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On Geography and the Ebb and Flow of Social Movements

Reflections of a Leftwing Booking Agent

by DAVID ROVICS

I’m at the annual conference of the northwest branch of the Fellowship of Reconciliation as I write.  I’ve done a few songs so far, and have been very well-received.  It’s an easy audience for leftwing sentiment combined with acoustic music.  These are mostly people a bit older than I, who came of age during the times of the movements against the war in Vietnam, and for civil rights.  These movements had lasting effects not only on the politics of those in attendance, but on their taste in music.  Also, they’re members of an organization that has a culture of its own, to some extent, which has somewhat insulated it from the ebb and flow of social movements (though it has also undoubtedly drawn so much from those movements, too).

Groups like FOR in places like western Washington feel slightly insulated from how things are in what you might call Middle America.  A nice little bastion of sanity amid what often feels like the alienated drones in the “real world.”  But what of the times when those drones come to life, and beyond the walls of the artificially-produced fortresses of progressivism, the regular people get motivated to think outside the box?  Movements large and small can happen, and have broad and lasting ripple effects.  Like the 60’s — the repercussions of which we’ll still be feeling for many decades I’m sure.

I’ve been invited for the first time this summer to play at the much-vaunted Vancouver Folk Music Festival in BC.  One of the headliners is Joan Baez.  I’m playing on the littler stages, she’s on the big one.  Of course, that makes sense, because she’s famous, and I’m not.  And then, as undoubtedly talented as she is (and she’s better now than she ever was, in my opinion), I wonder sometimes what her career might have looked like if she had come of age in 1980 instead of 1960?  No way to know, of course, but my guess is she’d be far from a household name for people of her generation today.

I’ll be honest – I envy the good timing people like her happened to have.  I used to envy her more back in the 90’s.  The folk music revival was long over, as were the social movements that helped bring her to prominence.  And there was nothing like the media landscape of independent radio stations that people actually listened to that were killed off by Reagan’s deregulation of the industry.  (Turns out the existence of independent radio stations popularizing local music and covering local news in a nakedly capitalist society was completely dependent on not allowing the big corporations to do what they naturally wanted to do – buy everything up and turn it all to shit.)

And then the millenium was approaching, and things started getting more interesting.  Streaming audio became widespread.  There were new ways for independent artists to be heard, through the internet.  And, probably unrelated to this, there was a growing anticapitalist movement throughout the world, including every state in the USA.  And then 9/11, the rise of empire, and with it a new antiwar movement.  Both smaller movements than the one that Joan Baez participated in as a youth, but movements with a palpable impact on people like me.

I’ve been working lately on booking a tour for the fall, around the US and bits of Canada.  I’m a booking agent.  I pretty much only book my own tours, but I’m still a booking agent.  My main method for finding the folks who might be willing to organize a show is haranguing my fans via my email list and social media to get in touch with me about that prospect.  Then I stay in communication with them about it, nail down a date that makes some kind of geographical sense, and try to be encouraging in the process.

But who are these people who step forward to organize gigs?  They’re individuals who like my music, sure.  But most of the time, they’re also people who are active in some kind of group – for the most part, that means an independent local group of people involved with some kind of political issue, or a chapter of a bigger organization that’s active around something or other.  For me, that often means people involved with the antiwar movement and the anticapitalist movement, plus people involved with Palestine solidarity and environmental activism.

It’s far from scientific, but the way my tours in the US and Canada have panned out over the past 17 years or so of touring as a solo artist, it seems like it might indicate a pattern.

There were many years when I was habitually doing two driving tours of 2 or 3 months each around North America each year – one in the fall and one in the spring.  Each tour would involve dozens of different towns and cities from the last tour.  And while lots of those gigs were in the bigger cities in the northern part of the US and the west coast, a lot of the gigs were in cities throughout the south, as well as in lots of smaller towns.

During the antiwar movement in the 60’s there was an antiwar coffeehouse located outside of every military base in the country.  During the recent bout of imperial wars, we’ve never gotten to the point of having more than a handful of such coffeehouses.  So it’s a whole different scale, but from late 2001 til around 2005, hundreds for sure, perhaps thousands of towns and cities around the US had weekly peace vigils.  At the beginning they were often attended by dozens, sometimes hundreds of people.  And much bigger protest rallies were happening in places like New York, DC and San Francisco every few months.  For several years I was going to DC to sing at protests so often, I thought about moving there.

And although some of the weekly peace vigils could look a bit sad at times, the existence of all these vigils, among many other things, indicated something significant.  That in each of these towns, there was some kind of organized antiwar presence.  Each of those groups putting on the vigils also did other things.  Among them, they organized concerts for people like me.  Usually the concerts even had more people coming to them that the vigils did.

As I’m organizing this tour I’m thinking, when was the last time I had a gig anywhere in the states of Virginia, West Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia or Alabama?  I used to play in all of those states regularly.  The Dakotas?  Wyoming?  Nebraska?  It’s been many years since I’ve had a gig offer from any of those states, but again, I used to play in all of them regularly.  And in the states where I still do play regularly, the gigs are much more likely than before to be in the major cities.  Like in Texas, I still do regular gigs in Houston, Dallas and Austin, but the contacts I used to have in San Antonio, Corpus Christi or El Paso seem to have vanished long ago.

The Occupy movement was a nice, brief shot in the arm, but aside from that, my experience of the past 9 years or so has been that, well, things are looking a lot like they were before the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999.  The groups like FOR still have their sort of built-in constituencies.  Those people that just have to do something, even in times that don’t feel particularly hopeful, are still out there, mainly in the bigger cities, where they stand a chance of finding each other.

The tour is coming together just fine.  There are plenty of big cities in the US.  I can bypass the “Deep South” and the Dakotas, too.   In Canada things have followed a similar course, though it took longer there.  I have nice gigs in several of the major cities there, but it’s been many years since I’ve played in many of the smaller cities where I used to play regularly.  There still seems to be enough going on with folks in enough places to organize a good tour, though.  But doing this kind of loop around the continent twice a year like I used to seems like a fantasy now.  I doubt it would pan out if I tried to do that again these days.  It’s hard to imagine what the second tour might (or might not) look like if I tried to book a second one in the same year.

There were many years where I had so many gigs, mostly organized by small groupings of peaceniks or anarchists across North America, that I certainly had no need to seek gigs outside of the US.  But I did, anyway, because I love to travel and see the world, meet new people, get involved with stuff going on in different  places up close.  For years, I was on the road, touring, 9 or 10 months out of the year.  Living in such a massive country, with so many people and so many cities, it didn’t occur to me back then that within a few years, I’d be doing most of my gigs outside the country.

There has been a marked decline in these movements in most of Europe, too.  But despite that, and despite the declining economic situation on both sides of the Atlantic as well, there are still a lot of people, a lot of cities, and most of them quite a bit closer together than the cities of North America.  I don’t know how I’d manage if I couldn’t tour in Europe.  The fact that I had enough business savvy to start this subscription campaign, and had enough fans out there who still have jobs and could join up with the scheme, also helped a lot.

I talk to other DIY musician types who tour in the same kinds of networks as me in the US, and their view of the activist scene in the US is similar.  Many of them are getting day jobs, aside from those who have also discovered Europe along the way at some point.  In one way or another, they’re having to branch out to make it work.

The thing is, in this business, when you’re singing original songs, you have to tour.  If you’re in a cover band you can maybe get by playing local bars and stuff.  But if you do original music, you tour, and you don’t play the same town more than once or twice a year, generally.  And if you’re not well-known, if you’re not working with a promoter and manager and a known booking agent and all that, you need to  rely on volunteers in each town to make it work.  If you’re doing political music, those volunteers are probably going to be activists, and their ability to organize something good, or at all, is going to be dependent on the health of the activist scene in their town at a given time.

Which obviously has its pros and cons.  In good times, it’s great.  Like for any artist, if you get a chance to sing for a crowd of tens of thousands of people, this counts as good.  Between 2000-2005 I sang at protests that big at least annually.  Not since then, though, at all.

I used to tell artists from small countries that if they wanted to make a living as performers, they’d better cultivate connections in other countries and sing in a language they speak there.  There are exceptions, of course.  But as a general rule, that’s how it is.  You can only tour Denmark for a few weeks before you’ve played in every city of any size in the entire country.  Then you have to either move on to another country, or do something else with your life for another 6 months or so, until you might be able to play those cities again.

I used to say, though, that if you’re an artist from a country the size of the US, you could get away with ignoring the rest of the world, as many Americans tend to do anyway.  I certainly know other artists who still do, just out of ingrained habit.  But I have more empathy with them than ever, because I have no idea how they’re making it work these days, or if they are.  It’s one of those things you might not readily find out by asking.  People don’t want to admit defeat, and there are always credit cards.

This isn’t a message of hope and optimism, but maybe there’s something to be said for a little reality-check now and then.  I’m looking forward to my tour in the fall.  And I’m looking forward to the next time when we have a social movement that activates that wonderfully diverse bunch of folks in the more out-of-the-way parts.  It’s much better to feel like a fish swimming in a sea.  As it is, I feel more like some creature scrambling beneath the ice from one air pocket to the next one.  Hoping the ice will eventually melt again.

David Rovics is a singer/songwriter based in Portland, Oregon.  He just put out a new album, and is currently booking a fall tour of North America.  His website iswww.davidrovics.com.