The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it.
-- David Bowie, 2002
Some of the best musicians in Northern Michigan have packed up their guitars and left town in recent months in the hope of making it big somewhere else.
The migration began last year when Mark Camp (The Dopes, Rusty Blaides) moved to Austin, Texas, the music capital of the Southwest. This fall, singer-songwriter Mike Moran moved to San Diego. Two weeks ago, Jeff Jabo Bihlman (The Bihlman Bros.) held a farewell party at his home in Interlochen, days before moving to Las Vegas to seek a career in the film and TV industry. And last weekend, Ryan Whyte Maloney (Indulge) stopped by his old hometown to play an acoustic set at The Loading Dock, prior to signing a contract in Nashville.
Theyve joined Kenny Olson, Brian Schram, Amanda Waggener and Scot Bihlman, who also hit the road some time back. Collectively, these acts have entertained tens of thousands of people in Northern Michigan through the years.
This is not a lament about how tough it is in the music business in Northern Michigan. There are many builders, teachers, business owners, production workers, technicians and young job seekers whove also left the area for North Carolina, Wyoming, Colorado, and other states that havent been hammered as hard by the recession as we have in Michigan.
No, its more to note that as a profession, pop music seems to be settling back where it started in the 19th century, when most musicians sang for their supper and didnt expect much beyond that.
If youve ever been ripped off for $150 (or more) to see Madonna, U2 or Rod Stewart in concert, you can take heart in last weeks Rolling Stone magazine, which noted that ticket prices for big acts have dropped off a cliff. Kid Rock, No Doubt and Aerosmith sold lawn tickets for as little as $10 at some of their shows last summer. Superstar Miley Cyrus? $15.75. Kiss: $14.25. Some major rock acts are reportedly charging as little as $7.75 for tickets.
Same as it ever was, if you look back on the history of music to a time when performers like Muddy Waters were playing by lantern light for drinks and dinner at illicit parties in some sharecroppers shack.
Prior to what was literally the golden age of the rock era, few musicians expected to make it big on par with the likes of Frank Sinatra. Music was more of a calling or a sideline.
Consider that nearly 60 years ago, young Elvis Presley and his band were performing on the back of a flatbed truck in the deep South. He wowed the crowd with his swiveling hips and pink socks.
At that time, such a show was the biggest thing to hit a small town in years. Legend has it that kids in the 1950s would stay up late at night, trying to dial in the faint signals of a few obscure AM stations hundreds of miles away that played the blues or rock & roll by Howlin‘ Wolf or Buddy Holly. As the new film Pirate Radio notes, it was hard to find that strange, tantalizing, forbidden, jungle music.
But today, we live in a 24/7 music society, where sound is always on tap via the Web, YouTube, MySpace or the iPod. We‘re overdosed, and like an over-inflated currency, music has lost its value.
Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity, David Bowie said in a 2002 interview in the New York Times.
So, its hard to get noticed in this sea of music. After a cultural crescendo that elevated music to the ultimate art form of our civilization -- when even knighthoods were granted to Sir Mick, Sir Paul and Sir Elton -- musicians are getting back to a time when Elvis‘s flatbed truck may come in handy once again.
On a local level, nightclub cover fees are dropping to what they were in the 1970s. Talented acts such as the defunct Domestic Problems band managed to sell thousands of CDs from the bandstand, only to despair of getting their shot at the big time. You also see groups like Steppin In It -- which would have been a national act on par with Poco or Pure Prairie League back in the 70s -- still playing small clubs, rather than stadiums. Northern Michigan is also blessed with several solo performers on par with Jack Johnson or John Mayer who are Wasting Away in Margaritaville playing cover tunes on the summer deck scene.
For those who dream of making it in the old sense of the 1980s, thats got to be frustrating.
Some musicians, including David Bowie, predict that the future of music is in the realm of live performance -- perhaps including theatrics of the type practiced by acts such as Slipknot or Lady Gaga.
Speaking of theater, if youre a musician who really wants to get noticed in this awful age of American Idol, a good idea might be to rent an old flatbed truck and start playing Wal-Mart parking lots around the nation. That old mainstay of Elvis Presley would surely get you noticed. Who knows? Perhaps it would generate a million hits on YouTube, with downloads to match. Dont forget the pink socks.