Tehee: Folks who play original music need our support

The Fresno BeeMay 7, 2014 

As pure entertainment, cover, tribute and Top 40 bands serve their purpose.

You'll never go wrong playing the Beatles or Foreigner, or the current radio genre du jour. I'd draw the line at the lunacy of a Blink-182 tribute band, though such a band exists and will play May 31 at Strummer's.

The band — Blink 180-True — will no doubt have a solid crowd, because while original music has a place in the market, Fresno is still a cover-band town.

On any given weekend there are more bands playing original music than not and the majority of local venues dedicate the bulk of their stage time to these bands. But cover bands seem to dominate in the two categories that matter most — money and crowds.

Playing original music is a struggle at best.

Aside from the skill needed to write a song and have it not suck, there is a certain vulnerability in making your music available to the world. Not every player can get over that hump.

And then there's the issue of whether they can get a foot in the door at a decent venue and on a bill that doesn't charge them for the privilege of entertaining a crowd.

After all that, you still have to worry if anyone will show up to see you play. That can be trouble, even for bands with some name recognition.

For every show where I've seen fans packed shoulder to shoulder in front of the stage, there have been two (or more) where I've stood alone. Annabella Lwin — the original singer from the band Bow Wow Wow — played in town last month and you could count the crowd that showed up on one hand.

In contrast, ApCal winery, which exclusively features cover bands, consistently draws hundreds for its Friday and Saturday shows.

In this context, it's understandable that Sierra Vista Mall's summer concert series — which kicked off last night — will feature cover/tribute/Top 40 bands for six of its eight-week run, the notable exceptions being Trey Tosh (June 26) and AC Myles (July 24).

Over those same eight weeks, hundreds of original bands — both local and touring — will play in bars, clubs and theaters around town. It's disheartening to think about which will likely get the larger crowds.

This is not to admonish musicians who play in cover bands, or the venues that book them. After all, it's called the music business for a reason, and one can't be faulted for wanting to make ends meet (or better yet, come out ahead on things). If someone can do it playing music they love, all the better (even if it is "Reelin' in the Years").

Plenty of musicians subsidize their original music by playing in cover bands. As a snotty teenager, I looked down on those guys. Now, I know better and wish them well.

Hardcore live music fans understand that original music can be as artistically masterful (or rocking, or whatever adjective you'd like to attach) as any top 40 or classic rock or country hit.

For the scene to be fully supported, we have to start converting the casual fans, the ones who get their live-music fix at shopping centers, on the floors of local casinos and similar places. If they are not afraid to seek out local music — and pay for it — venues will be more inclined to do the same.

This columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6479, jtehee@fresnobee.com or @joshuatehee on Twitter and Instagram. Read his blog at www.fresnobee.com.

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