Thursday, June 30, 2011
When Robbie Robertson remarked, in The Last Waltz, that the road is an impossible way to live, it was taken as a poignant moment by rock musicians for whom the rigors of touring were a bane. But the way the music biz is breaking down, bands and performers have less and less of a reason to tour; why tour behind albums and singles that won’t sell? As far as Amer-Indie goes, the old protocol, which involved going on back-to-back or endless tours until everyone at least knew who you are, is getting decimated by the idea that it’s all in vain. How much does touring either improve or detract from rock music and musicians? The question can be spun out and answered in many different ways. Keith Richards has been known to say that the only way a rock band can function is on the stage. But the Beatles certainly functioned after they stopped touring, as did Brian Wilson and XTC, whose approach has always been album oriented. The standard cycle in which most successful rock musicians have always been involved: you write an album, record it, then tour behind it, then write an album, etc, insures that fatigue will be a dominant presence no matter where in the cycle you happen to be. Rock tours are not just grueling; they’re life-taking. If you factor what has already been argued for in Fair Game, that live rock music is overwhelmingly inferior to recorded rock music, would it be any loss if the system of the New Rock made touring less of a standardized protocol and something bands did if and when they felt like it?
To deconstruct further the idea that touring needs to be mandatory, let’s look at another pertinent question: does touring rig things so that you can make a definite connection with your audience? Are those connections superficial or lasting? The minutiae of touring would encourage an inquiring mind to realize that the only connections a touring band could make are brief ones— bands are too involved in making sure the minutiae connects so they can get through their shows in one piece. The idea of meet-and-greets on the road, even for novice indie bands, is strange, because within not that far into the tour fatigue dictates that you don’t want to meet or greet anyone you don’t absolutely have to. The funny thing is that, looked at closely, even superstar bands who are capable of maintaining deluxe accommodations around themselves don’t manage to avoid road wear and tear. The human body just does not like being thrown in a vehicle, jumbo jet or van, and being carted again from place to place over a long period of time, especially when climate and time zone variations are in effect. If what’s being delivered at the shows is not especially remarkable, then again, the system seems illogical and unproductive enough so that, if mercenary interests already needs must be in abeyance, the Andy Partridge/Brian Wilson approach seems both sensible and life-enriching.
One of the points here that is interesting to consider is whether non-touring artists might produce better records, simply through being more focused, more rested, and less concerned about convincing A & R nebbishes. Since the write/record/tour model has never been threatened until recently, there can’t be a definitive answer. But, if we want to call rock music an art-form, a paradigm model focused more on the music and less on an ancillary structure like the standardized rock tour is one that supports rather than detracts from rock music as an art, or even as a high-level craft. It makes the rock biz less of a biz and more of a specialized realm, where these aesthetic ideas (whatever they happen to be) are being developed. Part of these New Rock ideas might need to be adopted by performers out of necessity; as new bands emerge, it will be more and more difficult for them to find a wide enough audience to make a long tour feasible. If bands can’t make enough money to live on the road, there’s little reason for them to go on the road to begin with. Perhaps what we need are a generation of stay-at-home rock geniuses; even if it takes a while for us to recognize who they are, what they’ve achieved, and why their music deserves to be conserved over a long period of time.