You're Not Invited

Secret shows. Corporate gigs. Blind Dates. Why is it becoming harder for the public to get a piece of the rock?

It's difficult to imagine a local band as sonically overpowering as Savage Aural Hotbed--three taiko-inspired percussionists and a bass player hammering against industrialism--suddenly taking a breather while some Dilbertian figure congratulates his employees on their annual achievements in widgetry. But Savage Aural Hotbed, like hundreds of other local groups, has been playing corporate gigs through much of the Nineties, buffering itself against the national bust in clubland.

"We did a thing in Atlanta that was like a pre-Olympics festival event," says bassist William Melton. "They invited dignitaries from different countries. The general public would never have heard about it, because they weren't invited." Melton says private music has artistic upsides--the band's Dayton's paychecks effectively underwrite their forays in performance accompaniment for a group like Joe Chvala's Flying Foot Forum. But the real twin perks of the corporate gig are great money (two to three grand, on average, versus the $500 to $1,500 that clubs normally pay) and great hors d'oeuvres--fiscal and gastronomical lusts being the most immediate.

"It's kind of the high life," says Melton, laughing. "They usually let us go out and eat a little bit, and mingle briefly with the clientele, then they show us back to the kitchen. Artists have historically had a different position in life than the kitchen help when working with the aristocracy, but we're generally more associated with the workers. We're there to entertain and be colorful."

"What better way to enjoy yourself than to listen to a little rock 'n' roll and drink a lot of free beer?" Brett Scallions of Fuel at the band's recent MGD Blind Date show
Tony Nelson
"What better way to enjoy yourself than to listen to a little rock 'n' roll and drink a lot of free beer?" Brett Scallions of Fuel at the band's recent MGD Blind Date show

In the past two decades, several local agencies have sprung up to meet the demand for live music at corporate functions, weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, and product unveilings (in that order of import). A surprising number of musicians, most of them nonentities in the local scenes, play nothing but private functions. That number has jumped in the past couple of years, according to Brian Harrell, co-owner and sales manager of All Time Favorites, a St. Paul-based agency that books talent for private events. "There's a couple hundred local bands that have just gone so far and say, you know, let's do the private field and keep our full-time jobs."

There's nothing wrong with any of this, I hear you complaining. Give Mould and the other jobbers a break. We're all jobbers in the end: We rock to live, and we live to rock--what Guided By Voices leader Robert Pollard recently called a vicious cycle. Even City Pages hires bands for its own corporate glad-handing functions (thank you, Lifter Puller). And as Fuel frontman Brett Scallions told the MGD flock, "What better way to enjoy yourself than to listen to a little rock 'n' roll and drink a lot of free beer?"

Michael Tienken, who manages the Hot Head Swing Band and Vic Volare, knows both the benefits and limits of getting the job done under the tug of the puppet strings. "Sometimes the musicians are up there going, 'We're making 300 dollars apiece, I can get through this,'" he says. "But those shows are band killers--when the band is frustrated because it's in the background. The thing about a great night in a club, when everyone's just sweaty and it's really happening, is that the band gets way more than money from that." Which, rock fans may remember, used to be the point.

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