Grow or Die

April 4, 2022

Your favorite up and coming band just announced they’re playing a show 30 minutes away from where you live.  You’re stoked and excited to support and to be able to say, “I knew them when”.  You just know they are the next big thing and will get signed to a record deal any day.  You call up two of your best friends to see if they want to join and of course they say yes!  The three of you get on eventbrite and buy your tickets.  You go ahead and make dinner reservations for before the show, excited to have an excuse for a night out.  


Friday night finally arrives and you put on your dancing shoes and the t-shirt you bought at their last concert.  Your friends arrive at your house and you Uber to the concert.  The venue is not huge, 500 person capacity.  You’re excited to be a part of your favorite band's journey to stardom.  


As the start time approaches, 7:00 pm, you feel a little concerned for the band because the venue is not that packed.  You later find out that this has been a regular thing for the them.  It kinda dampens the excitement.  Bummed, but still a hardcore supporter, you throw up your hands, jumping up and down to the first song.  They start the show strong with crazy big energy as always.  Hey, maybe this is normal.  Maybe all bands go through this uncomfortable period of growth.  Marketing and promotion is hard and expensive.  Maybe they just need to pay for more social media ads for their next tour and ticket sales will increase.  


The following Monday, you’re at your desk at work, thankful your hangover didn’t last through the weekend.  Trying to focus on your work project, you overhear a conversation between two co-workers excitedly talking about their upcoming weekend.  They’re going to see your favorite band!  You’re kind of surprised since you just saw them last weekend just 30 minutes away.  You lean in a little closer to hear that they have another show this coming weekend 30 minutes away in the OTHER direction.  Uh-oh.  You’re probably totally unfamiliar with the radius clause in music business, but you have a hunch that these excited colleagues will have the same dampening experience as you.  You decide to not say anything and let them have their excitement.  


Radius.  The Upper Cumberland has a tiny radius and our music market is saturated.  So what does “radius” mean in the music business?   Wikipedia says this: “Radius clauses contractually ensure that a particular act does not hold events at competing venues or festivals within a certain distance of a city in which they are scheduled to perform, for a length of time prior to and/or after the performance.  For example, a band booked to perform at a venue in San Francisco may be barred from performing in cities within a 60 mile radius of San Francisco, for 60 days, before and after the concert.  These clauses intend to maximize ticket sales; as an act cannot also perform concerts in smaller, nearby markets, fans in these markets are forced to instead buy tickets for the act in the major market. “  In essence, there are only so many fans within a certain “radius” of a venue.  If a band has too many shows within that radius, both venues could lose on ticket sales because they are competing for fans of the same band.  This hurts the overall live music scene.  If you’re unfamiliar with the term “market saturation”, it essentially means that the supply of the product becomes much higher than the demand for the same. 


What does this mean for the live music scene in the Upper Cumberland?

It means we need to lose some of our favorite local bands to new areas and we need to welcome bands from other areas.  We’ve got our live music on repeat, and a good song is a good song, but even I can only hear it so much in a certain amount of time.  


Music is not that much different from basic economics and economics is not that much different from blood flow.  If it stops flowing, you die.  Artists must constantly be moving, gaining new fans, expanding their markets into new areas.  Otherwise, how do I choose whether I’ll go to a venue in Cookeville to see my favorite band on Friday, or to Livingston to see my same favorite band on Saturday?  I can tell you one thing.  Getting to see the band has nothing to do with it because they’re there, well….a lot.  So my choice will probably come down to if my friends are available to hang out or which food or beer I like best (since most of our live music occurs at restaurants and breweries).  


The live music scene in the Upper Cumberland has unintentionally turned artists into commodities.  Can you go into one of the West Side eateries in Cookeville and get a margarita for free?  Of course not!  You’ve got to pay for it.  Can you go into that same eatery and hear great live music for free?  You bet.  In our community, a good band is like great lighting.  It’s a part of the vibe.  And maybe that’s fitting for some venues.  I can assure you, it’s not fitting for the artists.  That’s not why they play.  


So what’s to be done?  A venues' goal is to pack out their place and sell lots of alcohol.  They certainly aren’t selling tickets to live music.  Why would they?  That would only work if everyone did it.  I can go almost anywhere and see great live music for free.  I’ll buy a drink or two and tip the band, but only if I feel like it.  There is no real value being placed on our live music, on our artists.  And let’s face it, the eateries and breweries are not live music venues.  They are eateries and breweries that HOST live music as an added benefit to their customers.  Live music is a line item in the budget for them.  And you can’t blame them for keeping that line item as low as possible.  Can an eatery or a brewerie see an ROI on live music?  Maybe.  Either bands bring a following (more alcohol sales) or live music is just a nice vibe for the customers and no different than great lighting and table placement - both are attractive elements and add to the overall bottom line, but it certainly doesn’t help the artists. 


Music and art is the backbone of society.  It is the connective tissue of humanity.  Our music and art culture is like the tide.  When it’s high, all the ships are raised.


The culture of the Upper Cumberland is wanting in the live music scene.  The number one attraction to outsiders in our area are our waterfalls.  Could our live music scene ever match that?  I think so.  Artists - if you want to raise your rates, you’ve got to add value by bringing a following - aka, don’t play too often in the same venue.  You’re saturating your market.  Play outside of your radius.  Go outside of your comfort zone.  Expand your market.  Come back and play for us as you grow, but not too often.  Make us miss you.  Venues - the Upper Cumberland is just far enough from three major cities overflowing with great talent: Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga.  We should be capturing that overflow, both of up and coming artists and of bigger name artists.  For the up and comers, try something new!  People from all over the country are moving to Music City in droves and they are bringing their music with them.  We’ve got options!  Bring in a variety of artists, or work together with your fellow live music hosting venues to focus on one or two genres and share the other genres with a different venue.  The venues are saturating the market just as much as the artists.  Expand the genres of music you host.  Expand your customer base with fans of R&B, hip-hop, and soul.  I guarantee you those folks bring alcohol drinking customers just as much as a southern rock band does.  


Can the Upper Cumberland become a major market in the music industry?  To become a major music market and attract bigger name artists to the Upper Cumberland will take careful planning (addressing radius especially) and strong relationships with agents in the music industry in Nashville.   We can become a tour stop for major music artists or we can become the next Mt. Juliet.


Personally, I’d like to lean more toward a cultural identity like that of Ashville, Chattanooga, or Knoxville - all cities with thriving live music scenes that I assure you positively affect the bottom line for everyone.