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Rejected By America: Inescapable Conclusions From 19 Years on the Road

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I’m sitting on a plane, heading home after a two-month tour.  At times just like this, I often feel compelled to write a bit of a recap, mentioning some of the tour’s highlights or more notable anecdotes.  At the end of this tour, though, the overpowering reality I am left with isn’t so much related to highlights or anecdotes — though those also happened, of course.  What I am mainly left with is the unmistakably massive contrast between the experience of touring on each respective side of the Atlantic.

The two months of touring that I just completed involved about 45 shows.  I spent a little more than half of the tour in northern Europe, where I did about two-thirds of the gigs, between Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, England and Scotland.  The rest of the tour was in North America – mostly the US, plus a couple gigs in Canada.

I have no idea how many people reading this might find any of what I’m about to write about here relevant.  I have no idea to what extent my experience is specific to me, specific to DIY musicians who do politically-charged music, or if it might have even broader relevance.  But the trend for me, anyway, is now very clear, and thus seems worth sharing.

It probably might have been clear many years ago, but I think I tend to be a very optimistic sort, always hoping that things will be better next time.  There is also the strong tendency among performing artists to project an air of impending fame, on the assumption that everybody wants to see “the next big thing,” and nobody wants to see a washed-out has-been of some sort.

So I don’t know if this has happened to you, too, fellow DIY touring artists, or whoever else.  But as for me, I have been rejected by America.

There are, I suppose, three main reasons I tour and play music for a living.

*It’s fun to play music and fun to travel for a living and see parts of the world on a regular basis.

*I need to pay the rent, etc., and I can make a living at this.

*By doing shows like this, I feel like I’m participating in some small way in various social movements, and having at least some kind of impact on those movements and on people’s lives.

Now, of course, this is the age of the internet, and as long as the videos I put up are getting a few thousand views now and then, I can take part in the whole songwriting and education thing from my living room.  But there are a bunch of things that are special about the phenomenon of live concerts, that people leave their homes to attend as a group.  And as far as that phenomenon goes, the phenomenon is dead in the USA for me.

To clarify in numbers that hopefully make sense:  most of the gigs I did in the US and Canada on this tour had fewer than twenty people in attendance, and, at age 48, I was often the youngest person in the room.  Of all the gigs I just did in North America, only one had more than 50 people in the audience.

In Europe, by contrast, a large majority of the shows had well over 50 people in the audience, and several of them had well over 100.  Most of the shows that had fewer than 50 people were pretty close to 50.  Most of the gigs in Europe had a very multi-generational audience, sometimes with more young folks and sometimes with more older folks, depending on the type of venue, the type of town, and other factors.  I don’t think I was ever the youngest person in the room — though I was sometimes one of the oldest.

I don’t know if anybody is wondering why I call this rejection, but in case you’re unsure, here’s the rub:  in order to satisfy any of my three basic criteria for why I do this touring and performing thing, I need an audience of more than twenty people, the vast majority of the time.

To get into that a bit more:  out of principle and, once upon a time, because of practical considerations, I rarely ask for what’s called a guarantee – a financial commitment from the organizers of a gig that I will make a certain amount of money no matter what happens.  Generally, when I’m organizing a tour and not flying to a specific location for a one-off gig of some kind, I cobble together gigs that mostly don’t involve guarantees, in the hopes that most of them will involve organizers who are able to generate sufficient interest among the locals such that several dozen of them or so will be compelled to leave their home to go hear a show, at which they will generally have to buy a ticket or make a “suggested donation” in order to get in.

When I don’t ask for a guarantee, this means that some nice volunteer organizer doesn’t get stuck paying me out of their own pocket if we don’t get enough paying customers in the door.  Which then means there might be more people willing to try organizing a show, who won’t feel bad about it afterwards if it doesn’t work out.  What it also means is I’m taking the risk of losing money on a gig, or conceivably on an entire tour.

So the number twenty is a key number here because typically at shows in the US people are paying $10 to hear the concert.  In Europe, individuals going to my concerts are paying something roughly similar.  Without drowning in mathematical minutiae, suffice it to say that after the expenses involved with touring, I need to make at least $200 per gig in order to break even.  To actually make money in order to pay rent and feed the family during the months when I’m not on tour, I need to make significantly more than $200 per gig on average.

This is also why the aforementioned number 50 is equally relevant.  When 50 people come to a show, this means I’m likely to make more along the lines of $500 for that show.  When most of my shows are like that, then the finances work, and the rent gets paid and everybody gets fed when I’m not on tour, without the use of a credit card.

In terms of the non-monetary factors I mentioned – having fun, and feeling like I’m contributing to something bigger than myself – consistently playing for very small, mostly elderly audiences doesn’t cut it either.  To me it seems only natural that, as a performer, if you’re regularly the youngest person in the room and it’s not because you’re working in a retirement home of some kind, this is a sign that you are becoming irrelevant.  (No intent here to malign the aged, many of whom are my favorite people in the world.)  As for fun, there just isn’t a whole lot of fun involved with doing a money-losing tour for small crowds, no matter who constitutes that crowd.

It has taken a long time to realize this, but my basic business model used to work in the US, and it now does not.  It still works in Europe – better than ever, in fact.  Or actually not better than ever, because of the fact that the euro is worth like 30% less than it was compared to the dollar a few years ago.  But the numbers of gig offers, the crowd sizes, and the money – before you convert it to dollars – is better than ever in Europe, for me.

So, I’m not depressed.  I love Europe.  I’m very happy that there are many countries in Europe where I seem to have an audience that wants to keep coming to my shows in significant enough numbers to allow me to make a living.

I used to be very happy about touring in the US for the same reasons, but no longer.  And rather than quietly drift into obscurity like so many other artists that you don’t hear about anymore because they don’t tour in the US anymore, I thought I’d announce my disappearance in advance.

I’m sure many of you who have made it this far in this post may be wondering why is there this contrast between the US and Europe?  (By “Europe,” by the way, I mean the countries I tour in in Europe, which tend to be the wealthier, English-speaking countries of northern Europe such as the ones I mentioned before, along with a few others that I didn’t get to on this tour.)  The fact is, there are many contrasts and many similarities, and I don’t know which ones are in play here.

Some things are global in nature.  Such as the anti-capitalist movement circa 1999-2003, and the antiwar movement circa 2001-2005.  These movements both rose and then declined at a similar pace on both sides of the Atlantic.  During the heyday of these movements, I had a lot of good tours on both of these main two continents that have so far represented the bulk of my livelihood.

Now this is basically conjecture, but it seems like after these movements both did their rise and fall thing, what happened afterwards is we were left with the sort of baseline that existed in the absence of said movements.  That’s when the differences come into play, I suppose.

In the US most people work longer hours for less money.  They have less time to go out and less money to spend when they do.  When people step up to the plate to organize an event, they almost always have to first figure out where the event is going to be held, and this space often has to be rented in advance.  Whereas twenty years ago there were well-funded student organizations that were responsible for about half of my US gigs, those organizations either no longer exist or no longer have budgets allocated to them by university administrations.

Where I play in Europe, the vast majority of people are in a labor union.  Labor unions have active union halls in every city — oftentimes several in one city.  The unions have budgets for cultural activities, which they host regularly, through popular adult education programs.  Many cities in Europe have squatted social centers or formerly-squatted social centers, vibrant centers of all kinds of activity, including concerts.  These volunteer-run spaces have no rent and little other overhead, and they can often afford to pay artists well.  Some of them get money from their government’s cultural ministry, which they use for buying state-of-the-art sound equipment, paying bands, etc.

By all accounts from musicians who toured in the US and in Europe before my time, like in the 1970’s, everything was much better.  It was vastly easier to get media coverage.  Labor laws in the US for touring artists were much better for the artists, requiring venues to temporarily employ bands rather than treating them as disposable items of some kind.  Schools and libraries had budgets for putting on cultural events.  In the US back then, unemployment did not necessarily mean poverty.  The welfare state still existed back then, and lifted up all the boats a bit, as welfare states do.  People in the US without jobs could often still afford to go to shows – as is still the case in Europe, but has long since stopped being true of the US.

In any case, there are too many possible factors going in both directions, and I’m not an economist or a sociologist.  But what I can say for sure at this point is that the United States has told me to get lost, and I don’t see any option other than doing what I’m told in this case.  I’ll keep touring Europe as long as Europe tells me I’m wanted there – as long as a few dozen people predictably come to most of my concerts there.

As for the US, my home, where I live, where my family lives, the country on which the fate of the world unfortunately hangs in so many ways, I’ll stay.  I’ll play gigs for small crowds in Oregon and Washington, locally, where I can afford to play for cheap.  Maybe I’ll take up busking again.  I’ll write songs about current events and put them online, where people can listen to them for free – a budget anyone with internet access can afford.

But as for touring in the US the way I’ve been doing it since 1997, I’m done.  No more.  I’ll still do the sorts of gigs where they pay for my travel costs and pay me a few hundred bucks on top of that, from some kind of institutional budget or philanthropic sponsor.  Gigs like that represent maybe 5% of the gigs I do in the US.  But no more touring for the foreseeable future.

If you miss me, drop me a line or come visit Portland.  Or Europe.  Not that 90% of you in the US reading this can possibly afford to travel to either of those places.  But at least most of you still have somewhere to live that has electricity, and can probably listen to my new album on Bandcamp and write me an email, anyway.

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David Rovics is a singer/songwriter based in Portland, Oregon.

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