Tuesday, May 5, 2015

924 Gilman: A Cure For The Cultural Blahs?

The blockbuster business model is a crappy approach to commerce. In simple terms, I'm talking about the practice of relying on established faces to bring home your box office bacon. For practical reasons, I'll focus on the music side (although this discussion applies to any creative field). The appeal is obvious, from a pure gatekeeping perspective. It's simpler to maximize an entrenched act's earning power, rather than risk losing it on some new face who's can't generate immediate returns. Catering to minority tastes isn't cost-effective, right?

However, established acts only work for established money, which is why you'll pay double-digit ticket prices...and related crap, like paying double for drinks you don't want (and don't need), so you feel better about the trimming that your wallet took. Sooner or later, however, the model runs aground. A big draw or two suddenly breaks up, leaving no obvious candidate to fill the void. (Entertainers, like Third World dictators, don't like to encourage talk about who might replace them.)

Seismic trend shifts can also wreak havoc. It's the reason why Tom Werman, who produced some of '80s and '90s heavy rock's biggest names (Cheap Trick, Motley Crue, Ted Nugent) now runs a bed and breakfast...and why numerous lower-rung hair band-era denizens have grudgingly accepted wearing long-sleeve shirts over all those tattoos as the price of keeping their landscaping jobs at the country club.

[Gilman's famed "rules of the road"]

However, not everybody needs to accept the blockbuster business model as the only option. I'm reminded of this principle in reading 924 Gilman, Brian Edge's sprawling 400-page chronicle of the all-ages club that opened in '86 to shake up the noxious equation that I've just described (entrenched acts + commercial venues + high ticket prices = passive consumer experience).

About seven years ago, I borrowed 924 Gilman from an out-of-town booker I was courting, doing the mating dance that keeps so many musicians circling the hamster wheel (Can I play here? Is there room for me on the schedule?)  Eventually, I did get to play this place -- but the book sat on the shelf. The length put me off for awhile, as did the reproduction of many key handwritten and typo-splattered documents from the era, in all their eye-straining glory.  (Put it this way: keep a powerful magnifying glass handy while you're reading.)

However, in writing about this topic, it only seemed natural to pull 924 Gilman off the shelf. The Squawker and I worked behind the scenes at a coffeehouse for a couple years, so I could relate to the struggles that Edge and company chronicle -- as well as the audacity For example, Gilman's masterminds initially did no advertising when the club started...to prevent audiences from planning to see only the most popular bands, while ignoring the rest.

When Squawker and I put together shows, we followed a similar policy by providing only a basic starting time in our press releases. In other words, we never said, "X, Y and Z bands play at X, Y and Z p.m." Like Gilman, we didn't want patrons planning their evening solely around the headliners. We wanted people to discover great things on their own, which gets harder and harder in this hyper-commercial-global infotainment scam called "the music industry." But I digress.

I also appreciate Gilman's stated attempt to give underdog bands a platform, which means rejecting the commercial power brokers' long-standing view of the underground scene as a "feeder system" for their manipulative purposes ("The club is not just another club on the bar circuit. The club is not the farm league for bands aspiring to play the I-Beam or the Kennel Club. We are an alternative to such clubs": 1988 guideline revisions, page 127).

And, also, the policy of helping underdog bands with gas money or expenses should be mandatory for anyone trying to cop the Gilman vibe. Why should it cost an arm and a leg to perform anywhere? Even if you're not massively popular, your time and travel are still worth something. This stance ensures a different vibe, especially when it's coupled with an all-ages, no-alcohol policy.

That's why I try to avoid playing in bars, because you're no more than background noise for mindless consumption (or, as Jesse Luscious memorably describes it on page 136, "a place for drunk adults to hit on each other to the sound of loud background music"). Instead, as Russell states, "It was interesting to see that the people running it were rather young.  I was used to going to clubs that were run by some mafia-type to launder money or something" (page 122).

Of course, utopia has its own way of running aground, too. Like Gilman, our alternative coffee shop aimed to operate on all-volunteer equity, but that often led to burnout -- and ill will -- since a handful of regulars usually wind up doing most (if not all) the work. I think that an all-volunteer system to work, but only if everyone goes into it with their eyes open, and an honest discussion of the implications. 

Like Gilman, we implemented a paid membership system, but most of the players paid rarely, or promised to pay later (as in, "never"). Ironically, the Squawker and myself were among the most faithful payers -- although we were living on disability and unemployment, respectively. Since we were a lot more involved, we paid every month, to set an example -- but, unfortunately, didn't see anybody rushing to follow our lead.

What's more, the people who contribute the least scream the loudest about wanting a say in running things. This situation diverted a lot of time and energy that could have been spent on day-to-day operations. Controlling the chaos proved difficult, since no real leadership structure existed beyond the owner bankrolling the venture, and the people heading up the various committees. 
As a result, people often worked at cross purposes, which also chipped away at our collective time, energy and enthusiasm. This situation also happened to me a couple times, when a band would appear -- from out of the blue, unbeknownst to me -- on bills that I'd put together. Since both nights ran well, I let the issue slide, but I felt irritated, all the same.

Why does this stuff matter? Because once people realize they don't have to accept "the way it is" -- whether it's a crappy job, rock club, or anything else -- that entity (or situation) becomes irrelevant. Think back to the fall of 1989, and how fast East Germany evaporated once the churches and the youth vented their discontent on the streets, despite the initial risk to their lives. Funny how that works, right?

That situation emerges as a common theme in 924 Gilman, too. Some of the most interesting testimonies come from those who walked away -- such as Orlando X, a former security person who questions if punk rock utopia is everything it's cracked up to be ("Some bands can get shows there very easily, play all the time, other bands send demo after demo, make call after call, and rarely get to play there at all. There's a lot of favoritism": page 114).

Like many of the book's voices, I also find myself at a crossroads, since the values that I uphold (collaboration, creativity, innovation, inclusiveness) aren't reflected in the working world, political atmosphere or cultural scene of my humble hometown. As a result, I don't feel badly about turning my back on these things, at least until I devise a more sensible alternative.

A couple weeks ago, for example, one of our local libraries held a reading to coincide with National Poetry Month. I decided to skip it, though. I'd held readings of my own there in the past, but struggled to get a consistent attendance. If people didn't support my events, why should I support theirs? There's a reason why people trout that old saying, "No good deed goes unpunished."

On a similar note, there's a group that holds quarterly spoken word events of their own.
They must draw a crowd, because the admission is usually $15. There's two segments: an open mike, and one for the featured artists. However, I skip these events, too, because I probably wouldn't get more than an open mike spot -- and nobody's explained how you'd work your way up into a featured slot.

Then I start doing some math: even If only 100 people show up, they're clearing $1,500 -- once you subtract the venue's cut (which typically averages 30 percent), that's a fair chunk of change I'm helping somebody else to earn after my five or 10 minutes onstage. That doesn't make sense to me, either, so I don't show up.

Whether I have the time and energy to cook up my own Gilman-style experiment remains to be seen, but -- as the book reminds me -- when you've seen the alternative, you really don't feel like going backwards. If that means standing still for awhile, so be it. I've seen the blockbuster business model often enough. But I don't think I'm really missing anything. --The Reckoner

Links To Go (You Hipster Indie Nerd, You:)
924 Gilman Official Website: 

The Arlingtonian:
Upper Arlington High School (Upper Arlington, OH):

Are UA Hipster?: UAHS Takes A Closer Look
At What It Means To Be A Part Of The National Fad

The DIY Musician:
Why Music Venues Are Totally Lost:
An Open Letter From A Professional Musician

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