On Thursday, New Times music editor Martin Cizmar wrote a post for this blog asking "Do House Shows Matter?" and his tone and his own comments to the post show he does not see much worth in them, going as far as to say they "actually undermine any real scene." His post was a reply to a post on the Factory Made Future blog about a Lenguas Largas show at a house in the Garfield neighborhood Downtown. Unsurprisingly, Martin's post has attracted a load of criticism and response from members of the Phoenix arts and music community.
At the same time Martin has been asking me to contribute more discussions to this blog for a while now and I thought this topic was one I would like weigh in on. Full disclosure: I am a local promoter, of course, so I have a financial interest in this question.)
I would like to pose the question differently before I answer it, as I think Martin makes a distinction here that I do not see.
I would like to ask: Do small shows matter? Let's define this as anything under 100 people in attendance. I would suspect most new and developing artists would not find much distinction between a small shows at a bar or club and a house show. For their purposes they are different but in no way mutually exclusive.
Some people whose attention is strictly given to mainstream artists might ask a similar question as Martins about art galleries, bars, and clubs; they could say all the "interesting" or "good" or "worthwhile" shows happen at theaters, arenas, and stadiums. All the acts that most people know play these venues so obviously all the no name acts playing in clubs don't contribute to mass culture in any meaningful way, right?
But the problem with this line of thinking is that it shows no understanding or appreciation of how artists actually develop. The years spent playing small clubs and basements, and, yes, even house shows, are absolutely vital to the growth of any and all artists. It is not all about exposure. It is not the case that the great acts of today were great before they got their "lucky break" (a concept I do not put any value in itself) and had they had the opportunity of exposure years before they actually broke most likely would have not succeeded.
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One must remember that Green Day started playing house shows before arenas. Bob Dylan played coffee shops before Woodstock, Nirvana played basements before the played on MTV. Bruce Springsteen is famous for the years he and the E Street Band spent on the road playing small clubs (and I would not be surprised if they did a house show in there some where). The Jackson 5 spent five years touring small dance halls and bars before they had a hit on Motown. Michael had been touring for 24 years before Thriller. And most famously The Beatles used to play teen dance halls, not to mention German strip clubs, before they were on Ed Sullivan.
My argument here would be that all the years these artists spent playing small shows are what made them great. It is when they flushed out both their technical ability and refined their artistic style. In the same way no quarterback's first football game will ever be the Super Bowl. Had Dylan never played a coffee shop and walked on the stage at Woodstock no one would know his name today. Had The Beatles first show been the Ed Sullivan shows they would be a footnote in history the way "The Situation" will be in a few years. Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers has a great chapter on the Beatles and how they developed, and how the 90+ shows they did in that German strip club is actually is what made them so great years later. Had a German strip club owner not decided to book a little British band of teenagers who were not playing anything original in the '50s who knows if any artists would have ever sold out Shea Stadium? (Outliers is a must-read for anyone interested in the idea of artistic development).
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But the reason I put so much stock in this view is far from academic. It do this because I have seen it so many times over the decade as I have helped new and small acts find shows in the valley, and yes even house shows. I have seen just about every band in Phoenix who is noteworthy play in houses; Dear And The Headlights (who Martin himself has called the "most Important band in Arizona"), Kinch (who Martin picked as his favorite Arizona album of '08), Scary Kids Scaring Kids, Sam Means, The Bled, Andrew Jackson Jihad, Landmine Marathon, The Stiletto Formal, Lymbyc Systym, Greeley Estates, Bless The Fall, and many more. I know Jimmy Eat World, Authority Zero, Calexico, and The Maine have also played house shows before we were all watching them. In fact I cannot think of one single valley artist with any level of success in any genre who has never played a house show at some point in the valley. If, as Martin concludes, house shows are so undermining to our scene would it not go to suppose at least some noteworthy artists would have chose to avoid them?
Great artists do not exist in a vacuum, they do not start out great, they develop through a long hard process that for many of them starts in garages or the house shows Martin sees no value in. And as someone who has devoted their adult life to helping artists with the little steps at the start of that long process I have an answer to Martins question:
Yes, yes, house shows mater.
Disclaimer: I live in the Garfield Neighborhood, and have hosted shows in my house.