Musical Chairs

Bands are overbooked. Fans are staying home. As the music scene splinters, who's left standing?

Industry troubles don't necessarily explain what's going on at First Avenue. Recessions on the national scene have actually worked to the club's advantage sometimes in the past, since one of its strengths is that it can draw artists who are typically too big for venues its size. In slump years, a band that might otherwise play the Guthrie or the Orpheum frequently ends up packing them in at First Avenue. "That component's helped us keep the doors open for a long time," says Meyers. "And this time around that doesn't seem to be working. You might blame the industry on that, although one doesn't really know for sure." One issue could be the aging of the original First Avenue generations; fewer older fans may be willing to attend a nightclub setting to watch Guthrie-type acts like Rickie Lee Jones and Emmylou Harris, who both recently performed in the Mainroom.

Still, the primary factor working against First Avenue these days seems to be the collective hangover from the industry's alt-rock surplus--and the continuing fragmentation of music audiences. During the boom, record labels burst onto the streets to sign anything and everything that fit a vaguely defined alternative niche, springing for MTV one-hit wonders without regard to such concepts as album quality and artist development. Naysayers at the time warned that this practice would result in a crash, a prophecy that has been fulfilled sooner than most expected. In one sense the industry literally burned out an already cynical and bored fan base with the glut of interchangeable, underdeveloped alt-rock acts it sent schlepping down I-94.

"Bands are such flashes in the pan," says Kate Maher, First Avenue's bookkeeper. "We book them right away, and by the time they get here--and we're never at the beginning of a tour--nobody wants to go see them anymore." Many clubland insiders believe that to bolster flagging live-appearance revenues, national booking agents are routinely overbooking their tours--making commitments that neither the agents, the labels, nor the (frequently inexperienced) musicians can necessarily uphold. First Avenue staffers note this might be influencing their alarming cancellation rate of late.

In market terms, everything is niche now, to such an extent that it no longer makes sense to talk about "the rock audience" or "the pop audience." There's no Top 40 radio anymore, and no musical mainstream in the sense that the term was understood even 10 years ago. The majority of music culture exists on the margins, in more or less disparate camps. When Lollapalooza debuted in 1991, it thus seemed a brilliant concept; it tried to gather together the pieces of an emerging alt-nation consensus that involved elements of rock, industrial, hip hop, and left politics. If it seemed like a utopian project at the time, it looks in retrospect more like canny merchandising. The multiartist touring music festival was a means of pulling together a number of acts that collectively drew enough people to work economically as a major touring unit. Diversity was one of its attractions. But six Lollapaloozas later, the festival is in the midst of a pitched and possibly fatal identity crisis. Attendance was lackluster on its early dates--in New York less than half of the venue's 27,000 capacity was filled--and official rumor contends that the bands were asked to take pay cuts, resulting in pullouts from two of the bill's most adventurous acts, hip-hop experimentalist Dr. Octagon and the punk-fried Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

Multiartist tours are still a very big deal, but for the successful ones, variety and diversity are ironically and emphatically not the point. To wit: In the summer of 1997, the punk/skateboard crowd skipped Lollapalooza and opted for the Vans Warped Tour, the 19-band extreme-sports extravaganza that breezed through St. Paul last month. The metal tribe went to Ozzfest; the hip-hop tribe attended Smokin' Grooves; and the neo-hippies road-tripped to the Furthur or H.O.R.D.E. fests. A prospective electronica tour, Chaotica, was canned just before the summer. But the women-oriented Lilith Fair seems poised to end up the hot tour of the season, recently landing the cover of Time with its roughly constructed theme of MOR feminism.

Fragmentation on the festival circuit makes immediate economic sense for an industry trying to resuscitate itself; it also means the survival of the narrowest. There was a point in the long history of rock-audience fragmentation when the trend lines favored places like First Avenue. In the days of punk and post-punk and then alternative rock, the ethos of rock on the margins helped to build the club's rep and clientele; now the growing tribalism of various disparate music audiences has reached such an advanced state that it threatens the club's future. And the evidence suggests that fragmentation is the norm on every level.

"Now the dance audiences are even splintering," says McClellan. "Dance here was always programmed to appease [a broad audience]. But now you've got the whole rave/acid, heavy rave segment, and that's all they'll go to; the R&B slice that you won't catch at a rave event, the rave people that you won't catch at a rock event. Just like the reggae audience: Now it's roots reggae, and dance-hall reggae, and there isn't just a reggae audience that goes out to all reggae anymore. You've taken that lot and divided it into camps."

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