11 October 2009

NoDak Reflections

Today marks a blogospheric rite of passage for yours truly as I have the opportunity to blog about a tour for the first time (minus the photos and itineraries of course, as it's company policy 'round these parts not to waste precious bytes and pixels on personal stuff that y'all could care less about, or should).

On September 29, the Copper Street Brass Quintet embarked on a 10-day, 7-city tour of North Dakota, performing 7 concerts and innumerable workshops and masterclasses throughout the state. This was my first tour as part of a professional (rather than a student) ensemble, and predictably, I have a newfound appreciation for touring musicians who are able to bring it night after night under less than ideal conditions, although I have to admit that I've been witness to such relentless bitching from colleagues and teachers over the years that the experience was more one of elucidation than pure shock.

A pre-existing and significantly more acute misgiving about touring (i.e. the fact that it involves burning petroleum) which I brought along with me is documented more extensively here. Rather than focusing on that, though, I want to say a bit about the differences between performing in a metropolitan area of 3 million as opposed to rural towns of 6,000 (or even 600). While I can't be absolutely sure that I'm perceiving things correctly, it certainly seemed to me that many of these small town residents were significantly more appreciative of hearing something they can't just choose to go out and hear any night of the week (or year) than would be a city dweller who has the luxury of taking such concerts for granted.

That's not to say that there are no appreciative listeners whatsoever in the city, or that our group doesn't have something unique about it that elicited such a reception. I'd like to think that both of those things are true. Nonetheless, it's safe to say that the audience for concert music everywhere is not only small, but increasingly fatigued by the barrage of phone calls, e-mails, social networking invites, and fundraising campaigns that musicians and institutions heave at them, and hence, that being on the heaving end of this relationship, it's easy to feel like no one really cares, even if they do but are just to busy or too frazzled to respond.

In light of this dynamic, what this tour has taught me is that there's real value to touring to remote areas after all, both for the performers and the audience, and whether this is the result of quality, novelty, or simple lack of competition doesn't particularly concern me. I felt more appreciated in the last 2 weeks than I normally do in a year. That sounds like I'm seriously trashing my hometown...I certainly have a love/hate relationship with the place, but I'm wondering if this dynamic isn't inevitable given the conditions that exist. It's as simple as supply and demand: having many groups in town creates a buyers' market for concerts, and if this has attendance and revenue implications for musicians, why wouldn't it have social ones as well?

We know that a buyers' market for concerts can't sustain musicians financially, but tend to assume that buyers who don't show up to our particular concert nonetheless value what we do in some generic, relativistic fashion (and in a place like the Twin Cities, they would certainly say they do, and in that very fashion to boot). What if that's not the case? I'm by no means equating financial support with moral support, but wondering whether oversupply of the product might not, in fact, have the exact same effect on both. As a friend of mine who shall remain anonymous once said, "Even smoking weed on the beach in Hawaii gets old after a while." Similarly, at what point does our breathtakingly transcendent musical product or service cease to matter to anyone simply because it's abundant? Or does audiences' seeming inability to distinguish among performances of widely variable quality simply lead to an undue perception of abundance? Don't answer that.

There were, of course, both successes and failures in the attendance category throughout the course of this tour, but there were some very appreciative (and occasionally even well-informed) people in each and every group, which, for me, made the whole thing worthwhile. I've written at least a dozen times in this space that I'd much rather play for one person who cares than for 100 who don't. That's just my opinion, and I know not everyone feels that way, and for a variety of noble and not-so-noble reasons at that. While we certainly would have liked to play exclusively to packed houses, it was gratifying nonetheless (for me, at least) to know that we reached someone each night, dare I say in a way that I'm not sure many of my performances in town have attained over the last few years. The differences in accessibility and marketing between this and the other groups I'm in have a lot to do with this, but so, I think, does location, which has me looking at touring in a slightly more wholesome light, at least for the moment.

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