A few weeks ago I finally got around to reading Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad, where he profiles a dozen of the best punk and hardcore bands of the 1980s. Bands like the Minutemen, Black Flag, and Minor Threat toured and lived off of minimal income and relied mostly on a dedicated fan base. It’s a dedication that always intrigued me, and I can’t help but think of my own experience with the kind of intimacy created by these groups that ran pretty much on passion and not much else.
When I was around 16, a three-piece punk band came to my town to play a show at the local Salvation Army hall, which doubled as a church and meeting place for local clubs and groups. My friend and I showed up and paid five dollars to get in. The band was already on the stage setting up their own equipment, checking the sound. A couple more kids trickled in, and we hit a maximum of about six or seven teenagers paying to attend the show. One of the members of the band came over to us and asked if we could go around the streets in the nearby neighbourhood and see if we could get any other kids to show up, so we left for about half an hour and came back with two more paying customers. We were up to about eight kids in a hall that could easily fit a hundred, if not more. There were more chairs than people in the room.
The band seemed not discouraged in the slightest and hit the stage like it was any other show. I don’t know if I could have shared their same enthusiasm with such a small crowd, the majority of which hadn’t heard a single song they had ever written. Yet, the singer/guitarist wailed at the top of his lungs, punished his Fender Strat and tore through a very loud first set. They announced a quick break, and then invited us to come hang out in the back room. I got to talk to the front man about bands we liked, playing guitar, and just general small talk. He told some of us about future shows in nearby towns. Not once did he complain about the lack of turnout, or seem disappointed.
Afterwards they commenced a second set that ended with what was essentially a request line for any grunge or punk songs people could yell out. I distinctly remember jumping around that empty room while the group plowed through an extra aggressive cut of Nirvana’s “Drain You”, thinking “Why the hell isn’t anyone else here?” I was disappointed in my town, and in my fellow teens that nobody knew or at least didn’t seem to want to show up to what had actually turned out to be a fun show.
That’s when I realized the importance of passion in music, and what separates the bands from the businesses. Any band that cared about the money could have just called off the show, and moved on instead of spending time entertaining a handful of people. Hell, most bands would have realized in advance that nobody was coming and not even bother going to my town to play, but these guys didn’t seem to care. They were perfectly happy to give a full show, even if it seemed more like a glorified practice than a true gig.
Now I attend shows in a major city, where empty space is a rare sight in a club or bar. There’s an enthusiastic audience for almost every kind of music, and it’s almost hard to remember going to that show with only a handful of kids on a summer night in a town where almost no band in their right mind would play. Still, I’m incredibly grateful that I was able to be there and see the other side of the music industry where the little bands that could push their way across an incredibly daunting country, simply for the privilege of sharing their music.
This dedication is a quality that I hope never dies in music. Hopefully, more bands will realize how much of a connection they can make with fans by simply plugging along, and building their base by touring. Japandroids have played over 200 shows on their current tour, which doesn’t end until later this year. That’s how you make a following, not through marketing or networking. That might get you some attention for a little while, but if you bring the music to the people you’ll give them a memory that will last a lifetime. That raw excitement of a live show is one thing that can’t be bought or pirated or found anywhere else, and I believe that’s where an artist needs to put their priority — even if it means playing a show to ten people in northern Ontario.