasn’t confrontational. Whitesnake thought that overt sexuality was confrontational. How ridiculous. Punk had it’s own category of music during the 80’s, a hard won separation from new wave and heavy metal which was largely driven by art. If we ask ourselves – What makes a record punk? Sometimes the cover art alone is enough to make that judgement call.
I found out some years later that even going to City Gardens was dangerous. Those black and white photocopied flyers represented a hidden element of society to me, something that I wanted to explore and make sense of. I naively assumed it could be made sense of. How foolish of me. But it was a great stepping-stone. The artwork is what drew me in, but it was the music and the people that made me want to stay.
In the past decade, several books have been published that chronicle the rise of punk art and attempt to document its wide influence. While the coffee-table art flyer books are being assembled and printed, the artwork itself is still being created, still being manipulated by new generations of kids. Perhaps this is a testament to the longevity of the art form, as well as an indication of how art serves musicians as one of their best utilities. In 1987, if you told me that the Dead Kennedys would one day have their artwork hanging in a museum, I would have laughed in your face. In 2014, I find myself standing in line at those same museums and wondering how I got there. We can’t ignore the relationship between music and art anymore, and we shouldn’t try to push it under the rug.
Promotional posters from the 1960’s
The irony of punks who hate art is lost on a current generation of kids who can’t even connect the dots between generations of musicians. People that hate art and throw around SSD and Meatmen lyrics as a philosophical girth (and proof that art sucks) just amuse me. I admire their devaluation of the art world, but I think it’s kind of sad that they miss the point. SSD talked shit about art, but then turned around and hired one of the most famous underground artists of the 80’s to draw the cover of their second LP. They hated the idea of formal art but then paid for it. In the end, they used art just like every other band out there. Hating art doesn’t make you immune to its power.
Just like music, art can be (and should be) made by everyone, for everyone. You don’t have to study Albrecht Dürer to make a decent looking line-drawn flyer. You don’t have to study shading and form before you draw a skinhead moshing with a large sledgehammer. Everyone making music in the current digital age needs to understand that art serves music, not the other way around. Similarly, art can’t be blamed for the cheapness and blandness of modern punk.
The advertising element of live music can produce a ton of controversy and has invoked the wrath of many musicians. But I love flyers and gig posters. I am in love with limited edition prints. With folded up, handwritten flyers. With gigantic, wall-sized posters. With doodles, with hand-written set lists. I love all of it and can’t seem to get enough of it. I collect flyers and prints now more than I collect vinyl records. Our house has tubes filled with artwork, we are like insane art collectors only we’re not after a rare Picasso, instead we’re after an original Dischord handbill or an unfolded Rock Hotel original.
There is, of course, an opposing viewpoint that says music advertising is evil and useless and banal. I’m don’t disagree with the sentiment of that viewpoint, but I also know that historically advertising can be used for good. If you’re not using it for good, then you’re doing it wrong. When I hear people ranting about the uselessness of music advertising, I often scratch my head. People have been using art as a promotional tool for creative work since Shakespeare’s time. A hand-drawn poster for MacBeth at the Globe Theater is not much different than a hand-drawn poster for Annihilation Time live at 924 Gilman Street.
Anytime you are organizing a public event (whether it be music, art, food, theatre) your goal is often to attract as many people as possible. Art is a good way to do this because it is a visual representation that people can instantly connect to. It worked for Shakespeare, it worked for Youth Brigade, and it continues to work for bands all across the world. If you think advertising is a modern invention, some cultural sign-of-the-times, then it’s time to crack open a history book. People have written on paper and walls since the dawn of man, and the act of doing so for profit doesn’t change the fact that it’s still art and it’s still a necessary evil. But my point is: it doesn’t have to be evil.
Some punk writers like Aaron Cometbus and Michael Azerrad have documented the process and feelings involved in flyering. When I say the word “flyering” I’m talking about the physical act of handing out these photocopied papers to strangers. I’m talking about the learned craft that goes into leaving stacks of papers in public places without being noticed. These two authors specifically describe the pure vandalism that goes into the act of flyering. When you’re out there handing out flyers to strangers – the people, places and conversations are very real. Anyone that has played in a band has surely seen or participated in the act of flyering. Hopefully they have. It’s a crucial part of music marketing. If you’ve never made a flyer or gone flyering, I hope that you will appreciate the craft for what it is. It’s not easy, but it can be fun and rewarding.
Here in Denver, I’m involved with a small collective of people who put on and promote DIY shows. Because we can. Because we want to encourage growth. Because we want to support the artistic endeavors of our friends and colleagues. Because we like hanging around dark dive bars with wood paneling on Wednesday nights. A few months ago, we put on a showcase with bands and artists. The show was at a bar, so it was restricted to people 21 and up. I would much prefer to have events at all-ages venues, but lately this has become a complicated issue. That’s a whole other rant in itself. At any rate, we produced 500 flyers for this show, which is actually a pretty small run. I was in charge of distribution, a duty that I both love and respect. The act of flyering makes me happy. It reminds me of other shows I have played, other venues I have visited, and serves to remind me of new friends and friends that are long gone.
Not to get all “old man” or anything, but when I was in high school, flyering for our teenage punk and hardcore matinees was easy. In high school, basically everyone you know is already congregated in two or three places. You simply handed out flyers to your friends and acquaintances. You accepted their enthusiasm or their petty snickering as par for the course. Later on, flyering took on a whole new meaning. It meant driving to places you were unfamiliar with. It meant talking to strangers and out-of-place kids that looked vaguely homeless. It meant instant gratification. It also meant instant disappointment as you watched people walk down the street crumbling up your precious artwork. But it didn’t make me mad to see people rip up my work. Instead, it made me fight harder.
I know what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking, “Yeah, but people don’t need to make flyers because of the internet.” And of course the inevitable, “You can do all of this on Facebook.” But, it’s not that simple. Yes, Facebook allows you to list events. You can design your own art for this “event”. It also allows you to “invite” people, but you can only invite people if you “know” them. Therein lies the problem. If you have ever put on any kind of public event, a show, a gallery opening, a seminar (doesn’t matter what kind, so long as you want people to attend) you may discover this the hard way.
When I’m setting up an event, I aim to attract outliers. I want to attract the kind of people who are putting on their own events, playing in their own bands. Facebook, by design, pretty much stomps all over this ideal and erases those people from my view due to the way their advertising and profit structure is set up. Those with the most money will purchase the best-placed ads – therefore people with money will be seen and heard before anyone else is. The problem with Facebook events is that they echo the exact same model of traditional paper flyering without any of the benefits of meeting actual, random people and talking to them face to face. The only people you end up reaching are the people you know in your network, plus the random people you accost on the street. Facebook ought to improve this operating condition by design, but it doesn’t.
Recent examples of flyer making. Left flyer by Hightower, right flyer by Bill Hauser.
Facebook can actually keep people away from your event. For example, let’s say you make a public event and twenty people say they are attending. It’s a wild show, filled with passionate bands that YOU love. Let’s say that ten of those twenty people invite their friends (a rare occurrence) and keep posting about how excited they are (an even rarer occurrence) and manage to attract some attention. Someone outside of that group may look at the event page and think to themselves, “Hey. Only twenty people are going to this. It cannot possibly be any good if that few people are going.” This counter may become their indicator. If it is low, they may assume you don’t know what the hell you are doing, or may assume the bands all suck. Bottom line: if they are judging your event based on the amount of people going to the show, you have already lost.
I know people who will sift through Facebook events, cherry picking through the list of people going to a show. They will comb over the very public record of people who have agreed to attend. They will determine if they are going to your show based on this list – based on who else is attending. They will turn your show into a popularity contest. So in this case, it’s not the quantity of warm bodies attending, but the quality or the exclusivity of the attendees themselves. These ladder-climbing vermin are in every form of art and usually only attend events that they deem to be “cool” based on this completely arbitrary (and often made up) information.
If you listen closely, you can actually hear this chatter in the dark corners of clubs. I know I have. It goes something like this…..“Hey Becky Slugworth is going to see Autistic Youth on Saturday night. Maybe we should go too”. If you play in a band, you will meet these types eventually, provided you haven’t already. Some of the healthiest and most productive advice I can offer you is to completely ignore these types (and their negative vibe) and to carry on like they aren’t even there.
As far as Facebook events are concerned, I tend to think a lot of the metrics are simply bullshit. For example, I have friends that will click “I’m going” to every single event that they are invited to. Some of them never show up. Some of these folks never leave their houses. Basically what I’m saying is that the counter is no indicator of the amount of attendees. I have friends in South Dakota who are apparently going to every show in Austin. Facebook data is easily manipulated and fabricated, and that’s why it’s unreliable.
Facebook doesn’t want to admit that their user base may be using their system factiously, nor do they report statistics on the matter. How could they? How would they know who has filled in data simply to fill it in (in a hurry) or who has lied about their location? How can they tell when an account is a dummy account, a proverbial “slug” account, and when it is real? They can’t make that distinction. They can’t ever know, and that’s why all metrics on Facebook are simply unreliable.
Promoting your band or show on Facebook is an odd beast in itself, one that takes patience and dedication. One of the most popular sentiments about social media these days is in the form of a complaint. People constantly eye-roll and complain about the endless, aggressive self-promotion that goes on. Those people should realize that Facebook is an Internet platform made for promotion. That’s the whole point. It’s a closed-loop of narcissistic bullshit. Everyone is self-promoting. Some people are promoting their T-shirt company or their hobby. Others are promoting their favorite bands or social causes. Some people are just posting pictures of cats or food.
To me, these Facebook scenarios are unwelcome. Yes, Facebook can expose you to new audiences and people. But it can also limit that exposure; can taint the very pool that you are trying to swim inside of. Traditional paper flyering avoids all this nonsense and instead offers a level playing field. These days, I will make Facebook event pages, but I also spend time making and distributing my own paper flyers just as I have done for years.
I think there is something special about making a flyer. Something that can’t be replicated digitally. So much of your personality and your style can come through on that flyer, it often speaks volumes about YOU and your band, and that is something that Facebook cannot ever hope to quantify or codify. For instance, the font you choose. The copywriting that you come up with, the stylized lettering and underlined information. The rub-on letters matter. The paper you choose to print on matters. The colors (or lack thereof) matter. All of these things speak to your audience louder than any goofy computer “invitation” could ever do. How is your band going to get the attention of a truly unique audience by using cookie-cutter tools and WYSIWYG styling? Protip: You’re not. You’re not going to get their attention at all.
Examples of photocopied flyers from the 1980’s
When you’re out there flyering in person, handing someone a piece of paper – you’re getting instant, authentic feedback. On Facebook, most of the feedback you get is often snarky attempts at humor or some kind of prolonged, absurd inside joke. Or you get no response at all. None of these responses are helpful in terms of attracting an audience. That goes back to my point about WHO Facebook reaches. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t want to reach the jerks I already know. I want to reach out to new jerks. Jerks that I haven’t already met. I might not even care if they are jerks, so long as they take my flyer and they smile and they stuff it in their shirt pocket.
For me, flyering has changed significantly over the last ten years. It’s changed for a variety of reasons, some of those reasons are hard to pin down and identify. The artwork is now as diverse and complex as ever. The paper sizes have changed. The methods of making flyers have changed. The people change. All kinds of trends have come and gone in that last decade, but I have noticed that one thing has remained constant: there are less and less places to flyer every year.
I hate to compare and contrast New Jersey with Colorado in terms of flyering and DIY music, because they are two very different markets, so it’s really unfair to offer any kind of comparison. But I will say this: As teenagers, we would leave stacks on flyers in every record store, in every venue and coffee shop we could find, and nobody seemed to care. We would staple them to telephone poles. We would hand them out on the street. We would leave them in other venues. We would lay them down nicely in stacks of twenty at clothing stores, bagel shops and record store. That’s all changed now. This behavior is no longer welcome.
The first time I realized that something was changing was 2008. I was walking around Fort Collins (a mid-sized college town in Northern Colorado) with a small stack of half-size flyers and a handful of 11 × 17 posters for a show I was putting on with some friends. A new bike shop had just opened, I didn’t know much about it other than the fact that it also served beer and sandwiches. So I wandered into this place and had a look around. It was pretty classy for a bike shop, and they had a huge bulletin board with flyers on it. HA! I thought. Awesome. I walked over to the bulletin board and pulled out my thumbtacks (Rule #1: Always bring your own tape and thumbtacks) and found a nice clear spot. Suddenly, as I’m pinning this poster to the wall, a man comes up behind me and asks me what I’m doing.
“What do you got there?” He asked.
“Just a flyer for this show.” I said. “Is it OK if I hang it here?” I asked nicely.
“Well let me see….” The guy said as he examined the artwork.
“It’s on May fifth…” I said.
“Well…” The guy said. “You can hang it up. You can hang all of them up. But the moment you leave, I’m going to tear them all down.” He said sternly.
Confused, I asked him if there was a problem.
“There’s no problem,” he said. “Except that we have shows here. Your show is at another bar. We don’t promote that bar.” He said.
“OK, but you promote local music and a bunch of your employees go to this other bar. We know a few of them. Met them up in mountains one time on a camping trip” I said, thinking it would at least shut him up.
“I don’t care.” He said. “We don’t want their posters hanging in our venue.” He said.
“This is a venue?” I asked
“Yeah, we have shows over there” he said as he turned and pointed towards a darkened corner of the shop that had a small riser and a rinky-dinky PA system.
“OK.” I said. “Good to know. I was not aware of that.” I finished, gathering up my thumbtacks and flyers.
“No you can leave your poster. Let’s see how long it will stay up before someone rips it down!” He said, grinning.
“That’s OK – Never mind.” I said as I grabbed my stuff and left.
This was an important turning point for my flyering because it was the first time this had ever happened. Coffee shops that had acoustic singer-songwriters once a month were now “venues”. Bike shops that had an open-mic night were now calling themselves “venues”. Open rooms on second floor lofts next to Spanish speaking dentists offices were now “venues.” Needless to say, this got old very fast.
Over time, the venue owners became investors in other businesses, such as bowling alleys, burrito joints and pizza places. And guess what – you are not allowed to flyer there. These businesses perceived my flyering as a conflict of interest. Bands and customers didn’t seem to care, nor did they even seem to know who owned what venues or bars. So this kind of cronyism started to develop in lock step with the personal growth of these various individuals and their businesses. It is a weird monopoly of both attention spans and advertising that is held over the heads of every band in Denver. Pretty soon, even standing in front of other venues to flyer became off limits. Even though you’re standing on a public sidewalk, they feel they have the right to ask you to leave. Everything started to change because suddenly, for some reason, everyone wanted in to the venue game.
Think Fast, a DIY band from Arizona, sets up their merch table at The Seventh Circle Music Collective.
Last week I began flyering in a different part of the city for this showcase, and as usual, I was pretty excited to get out there and get started. I got my flyers printed up, got my posters stored in a nice flat corrugated box and hit the pavement.
The first place I went was an independent bookstore, formerly a bastion of the DIY community. I was disappointed to read their sign that said “Sorry. We no longer allow the posting of handbills of flyers” and left. Keep in mind that this business is widely lauded as the best independent record store in Denver. The second place I went was a DIY coffee shop that is run by ex-punks. It was out of business with a “for lease” sign hanging above the doorway. I wandered into a medium size art gallery and was told that they don’t allow flyers anymore.
On a Thursday afternoon, I headed down Broadway with my stack of flyers. The first place I stopped was Sputnik, a bar and hip eatery. They have always maintained a healthy attitude towards local music and had a table filled with flyers. I walked in and looked around. The table was now clear, devoid of all handbills. I wandered over to the bar and asked the bartender what was going on.
“Hey”, I said. “I’ve got these flyers for a show that I’d like to leave on the table.”
“Yeah” The bartender said. “The thing is – we kind of cleaned that table up.” He said calmly. “Customers sit there now.” He finished.
“Hmm.” I said. “Can I tape it to the back wall or?” I asked nicely.
“Well you can leave them on the table. But uh, just leave like, a few of them.” He coughed. “Somebody might come by and take them though.” He said.
At least he was being honest. I thanked him for the info and for being so nice about it, then dropped off maybe 10 or 15 flyers at the upper corner of this table. I knew somebody (his boss probably) would come by and take them, probably dump them into the nearest trashcan. But that’s the price of flyering. You’re competing with other people that are flyering AND you’re competing with other venues.
When I say flyering has changed over time, I guess the easiest way to present that argument is as follows. When I started flyering, the worse thing that could happen was somebody wouldn’t take the flyer. They would walk right past you and stare at the ground. For whatever reason, they kept walking. These days, when I hit the sidewalk, there are people out there who control my access to other people. These folks aim to keep me from flyering and want to ensure that their people don’t receive my flyer. There are literally people out there who have the job of keeping you away from their audience. It’s crazy.
In some way, it feels like private citizens are not allowed to engage with the public anymore unless we’re in a public setting. The trouble is, to some degree, public settings keep shrinking and disappearing and nobody seems to be noticing this or discussing it. If they are discussing it, I’m certainly not hearing it. One could easily argue that we have less civic gatherings now than at any other point in American history. Year after year research studies show that Americans are less and less involved in their own civic communities than ever before. This is alarming. We have less common areas and less exposure to our own neighbors than ever before. Everywhere I go in my daily commute, I am confronted with this reality. As public areas shrink and homes are built farther and farther away from population centers, the community as a whole suffers.
Hand-drawn promotional flyers.
Club owners and downtown shops claim that all of their defensive actions are the result of a standoff. That standoff defends their business areas from predators and the homeless. The homeless population of Denver is quite large and you definitely notice its presence as you travel through town. The homeless in Denver have caused problems, many of them well documented by the local news media. But telling someone they can’t stand in front of a venue seemed like overkill. I’m not naïve enough to expect these businesses to allow every Tom, Dick and Harry post handbills all over their walls. However, at the same time, they should at least admit to themselves that they are contributing to the decline of the artistic diversity within the city. Some of them might be directly responsible for the erosion of the scene they claim to treasure and support. They also might want to examine their cronyism and understand how it is alienating a whole generation of fans and bands.
At the same time that this is happening, I’ve also noticed a similar trend of disappearing public space popping up in other areas of life. Skateboarding is now illegal in walking areas and other formerly public areas. I overheard an argument a few months ago at one of those ridiculous outdoor lifestyle centers (read: an outdoor mall) between young skaters and some rent-a-cops. The young kids with skateboards visibly disturbed the police. Did you ever notice that these kinds of encounters rarely go smoothly? For whatever reason, skateboarding and police just don’t click.
“You guys can’t skate here!”, a surly, mustached cop said to the kids.
“Yes we can, it’s a public sidewalk.” I heard a tall punk kid say.
I cringed inside, knowing that he was wrong.
“This whole mall is private property.” The other cop said.
“Even the streets?” A frumpy skater asked defiantly.
“Even the streets.” He responded.
The rental cops are right. The entire “town” area is not a public space at all, but rather, a highly controlled corporate area. If you look closely, you can notice the details of this environment. First and foremost, there are video cameras everywhere. The plants and trees all have speakers that play gentle Muzak at all hours of the day. How quaint. Development companies are now in the habit of not just buying up physical space, but the accompanying areas, streets, sidewalks and fountains that surround their retail environments.
How is the privatization, or (if you will) the de-public-ifying of America being addressed? What conversations are being formed around this ideal? What constructive criticism is being voiced at community centers and in government offices? I certainly hope that they are voices that are being heard, because streets that are owned by private corporations are not streets. I digress.
A lot of the medium sized venues in Denver are not serving the public. Instead they are turning bands away, telling them they can’t play. They are more interested in making money than they are in supporting their local economy. They would rather book a national touring band than book an up-and-coming local band. I’m concerned about the younger bands that are trying to get ahead in this town. What’s going to happen when their creativity is repeatedly stifled and repressed? What are they going to say about your shopping center or your venue after hearing years of negative comments from their friends? After years of being told “get away from here”, what will their impression of your venue be?
I guess my point for the venues is that music is very cyclical. The kids that are now being turned away and told they can’t / we don’t want you / go away / etc. are going to grow up. And when they are grown up, they’re going to remember just how shitty your venue was to them and they might not ever set foot inside again. Venues need to realize that they may have lost a large swath of kids as future consumers for life by turning their bands away. By not cooperating towards a larger goal, your venue might actually be burying financial and social time bombs within your own audience. To be honest I don’t understand the full mechanics of how competition plays out for business. But I do know that if you’re in the music business and you’re working hard to suppress others who are, you’re probably an asshole.
Can I take a flyer for a show at The Mutiny Information Café and bring it across the street to the Hi-Dive and hang it in their hallway? There seems to be a lot of argument about this. I’m not sure what the answer is, because I’ve been told yes and no at different times by different people. I’m not saying that venue owners are fools for protecting their own branding and looking out for their own wallets. I’m saying that they should fully take part in the local community and not be threatened by competition. Cooperation shows maturity. Suppressing local art to maintain the perception of your brand loyalty shows uh…selfishness.
I understand that venue owners don’t want to lend a hand to their competition. That makes sense. Pepsi doesn’t want Coke in the Pepsi machine, sure. OK. I get it. However. Both companies sell soft drinks; both belong to a larger group of beverage retailers. Both depend on a consumer base that wants soda. Both belong to both civic and political organizations that both further and hinder their individual balance sheets. But without a larger goal, the end result of this scenario that is that both companies will stand alone and may eventually be forced to drink each others blood to survive.
I ran a DIY venue for almost two years. I learned the hard way. The truth is that a venue’s version of charity should be loyalty to its own local community; to the very people it wishes to serve. If the venue has a healthy civic community around it, it will last. It will already have a built in support system in place of consumers who genuinely give two shits when the venue falls on hard times. I just don’t see this happening now. When a venue closes in Colorado, there are no sad eulogies, no last minute benefit shows to collect money to pay the landlord, there are no outcries and in fact, nobody even seems to give a shit. This is sad. I have a loyalty to venues like the ones I grew up with, places like City Gardens and Coney Island High. It’s hard to describe that loyalty but I cared about even perceived threats to these places. Those venues felt like home turf to my friends and I, we fought and bled for those places. I don’t see anyone fighting for anything here, and I certainly don’t see anyone giving a shit about the venues.
I’m not saying that venues shouldn’t be “in-it-to-win-it” so to speak. I’m fine with money making and profiteering, but not when it comes at the expense of the bands or the audience. Denver’s music problem is clear: there are too many venues, not enough bands and not enough audience. Therefore the venues get their pick of the liter and tend to dictate protocol. It should be the other way around. Many other music cities (Portland, Washington DC, San Diego, Austin, Minneapolis) have a reversal of this situation where the artists outweigh the profiteers, and so those cities tend to have healthier, vibrant arts communities. Think about places like Washington D.C. and the 9:30 club, that’s a great example of a venue that serves its locals well. That venue is an established institution. They are well respected within the community BECAUSE they respect and foster their creative class.
Much like Brahmanism in India during the seventh century, the music scene in Denver is a community of communities. It is made up of micro groups. There is no “Denver music scene” at large, but there are a hundred different scenes, each comprised of roughly two hundred to four hundred people. To me, this is our strength, not our weakness, despite what some will have you believe. Denver is not Austin, nor is it any other place, so making absurd comparisons between American cities is a waste of time. Let’s not make the mistake of falling into that trap, what with the finger pointing and the made-up-statistics. We don’t need to. Those of us who live in Denver know exactly how the music scene operates here. We know that word of mouth is powerful. We know that who-you-know is often more important than what you do or say. In fact many of us have found out than saying something (anything) can be bad. With that in mind, we make flyers on Xerox machines and for Tumblr with the same intent: we want to encourage new people to get involved in our artistic mess.
In terms of being a music city, Denver’s other problem is its remoteness. It’s pretty much a self-contained island in the middle of the Mountain Time zone. Lots of bands and touring acts choose to skip over the Denver market because of the time commitment getting in and out of the city. It’s a long drive and a lonely flight, and there are not many places to go once you’re here. The exclusivity clause that many venues in Denver impose on touring bands just serves to demoralize the bands even further.
Denver. Certainly not the last dinosaur on the American landscape.
A few months ago some friends and I escorted The Subhumans UK through Colorado and it was interesting to hear what they had to say about Denver. I spent the day working for them and just hanging out. As a British band, they had a unique take on Colorado, one that is not often shared in the local media. After picking them up at the airport and taking them to dinner, we learned that they really had an affinity for Denver and had had great success playing here in the past. In fact their show at The Marquee was packed and they sold every single T-Shirt they brought with them. But again, the band was discouraged from playing here due to the remoteness and were confused about the cronyism that rules over the city. I went home that night wondering about our state of affairs again. Why aren’t people here working to attract bands – to make it easier? Instead of making Denver more attractive, some of our greatest, most powerful assets within music seem to be hell bent on keeping bands out. It doesn’t make much sense to me.
This whole rant is supposed to be about flyering, but it’s easy to get caught up in all the side-debates about shows and performances here. As venue owners and adults, we need to remember that disenfranchised, bullied and weird kids are drawn to music because it empowers them. Punk tells them that they don’t need their parents’ approval to write a song. Hardcore tells them that they don’t need a lawyer and ASCAP membership to put out a record. Underground Hip-Hop tells them that they don’t need to invest in fancy turntables or dress in head-to-toe Gucci to be successful.. We ought to be holding these ideals up in the way that we operate businesses. It’s natural to assume that many young musicians want to connect to a wider audience (despite what rhetoric they toss around) so it’s kind of sad to see them not achieve that, year after year. DIY gives young people permission to do whatever they want, musically, socially and artistically.
If there is one thing corporate interests have accomplished it is squashing this empowerment of the kids. I don’t hear or see too many wild-eyed kids anymore. I don’t see young people at shows challenging the status quo, and it’s not because I’m older or because I’m not listening. Believe me, I hear a lot of voices in this community. Probably more than I want to hear.
Here’s another quick side story to illustrate what I mean. A few years ago I met a young kid who was 17 years old, the singer of a local Denver band. They are a five-piece screamo metal-core band with a moderate sized following. They told me about their attempts to get shows with a local promoter to no avail. The singer told me about their success online, measuring the sales of their digipack CD and downloads as a guide to figure out more about their audience. He told me about shows that they were offered, opening slots for national touring bands where they had to sell their own tickets, where they didn’t get paid, where they showed up and were told they couldn’t play. I got mad. I don’t even like screamo and I got mad. I took it personally because I don’t like to see young kids in bands getting ripped off.
The screamo band told me about the rare occasions when they were offered an opening slot, even then they rarely made money. I was bummed to hear that the local promoters took total advantage of these kids by making them sell tickets to their own shows, or by not paying them, or even by (gasp) pay to play. The later of which is truly the most horrifying thing ever for a band. This occurs when a venue asks you to open for a larger, touring band and then requests YOU to pay them. I shouldn’t have to be the one who calls bullshit on this principle but I will. Let me be clear: “pay-to-play” is robbery. It’s not good for bands and it’s not good for the city. The greedy schemes that these venues come up with are simply astonishing.
The horror stories of this screamo band reminded me of my own tribulations in this city. A few years ago I played a show at a national-friendly venue where all the bands were forced to purchase at least one sandwich. It was absurd. At another venue across town, I played a show with four other bands. The venue posted a young girl at the front door. Her job was to collect door money and to ask each and every person coming in the door a question. “Who are you here to see?” When the payee responded, she was instructed to write down the name of the band. The venue later used this information to pay the bands. Somehow they estimated which band provided them the greatest value (read: the most paying customers) and then rewarded them accordingly. They paid the bands according to this handwritten list. Don’t even ask me how they did the math because it still doesn’t make sense to me. What about the people who came to see two bands? What about the people who were just there to drink beer? Their information was not measured and not accounted for, but the venue doesn’t care. They only care about maximizing their profit through ticket sales, drink sales and the occasional forced roast beef sandwich.
Money is important to any artist. It allows them to continue making art. When a band gets paid, they usually use that money to pay for recording or mastering, for a tour van, for new instruments or for the raw materials that they can use to make merchandise with. They typically reinvest the money in the arts. When a band doesn’t get paid – they don’t produce as much material. They leave behind less music, less stories and less of a legacy. When bands are forced to use their own money for these “luxuries”, everyone in the community suffers. We present a weaker face to other music cities like Austin or Nashville when we neglect our assets and exploit them. What I’m saying is simple: A scene that doesn’t pay its bands is a scene with weak bands.
The people who run the larger concert venues do not want their precious monies to stop flowing into their bank accounts, and at the same time do not want to book local bands or give kids a chance. Therefore bands and artists are forced to do their own thing, which is fine. This is actually great news. The dizzying multitude of DIY micro-scenes within Colorado are thriving. They are perfectly healthy and remain a viable alternative to the structured entertainment presented by corporate America. The greatest threat to the corporate entertainment structure isn’t DIY music but perhaps the disappearance of their core audience. Where are these kids? Where did they go? I don’t have the answer to that question but it’s assumed that they are at home, eating microwave snacks and playing video games.
If corporate entertainment structures wish to engage or recapture this cross-cut of young concert goers, perhaps they should try not treating them like dog shit. That’s just my opinion. Because on any given night in Denver, you can choose to go to a national venue or a DIY venue. Thank god we have that choice. In many other American cities, they don’t have a choice. In Denver, kids can choose to go to The Seventh Circle Music Collective, a volunteer-run DIY space (where they can meet other creative young folks and engage with them socially for $3) or they can choose to go to a venue run by Clear Channel, where those same kids will be frisked and searched and sequestered to a small area near the women’s bathroom with strange plastic bracelets attached to them.
For the record I’m extremely satisfied with the DIY scene in Denver and would describe it one of the healthiest scenes that I’ve ever experienced. Ever. This is not a complaint. But we can’t ignore the disappearance of the core audience of younger bands and artists. And we shouldn’t sit back and let executives tell us how and when to be creative. If young bands can’t flyer in public, and they can’t open for touring acts and they can’t even get into the shows, then it’s no wonder why they are leaving en masse.
I just hope that those kids who are being turned away from playing live music continue to go do their own thing and aren’t giving up on music forever, disillusioned by what they’ve experienced first hand. As for me, I will still keep making paper flyers and I will still be out there annoying people on the street with them because no one can control what my friends and I can and can’t do creatively.
The venues in Denver will continue to dictate policy for all musicians (even those outside their sphere of influence) until the bands stand up for themselves and voice their opinion. Sure, venues can force me to purchase a sandwich (I suppose) but they can’t make me like it. Also, I’ll be eating that sandwich outside on the patio in front of your venue while I hand out flyers for my bands show that is down the street at another venue.