Small Is Beautiful (Again)

When Ernst Friedrich Schumacher published his influential work Small Is Beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered, the world was embarking on super-sizing everything. Small Is Beautiful brought Schumacher’s critique of Western economics to a wider audience during the 1973 oil crisis and the late modernist phenomenon of emerging globalization. I have no idea what music Schumacher, the world-renowned economic genius, listened to while writing this seminal work but in my vivid imagination he might have been exposed to some 70’s German progressive rock such as Das Kollektiv, Musikalische Gruppenimprovisation, Supersession or The Karpenkiels.

Prof. Ernst Friedrich Schumacher 

I have written on a number of occasions about how I regard progressive rock as displaying many modernist tendencies and that I regard it as the Sci-Fi of contemporary music. It’s all grand-narratives, big is beautiful, an anti-thesis of what Schumacher’s mentor, Leopold Kohr, termed “the cult of bigness”. In 1955, Schumacher was based in Burma as an economic consultant and it was here that he developed the set of principles he called “Buddhist economics“. This was based on the belief that individuals need good work for proper human development. He also proclaimed, “production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life.”  Schumacher’s experience led him to become a pioneer of what is now termed “appropriate technology”; user-friendly and ecologically suitable technology applicable to the scale of the community.

Popular, contemporary or commercial music, call it what you will, is not known for its pioneering, cutting edge or its innovations; it’s known for following trends and doing the same thing over and over again, albeit just slightly different in each iteration. From rock ‘n’ roll’s (that’s what I am going to call it) bastard birth in 1956, its central motif has always been ‘Big Is Beautiful’. While working on my PhD thesis, Even better than the real thing: the hyperreality and simulacrum of popular music live performance, I argued that this trend started approximately 15 minutes after the Beatles stepped off the stage at Shea Stadium on 15th August 1965. That was the precise epistemic moment that the collective epiphany of a fledgling industry was born. The only problem was that technology would take another 30 years to catch up to deliver on the promise. That’s how ahead of their time the Beatles were.

I have worked in the international smoke and mirrors live music industry since I left school in the summer of 1979 and all I’ve ever heard is, “how many units did you sell?” or “how many production trucks do you have on tour?”– more lights, lasers, complex hydraulic sets, larger PA systems, bigger theatres/arenas/stadium. The classic zero-sum game of production one-upmanship equated to an industry based on technological determinism. Recently, I was speaking to a colleague working on the Taylor Swift ‘Reputation’ Tour and her comments reaffirmed this. Boasting 82 semi-trucks of staging, 52 high-cube 40-foot shipping containers, 6 Boeing 747 cargo planes and 300 tons of steel, the production required 4 construction tower cranes to put everything together with a 120-local crew. However you look at this it’s a monumental show, a classic ‘Big Is Beautiful’ example. Big it might be but is it contemporary? The evidence would suggest a resounding “No”. While Tata goes super-sized all the other stadium filling acts are going in the opposite direction, after all small is beautiful, is it not?

Having witnessed some of the most over-the-top and jaw dropping spectacular stadium rock shows over the last few years I have often asked myself where is this going? The financial funding of rock tours has significantly shifted over the last two decades. The original model of recoupable tour costs; referred to as ‘tour support’, was the economic funding mechanism that put these gargantuan shows on the road. Most signed bands took advantage and some even exploited this system. Many artists didn’t realise that the money used to finance their tours would be taken out of future royalty payments. The tour support system was used to cover equipment hire, crew salaries, freight cost, travel, accommodation, staff per diems, vehicle rental and whatever other expenses come up during a tour, basically it put bands and their shows out on tour.

Touring a ‘full production’ show is an extremely expensive business. As tactile format sales (records, tapes, compact discs) have dried up so has record company tour support. It’s no surprise that tour support has become impossibly hard to come by, especially for indie music. As album sales have shrunk, often replaced by digital streaming of singles, record labels just do not have enough money to foot the bill anymore. The returns spent on tour support are not guaranteed, especially on tours that are essentially promotional tours designed to help a band build a fan base.

Touring may help a band locate an audience, but it probably will not directly translate into enough product sales to offset the investment. The writing was well and truly on the wall way before the digital revolution kicked in. Smaller, often independent, record labels support for touring their acts suffered from this and other significant financial problems. Often a band’s tour would succeed in expanding their fan base and selling records, but this simply enabled the artist to move from the small independent label to a major one. In the 21st century, however, tour support has now morphed into tour sponsorship and has gravitated away from record labels to international business conglomerates that often have no direct involvement in music. Often the largest, established acts attract this style of financial support with small emerging bands left with no financial guarantee.

One would have thought this radical change would see the end of large-scale rock tours, but this is definitely not the case. The business has become more agile, lean and some would say more engaging without record company involvement via tour support. Many bands now tour at a level that their predecessors would not have envisaged. Where once it with would have been two semi-trailer trucks full of equipment, a crew bus and a band bus on tour its now one bus or van with a trailer and locally sourced production. This is due to a few factors. First, it is partly facilitated by the technological trickle-down effect that sees most clubs and theatres equipped with adequate audio and lighting. Second, large hire companies offloading their un-hired inventory once the touring boom was over. Third, modern stage performance technology has become much smaller, cheaper and more intelligent than anything that came before. The days of schlepping enormous amounts of performance technology around the world are over except for the handful of top tier acts. But has the move away from technological deterministic rock performance negatively impacted upon the performance? I would argue in most cases it is a resounding “No”.

I recently watched Netflix’s Springsteen on Broadway and wished I could have seen the show live. My last encounter with ‘The Boss’ was in 2009 at Glastonbury Festival. I was there with some now forgotten band who had played earlier that evening. The enforced no vehicle movement until 1 hour after the main act finishes was placed our travel movements. There was not much else to do except walk over to the main stage and catch Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band put on a show so good it was quasi-religious. For three magical hours, Pilton became the Promised Land.

Was this proof of Emile Durkheim’s religious theory, “a religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacredthings, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them”? Springsteen is perhaps the world’s finest practitioner of gig-as-religious-event, a huge communion between performer and audience. His ability to render such vast open spaces intimate is unrivalled, effortlessly bridging the gap between band and audience. It’s a finely tuned, rehearsed and orchestrated routine, certainly, but it’s very hard to deny the Boss’s sheer passion and conviction.

With this level of stage-craft, Springsteen could carry on playing stadiums and festival shows until the very end but he decided to drastically alter course. When the Boss hit the boards at the 975 seat Walter Kerr Theatre in New York’s Broadway in October 2017, no one really knew what to expect. While Springsteen has undertaken solo acoustic tours before, such as The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) or Devils and Dust (2005) these were concerts, within the established traditional framework. Even though Springsteen has a reputation for storytelling both solo and within the E Street Band shows, the concept of what he intended was a departure from the standardised format of rock shows:

My show is just me, the guitar, the piano, and the words and music. Some of the show is spoken, some of it is sung. It loosely follows the arc of my life and my work” – Bruce Springsteen 2018

 Voluntarily stripped of the classic rock show technological paraphernalia, it’s enthralling how Springsteen interacts with the physical intimate space of the theatre. He moves between centre stage and a standing microphone, or the piano, with a similarly stationary microphone. But the compactness of the theatre and its acoustics are such that, combined with the physics of vocal projection, he’s allowed to step away from the microphone and still be completely audible. This un-amplified version of the Boss is at first disconcerting but once the viewer/listener is fully sutured into the performance it becomes as mesmerising as any shaman.

Sir Paul McCartney plays the Philharmonic Pub in Liverpool

Springsteen is not the only ‘A’ leaguer to adopt the ‘Small is Beautiful’ principle to their performance. Most of the internet connected global congregation witnessed a 76-year old man play a few songs in a Liverpool pub at the end of last year. But this was no ordinary senior playing a few cover songs, this was ex-Beatle Sir Paul McCartney in his home town. Playing in front a crowd of just 50 people, McCartney played a set list which included the mega-hits Love Me DoI Wanna Be Your ManBack in the U.S.S.RBirthdayI’ve Got A Feeling and concluded with a tear educing Hey Jude. Sir Paul said the journey back to his childhood home had made him reflect on the trajectory of his life. “The distance from here to where we went, and where we are now is phenomenal.” Of course, the genius part of this performance was the casual but very carefully curated ‘You Tube’ selfie styled video, which according to CBS attracted over 130 million views across social media platforms. It’s an interesting trend and one taken up by a variety of well-established artists such as Prince with his ‘Piano and Microphone’ show, U2 at the 1,700 seat Roundhouse in London or Simple Minds and their ‘Acoustic’ album and subsequent tour.   

The modern generation of musical content creators, e.g. Millennials and Gen-Z, who are often unfairly ridiculed, are actually right on trend. Though often prone to technological determinism in the form of excessive ‘plugs-in’ and knackered old analogue audio equipment but adopting the small is beautiful mentality. Gone are the days of huge record company advances spent in lavish record studio studios with ‘fruit and flowers’ budgets to match. These modern-day content generators are now all sat in bedrooms, behind their laptops. I return to my original premise here, or rather Prof. Schumacher’s, “production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life“. This is after all what Schumacher advocated, user-friendly and ecologically suitable technology applicable to the scale of the community.

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