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The Weird Decline and Rise of the Live Musician

I started my career in the music business very early. In 1978, at the age of 6 years old, I landed my first ever live audio recording gig. I know, it sounds preposterous but let me explain. My father, Thomas G. Padgett (rest his soul), was an avid singer who loved to sing all the time. He would sing around the house while doing random chores, helping me with homework, raking leaves, what have you.

This led him to join our church choir before even I was born.When I was 4 years old my father began singing with a very old well respected German men’s chorus called the Indianapolis Maennerchor, an Indianapolis institution since the 1850s. They would annually perform at this event called the Indianapolis Triad Concert, a major social event every year where the Maennerchor, the Murat Shrine Chanters and singers from the Knights of Columbus would perform at the Murat Shrine Auditorium, which is now the preeminent concert hall theater in Indianapolis. 

I became fascinated with a tape recorder that my dad bought to use to record his favorite music from NPR public radio. Music of all kinds was a big thing in my house, and the tape recorder ended up being used for a lot of different radio stations. I got pretty good at operating the tape deck and so my dad would occasionally bring me along to practice with the Maennerchor where he would have me tape their practices so he could hear how they sounded later.

As a result, the choir director asked my dad if I would record their performance from the audience at the Triad Concert. I was completely over the moon when my dad asked me to do them a favor by recording their performance. I’ve been a live music addict ever since.Full disclosure, my oldest brother Tom Padgett is a musician who makes a living as a guitarist and session player, as well as a recording engineer and producer.

I am a little biased in this discussion and I freely admit this going in. My intention is to draw attention to the perspective of live musicians everywhere.The digital music age that is upon us has been both a boon and a burden to musicians who perform live for a living. The pure professional musician who does not compose and record their own music that perform arrangements of other peoples’ music run the gamut from bar bands playing cover songs to professional traveling orchestras, symphonies, recording session players and many other trained and untrained musicians who successfully make a living performing live.

Digital music sales are way up in the last decade, providing more recording artists an opportunity to go out on tour. Whenever an artist like a Britney Spears or an Usher or other pop artist goes on tour, its professional musicians who get called to be in the band that supports the singer on tour. With sales of all kinds of genres of music up, the number of bands touring these days have never been higher and has led to an expanding concert industry that takes in billions every year.

At the same time however, an often much overlooked dirty secret of the business is the rapid decline of live music nightclubs in the US. For many older musicians, the live music nightclubs were a kind of farm team system for the concert business where musicians could "gain their chops" as they say in the business. Its also been a great way to make a living on the local level for a great number of musicians like my brother Tom and our friends in the local bands of Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.

However, in the last 5 years the clubs have started closing to give way to DJs, big screen TVs and satellite sports packages. As a result, there has been fewer and fewer places for musicians to play gigs at which are their paycheck source, as well as the source of their audience and fans.

Its not just cover bands being affected here, its also small club touring acts from the modern rock charts that are finding it harder to hit the road and play to smaller intimate audiences because maybe they can’t fill the 4500 seat Murat Shrine Auditorium or the adjacent 1100 seat Egyptian Room venue.

So while the corporate owned concert business makes a killing, the next generation of musicians are playing the few remaining 200-1000 seat nightclubs left to play in and supplementing with house party gigs and small scale corporate events like retirement parties and weddings.

And to add insult to injury, when they are able to find a club gig, clubs no longer pay premiums for experienced bands like they once did. A band like my brother’s used to make $2500 a night 10 years ago. Now they are lucky to get $350-500 a night to split 4 or 5 ways or more.Indeed, it is a weird decline and rise of the live musician in our modern music business.

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Joh Padgett

Joh Padgett

I do the music column on Saturdays and the Primordial Grooves playlist on The Seminal blog on Sundays. I also own Layman Media, a social media production company in Indianapolis and I love cheese.