The demise of CBGB's in New York reminded me of several things I learned from performing there in 1986. I was in an unsigned rock band from Winston-Salem, N.C., called The Allisons*, whose other four members were veteran rockers with connections in the music biz. I played keyboards and saxophone, and sang back-up vocals into a mic that usually wasn't amplified (out of respect for the audience). Hoping to expose our hook-laden songcraft to the major record labels' talent scouts, we trekked to three of the Northeast's great indie rock venues: CBGB's in New York, Maxwell's in Hoboken and the Rathskeller in Boston. The tour, although brief, helped drive home several points that shape how I think about the music industry and intellectual property rights in general.
CBGB's was iconic, but you don't really get that sense playing there in an obscure rock band. Under those circumstances, it's just another dank place with lousy parking and no built-in audience. We were on a bill with two other forgettable bands, and the only people attending were those with some personal connection to the players. That meant a crowd of a few dozen, with folks shuffling in and out with each of the acts. In our case, it was my college roommate and a handful of other pals from my days in New Jersey. (It was a different scene in Boston, where we opened for Tommy Keane. The place was packed to the gills, although I don't think anybody in the crowd paid us much attention. We were just the band delaying the arrival of Tommy Keane.)
Anyway, it was clear to me after the tour that we had a couple of alternatives if we wanted to keep going. We could work the heck out of the clubs in North Carolina, building up enough steam regionally to generate a decent gate every time out. It would be exhausting, but we might be able to quit our day jobs. And we'd certainly be able to put out at least one record on an indie label, although it wasn't likely to get any airplay outside of college stations. Or we could keep playing "showcases" for major label execs in the hope that one actually showed up and liked us enough to sign us. With enough of an advance and some tour support, we could be full-time musicians for a while and put out an album or two that might get onto the radio and lead to something larger. (This is a bit of a false either/or; the first path might be the best way to get to the second.) Either way, we'd need to work really, really hard, something the Allisons eventually proved unwilling to do. When the industry failed to beat a path to our door, each of us moved on to safer ventures. Like journalism.
Today, some defenders of file-sharing say it's OK to rip off the music companies because they rip off their artists. But from where I stood 20 years ago, any offer from a major would have been better than what we were getting. It cost us thousands of dollars to make one little three-gig swing through the Northeast. As much as we wanted to live the rock 'n' roll life, we needed full-time jobs to pay for it. So the prospect of having a powerful ally was alluring, even if it meant giving up much of what we might make if we somehow hit it big. We would have loved to be in a position to be able to make that choice.
Another thing to bear in mind is that bands choose to sign with major labels. No one forces them to do it. They sign because of the prospect that their hard but often fun and occasionally glamorous lives will become easier and more glamorous. They could continue the DIY path or get some degree of help by signing with an indie, but they choose to roll the dice for a bigger return. It's a lot like entrepreneurs choosing how much venture capital to take on. You won't get significant investors if you're not willing to give up significant control and profits -- not that you're guaranteed to make any. So to rationalize file-sharing by saying the major record companies are evil and treat their artists like dirt is to overlook the fact that every band on the labels' rosters chose to be there. You can debate the wisdom of the choice, but you can't deny that it was theirs to make.
A final lesson from CBGBs is that there's only one sure thing in a band's life. You don't know how many people will turn out the night you play, so you and the club stand the very real chance of taking a bath. Even if you have a guaranteed fee, that amount isn't likely to cover your expenses. But no matter what happens, the sound guy will always get paid -- typically, by you the band. That axiom can be applied broadly, inside and out of the music industry. It's sexy to be the talent, but it's smart to be the sound guy.
*No, the name was not an homage to the stock-car driving family, or to the British Invasion duo by the same name. Our sound was about halfway between engine whine and Merseybeat pop -- densely muscular but melodic. The band recorded about a dozen tracks, most at Mitch's Drive-In, but as far as I know the songs never made it to the Internet. You'll just have to believe me when I say that I'm not just making this up.