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Priceless: An appreciation of free (and freaky) live music

MinnPost contributor Jim Walsh writes, “For me, a lifelong seeker and lover of live music, the answers to the questions are obvious but worth repeating: What gets lost in the discussion of capitalism and ticket prices is the mystery and magic that music affords the human soul like absolutely nothing else does.”

Lynn Schultz passing the tip bucket at the Schooner Tavern in Minneapolis last month.
Lynn Schultz passing the tip bucket at the Schooner Tavern in Minneapolis last month.
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

What is lost with all this music-for-money talk? And how much, exactly, do we value live music?

These are the questions I’ve been chewing on since the latest Ticketmaster-Live Nation news started dominating every aspect of every live music discussion. 

I’m of a few minds on the subject, and as a result I’m having a fight with myself about it all as much I am with capitalistic show biz and my sometime hero Bruce Springsteen, who will, yes, once again probably blow my mind, heart and soul wide open when he lands at Xcel Center in March, and I won’t fight the feeling. Like all the other held-up-without-a-gun acolytes, I will more likely than not get down on my hands and knees and thank god that I live in the era of working-class hero Bruce and that I get to bear witness to the joyful noise of his great band one more time. But.

Dude should know how it feels out here.

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For me, a lifelong seeker and lover of live music, the answers to the questions are obvious but worth repeating: What gets lost in the discussion of capitalism and ticket prices is the mystery and magic that music affords the human soul like absolutely nothing else does. Given the parameters of the discussion these days (“How much did you pay?” “How much is it worth?”) I feel like an overly-romantic sucker for having to even point out as much, but the truth is Billy Bragg came correct in 1988 when he warned that “capitalism is killing music” — which in fact is impossible, but here in 2022 it’s fair to say that the sound of capitalism is drowning out the sound of music.

Music is priceless, in other words, and I’ve had too many priceless live music moments that cost me absolutely nothing but the effort it takes to get out of the house to lament missing out on big-ticket tours. As a result, instead of hand wringing about the Springsteen-Taylor-Swift-Metallica rip-offs, I’ve been voice-in-the-wildernessing it over here, focusing on why free live music is more valuable than what the corporate overlords and performers might have you to believe.

Insidious though it may sound, it seems to me that the capitalists are betting on you not belonging to a local music community of any sort, and on not knowing where to find free live music. They want you to believe that their product is the Most Valuable Product, but anyone who has attended a no-cover show and supported the workers via the merch table and tips for the bartenders and musicians know what a singularly soulful experience that can be. I’ve got hundreds of examples of said experiences, and not a single ticket stub-as-souvenir to show for any of ‘em.

On nights like that, the sum feeling of it all is one of unforced connection to the music, club, neighborhood, and fellow music lovers. The other night at the Schooner Tavern in Minneapolis, I happily tipped the band as my friend Lynn Schultz, a retired St. Paul school teacher, passed the bucket with a warm smile and open heart and hell if it didn’t make me feel good and simultaneously wonder if Bruce and Taylor and their ilk still feel rooted or connected to a music scene anymore. 

That is, I felt naturally connected to the experience itself, and to the very real and lasting feeling of true freedom and musical elation that filled me up. I could go on about similar experiences I’ve had with free live music, but suffice it to say that it’s a feeling you can’t put a price tag on, nor should you want to.

“Corporate music still sucks,” said Kurt Cobain at the dawn of Ticketmaster, and speaking of which, Taylor Swift is scheduled to play US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, which I’ve patronized exactly twice for concerts. One was a U2 show a few years ago, which I took in at the last minute from the rafters. I dug it. But here and now, what I remember most about the show is the sound of people complaining about the “venue’s” sound system afterwards. The truth is, the sound was fine, but the people didn’t feel like they got their money’s worth, and how could they? For these prices, people expect perfection and pampering, and that’s a recipe for the jaded and jaundiced, not a rapt audience of open-eared and-hearted listeners.

In a Boston Globe story on a 1987 psychological study proving creativity diminishes if it’s done for any profit other than creation and music itself, Alfie Kohn wrote: “If a reward — money, awards, praise, or winning a contest — comes to be seen as the reason one is engaging in an activity, that activity will be viewed as less enjoyable in its own right. With the exception of some behaviorists who doubt the very existence of intrinsic motivation, these conclusions are now widely accepted among psychologists.”

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So… it’s not just me. And now I know why I do not feel nearly as good at stadium and arena shows as I do at small clubs like the White Squirrel in St. Paul and the Driftwood Char Bar and Schooner Tavern in Minneapolis, clubs that historically and heroically host no or little cover nights seven nights a week, and which remind me of something I wrote around the time the late, great Uptown Bar and Grill closed its doors:

“The Uptown’s main attraction, and legacy, can be summed up in two words: no cover.

“Ask any club crawler from any other city and they will tell you that the free-admission policy on most nights made the Uptown an anomaly. A miracle, even. And since the music was that much more accessible, it turned the Uptown into a breeding-ground in the truest sense of the word. Not only was it a springboard for local bands to the big leagues (the angle that all the TV stations have taken, as if that is the singular validation of any artistic institution), but more important, it was a place where audiences could amble in and amble out. As such, they were given the opportunity to engage in an experience that has become all too rare: discovery.

“People would wander in off the street at midnight after catching a film at the Suburban World or Uptown Theater and stumble upon Nirvana, Gear Daddies, Babes in Toyland, Soul Asylum, Oasis, the Replacements, Cows, the Jayhawks, or some other future yarn-maker.”

Since those days, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been taking in some great free live music and had someone comment, “Can you believe we’re hearing all this… for free?”

At the moment, the Twin Cities is full of free live music options, from in-stores at record stores to small pay-what-you-can clubs to countless free outdoor events. For many years I ran a songwriter round-robin showcase called The Mad Ripple Hootenanny, and for 90 percent of those shows, the songwriters played for free and everyone understood that there was something bigger than money involved: music and the camaraderie that happens around music. 

I can name on one hand the songwriters who ever mentioned money as a motivation to play over all those years, as all concerned recognized that to sully the musical magic with talk of performance fees cheapened the whole experience. Only in latter years did we finally start passing the tip bucket, and sure enough we were all grateful for gas and guitar string money at the end of the night. But the Hoot’s main tagline near the end was “free and freaky,” because in my humble opinion one of the best ways to get freaky with music is via freedom and sure enough, equality for all reigned, and the lack of a ticketed spot gave us all license to relax into something bigger.

Which might sound crazy, but it really happened. Me, I’m still in awe that I get to play music for people, and I hope to never lose that feeling. 

I’m no socialist monk, either. I’m being paid a freelancers’ wage for this column, and I play my songs for small cover-charges and tips, which I’m grateful for, so you can take all of this with your own grain of salt. But if you don’t regularly hang in a room with a bunch of other free music-loving freedom fighters, I’d argue that you don’t know better, i.e. the thrill of free live music. 

When I get paid for playing music, it’s a wonderful validation, but at this point it remains something like a secondary concern. Cue all the very righteous career complaints from my fellow starving artists here, but something truly important is at stake here, and in chewing on all the trickle-down effects of Ticketmaster-Live Nation’s gouging ways, I returned to Lewis Hyde’s “The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property,” a highly recommended read for all artists.

Hyde argues in part that art is a gift, and that the relationship between gift-giver and receiver remains pure and can never be corrupted, no matter how many layers of commerce come between the two. In her forward, Margaret Atwood (who discovered “The Gift” in 1984 when she was writing “The Handmaid’s Tale”), wrote, “What is the nature of ‘art’? Is a work of art a commodity with a money value, to be bought and sold like a potato, or is it a gift on which no real price can be placed, to be freely exchanged?

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“And if works of art are gifts and nothing but, how are their creators to live in the physical world, in which food will sooner or later be needed by them? Should they be sustained by reciprocal gifts made by the public — the equivalent of the gifts placed in the Zen monk’s begging bowl? Should they exist in quasi-Shaker communities of the like-minded?” 

All these questions were asked before Ticketmaster’s “dynamic pricing” system forced fans to pay hundreds and thousands of dollars for cold hard seats in airplane hangars, and before damage-control mode Springsteen told Howard Stern last month, “I bumped into the luckiest job in the world, because they pay you a fortune for something I would have done for free.” 

Huh. Springsteen once said it was desperation that drove him, and you could feel it. Now he’s in his “summation period” (as he keeps describing/selling it), and you can feel it. About his hiked ticket prices, he explained to Rolling Stone he wants to get paid the same as “my peers,” and I’m here to ask why the hell should I care about Bruce Springsteen’s competitive desires or golden parachute ambitions, beyond the probable fact that both are engines and muses for his creativity?

The truth is, I don’t. On one hand, musicians are historically among the worst paid workers, so it’s only right that the 73-year-old wonderkid Bruce has figured out the game and is grabbing all the money while he can. Good on you, much respect, we’re happy for you, especially at a time when the pandemic and inflation has ratcheted up the show biz supply chain crisis like never before. But for this fan, sticker shock creates a barrier that leaves me less-than-zealous for the concerts, reissues, etc., and I’m left to wonder not only what is lost, but who is lost when money becomes the bottom line, and whether the artists even care about who they’re playing for anymore.

As Los Angeles Magazine’s Ryan Ritchie so succinctly wrote in his “An Open Letter to Paul McCartney Regarding Ticket Prices” last May: “Paul, serious question: What the [f—]?” 

Luckily, there’s an option. Once upon a time alternative weeklies regularly listed “10 Best Free Live Music Gigs or Venues,” and at the same time, in the early days of Sam’s/First Avenue, club-goers would walk out of the place with a fistful of complimentary tickets to little-known or experimental shows, which guaranteed an organic and curious audience, and built a buzz out of nothing. 

Of course times have changed, and of course I will continue to attend selective big shows, but while I’m there, a big part of me will be looking forward to escaping the bank-sponsored airplane hangar and going to the next free and freaky gig. Join me?

Great! Just don’t forget to tip your bartenders and musicians.