The Prog Gap – Millennials and the Dilemma of Live Music

prog-share-logoBoth the November and December issues of Prog magazine had interesting articles dealing with the lack of young people at progressive rock concerts. Polly Glass argued that this happens for a few reasons:

  • Millennials think of prog as an old man’s genre.
  • Prog doesn’t get support from big labels.
  • Tickets are expensive.

Polly also noted that younger prog fans tend to like heavier bands such as Haken or Opeth. In the December issue, the great Jerry Ewing shared a recent experience he had at a live show. He said that on the same night, at the same venue, two different prog shows were going on at the same time in different rooms. Essentially, he blamed the promoters for booking two prog shows at the same time, with the younger crowd choosing to go to the heavier of the shows. He said the difference in age between the two groups was staggering.

Polly and Jerry make excellent points, and they have shed some light on a topic I believe deserves more attention. As a millennial myself (although I am radically different than probably 99% of people in my generation) I’d like to talk about some of my reasons for not going to as many live shows as I would like.

Last night, the Neal Morse Band played a live show at the Arcada Theater in St. Charles, IL, a venue where I saw Flying Colors play a few years ago. The venue is great, and its owner/promoter, Ron Onesti, is fantastic. So, why didn’t I go to the show last night? After all, writers for Progarchy and the DPRP have written rave reviews of their concerts on this tour. I probably would have loved the show.

One of the biggest reasons I didn’t go is St. Charles is a royal pain to get to from where I live. It is 34 miles away if I take the back roads through stoplight hell. It is over 50 miles if I take the highway/tollway, yet both routes take an hour to get to, as long as there is no traffic. St. Charles is also pretty far from the highway, so it is easy to get lost if you aren’t paying attention.

I wouldn’t mind those above issues if I had someone to go with me – someone who could be a navigator, since driving around while staring at the GPS on your phone is really stupid and dangerous. However, the only people I know who would probably go with me to a prog show live hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Going alone isn’t just a pain when you’re trying to find someplace you’ve never been, though. It is unpleasant once you get to the venue. There is usually a lot of downtime when you go to a concert – waiting to get to your seats, sitting waiting for the show to start, intermission, etc. Being an introvert, standing around awkwardly for possibly hours is not fun at all.

This past summer, Haken played a show in downtown Chicago. If you know anything about the city of Chicago, you might know why I didn’t go. This particular venue is about two blocks west of the McCormick Center, which is in a fairly nasty area. In addition to crime, parking will likely cost $40 or more. I recently graduated from college, I haven’t found a full-time job, and I just applied to grad school. There is no way I’m going near a ghetto to pay high prices for the joy of parking my car in an area where it could get riddled with bullets. The sad part is this venue is really the only other one in Chicagoland that ever hosts prog bands.

Also, for bands out there: don’t plan a tour that includes playing in Chicagoland in the winter. I’m not buying tickets months in advance for a show in January when I live far away from the venue. I’m going to wait until the last minute to make sure the weather is ok, and when I wait that long, I’m probably not going to bother going at all.

The curmudgeon in me is showing.

prog7

Another problem is ticket prices. They’re so expensive! When Rush played their last
show in Chicago, back row tickets were going for over $500 because of jerks buying tickets and re-selling them. I only paid $950 for my car. I’m sure as heck not paying $500 to see a concert. Even tickets with decent seats to last night’s Neal Morse Band concert were $50 or $60. When my Dad was in college, he paid $13 for a third row seat at a Journey concert on their Escape tour – arguably their peak as a band. Even if there are $20 tickets in the last row, do I really want to drive all that distance just to sit in the back? No I don’t. Maybe if I lived a block away I would.

It is pretty clear that prog bands are trying to reach listeners who have plenty of expendable income. Those people tend to be older. It is true that the prog audience tends to be older, which means that us younger listeners are left out in the cold when it comes to live shows. What is really funny is that a large number of younger bands are made up of millennial musicians. Sadly, most of those bands can’t afford to tour.

Another more American problem is this country is really big. In England, a prog fan could probably see at least one prog concert a month without driving all that far. In America, there’s no way you could do that. Not that many bands tour here, and listeners will often have to drive a long way to get to a show. Even mainland Europe tends to have a high density of prog shows.

It is hard for a small band to travel over to America and make any money, and maybe the only way it is possible is if they play at a prog music festival. Those also aren’t very common in America, while they are quite common in Europe. Many millennials actually prefer to go to music festivals, since you get a lot more music for your money. For prog fans, the only real festivals are ROSfest, in Pennsylvania, or Morsefest, in Nashville, TN. There are also a few prog metal festivals elsewhere, but they are very far away, further demonstrating how hard it can be to get to a prog show.

I think Polly and Jerry are both spot on in their analysis of the prog gap, as I call it. Additionally, how many millennials do you know that want to go to a concert filled with people old enough to be their dad or grandpa? Probably not all that many. Plus, how many older people want a bunch of young people at a concert, if we are truly honest with ourselves.

Let us also not forget the gap between prog fans who only listen to classic 70’s prog bands and those of us that listen to a mixture of new and old. We’ve all heard somebody who likes Yes, Rush, Jethro Tull, etc. exclaim, “The music today sucks, and there are no good bands anymore.” Many times, those folks won’t even give the new bands a chance! If some of the older bands toured with new bands, maybe the prog audience would grow to include the old grumps who currently refuse to listen to the new bands.

Maybe this is just the way things are. Prog is for old rich people, prog metal is for young people, and the only ones who get to see their favorite bands play live are those who happen to live near a prog-friendly venue. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Prog bands could tour with other prog bands that tend to attract a younger audience. For instance, Transatlantic could tour with Haken, or Yes could tour with Dream the Electric Sleep. If you bill the show as a double headliner, you’ll get a good mixture of young and old. This solution may also solve the problem of empty seats. One prog band may not have enough of a following in a certain area to sell out a decent sized venue, but multiple bands with different target audiences might. This might also widen the horizons of millennial listeners to more traditional prog bands, as well as open the eyes of the old grumps to the new bands making outstanding music.

I think there are ways the genre as a whole can work together to improve their appeal to a younger audience. After all, that is the only way this music will be sustainable. Thanks to Prog magazine for starting this conversation. I hope this gets bands and promoters thinking creatively about how to book shows. Watching music live is incredibly rewarding, and the more people we can get watching live music the better. Prog on!

10 thoughts on “The Prog Gap – Millennials and the Dilemma of Live Music

  1. Malcolm Huxley-Duggan

    Agree in principle, but as a 61 year old progman I will make the effort to see as many prog bands as I can . In fact the newer prog bands I tend to prefer these days i.e Kyros, Big Big Train, Haken and Yuka and Chronoship for example. It is a sad fact that most bands find touring not as lucrative as in the old days. So it seems unless you can achieve fame in numbers, then prog seems to still be a dirty word and will remain underground for a while. Which is a shame but I still hold out hope for the future. The only consolation is that most bands of the proggy spectrum seem to be quiet happy to meet and contact their fan base which was something that only seemed to happen in the 70’s via PR staff. Maybe this relates to the ease of social media.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey Bryan. As a band with membership in it’s 40’s whose fans are often even older than us I too find it an…interesting live situation for us prog bands nowadays. Firstly, it’s not weird or anything for us to have younger people at our shows and boy do we welcome them so please do not think it’s an “old man’s club” or something like that! We (3RDegree: #3 album of 2015 at Progarchives.com are among our…accolades) are looking to book our usual modest “tour” later this year and the few festivals that are out there (of which we’ve played ProgDay, RoSfest, Terra Incognita & Summer’s End) are of course the best chance at getting new ears to hear our music but that aside we usually play a “practice gig” in New York City at a place where we aren’t getting paid unless a certain amount of people show up that is demeaning but we sort of use them too to get our sea legs on a new set. After that we will do a local show in northeastern NJ at a nice venue for our friends, family and local fans. Then a show at New Jersey Proghouse in central NJ-thank God for them! Then maybe I’ll look at something up in New England and at another venue (well really just a truck bay with a stage but people love it) called Orion Sounds Studios in Baltimore, Maryland. In Chicago there’s a guy who literally wants us to play in his house and well….that’s about it. I cannot afford to really address any of your “concerns” above because there’s not many places to play Rock let alone Progressive Rock actually. Some promoters are smart and want us to team up with other prog bands for a theme night and I’ve put some together in NYC but without some serious promo money all we can do is get on Facebook, Progarchives and Progressive Ears and the like to let prog fans know about it and hope for the best. Bad neighborhood, tricky bus connections, driving with the help of GPS, cost and more are all concerns and we’re aware of them but we can barely accommodate any of these matters. We’ve gotten to the point where we might just write and record because we get more “pleasure” from the writing, recording and reading reviews than the soul destroying process of getting people of all ages to come see us live. We’ve wondered…”do we suck live”? “Is there something not translating to the stage?” While our shows are not as spontaneous as say Phish, we do believe if you like our recordings you will like our show but it’s probably just a lot of the issues you illustrated that make it such a thin crowd most shows. In our area there’s loads of excuses:

    NYC: too much of schlep (thats Yiddish for “trip full of hassles”), tolls, parking….
    NJ: too expensive, etc.

    At the age that most prog fans are at even comfortable chairs or, well….ANY chairs are an “issue”. There’s an argument among Marillion fans that the band feel the energy of a live concert dictates a standing area in front of the band whereas their fan base might want to sit “at their age”! So there’s…that.

    “Bigger” bands like ones you mention above have a bit more liberty to decide on where to play and I suppose also WHO to play WITH. But even then, a tour has SO many “moving parts” that it’s really hard to “sweeten the deal” to entice people to come see the show. Basically we have to rely on you liking our music enough to risk a bit of discomfort for us most of the time.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Bryan Morey

      Robert, thanks so much for your excellent, thoughtful comment. It is great to hear a prog musician’s perspective on this topic. It is clearly a very complicated issue, and I don’t know if there is an easy solution. For me personally, I know I’ll be much more likely to start going to more shows in the coming years when I find a steady paying job and settle down a bit. I think for many people, it comes down to being a money issue for both the musicians who can’t afford to tour and for the listeners who can’t afford to go to a show. Thanks again for your insight!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. At the risk of being redundant regarding the trials and tribulations of being a contemporary “progressive rock artist” (what does that even *mean* anyhow? Perhaps a topic for another discussion), I’d like to chime in along with Rob (as I always tend to do when 3rDegree gets into Jack Handey territory over a few beers) by addressing your three points above. Hopefully my earnest commentary won’t earn me the scorn of those who would otherwise enjoy the music I make with 3rDegree.

    1. Millennials think of prog as an old man’s genre.

    When it comes to the thought that Prog is for stodgy old folks, I feel the issue has much more to do with perception than age. More and more, instead of it being viewed as exciting, innovative, boundary-pushing and defying categorization, most newbies tend to view it as a singular era of musical exploration that occurred in the late ’60s and early ’70s. There’s where you get the “old man” train of thought — but why exactly is it that way? In short, I feel that Prog Purists have hijacked what the term PROG means to younger listeners. What is a Prog Purist, you say? Prog Purists are those who loudly proclaim the virtues of the pomp and complexity of bands like Gentle Giant, King Crimson, pre 90125 Yes, and Peter Gabriel era Genesis while summarily dismissing fresh, new talent as too derivative, too metal or too poppy. They’re the first to swoon when you mention you haven’t heard the full fidelity of Tarkus on LP or pondered the underlying sociological messages in “The Snow Goose”. They’re the first to tell you why [insert interesting band you like here] isn’t *really* prog. And they’re the people who won’t bother spending the time and money to take a chance on three new bands for $15.00 (see 3. below).

    Add all that up and it sure sucks the fun out of liking the music you like and being open to new music without feeling you need to fit into “the club” to be legitimized.

    2. Prog doesn’t get support from big labels.

    A long time ago, talent scouts would scour music venues in search of the most talented acts to recruit to a label. When a band was discovered, big record companies would put up tens of thousands of dollars to finance the making of an album. This money would allow these artists to work full-time on their music in order to produce a top-quality product. Against the album sales’ revenue, more money would be ponied up to finance a tour to promote the band. There was risk involved in every facet of the process, but a band’s quality would often be reason enough to hedge a bet.

    Today, it seems music has morphed into an industry where musicians earn reward and fame based primarily on profitability rather than quality. That’s not to say that popular artists are not good musicians — there are many talented musicians churning out pleasant, easy-to-digest music (and getting rich in the process). What I mean is, in the Pro-Tools age there are so many artists putting their stuff out there in hopes of being discovered. Why would record companies put up money and take a risk on something unusual or inventive when they can surf Bandcamp and cherry-pick a pretty face and music that conforms to known formulae that currently generates profit?

    Without tangible financial support from a label, being in a prog band becomes a (sometimes staggeringly expensive) monthly expense justified only as a labor of love.

    3. Tickets are expensive.

    Unfortunately, I find this argument to be rather specious without some qualification. In the decade or so that I’ve been gigging, there has rarely been a time anyone has had to pony up anything more than $20 to see us play — and that usually included at least two other bands as well. But then again, I’m not Neal Morse. However, there is more to this point when you consider the time = money formula. Because of 1. and 2. above, many prog artists are forced to play gigs where they can get them; oftentimes in venues and locations that are not the most conveniently located. Case in point made by Rob above: We can book gigs in New York City fairly easily. There are so many venues in NYC that *someone* will be willing to host us if we look hard enough. However if you don’t live in Manhattan, when you factor in gas, tolls and parking (money) and traffic (money = time), a $20 ticket turns into a $100 night out in an instant. That’s a big commitment to make if you don’t know or love all the bands playing. And as an aside (which has nothing to do with the fan attending the shows), there’s a good chance that *none* of the bands you’re seeing are getting paid at all due to ridiculous minimum attendance policies set by many venues — AND we’re paying the same gas, tolls and parking as you are on top of that. If that doesn’t take the wind out of your sails as a performer, you’re a much better trooper than I.

    In conclusion, I’d like to direct you to a review of Romantic Warriors I wrote for USA Progressive Music almost seven years ago, which lightly touches on everything mentioned above. In short, times they are a changin’ and the game just keeps getting more complex.

    http://usaprogmusic.com/joomla/index.php?Itemid=28&review=526-Romantic-Warriors-n-a

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Bryan Morey

      Thanks, epseja. I wholeheartedly agree with you! And you’re right about ticket prices – the high prices are usually for bigger names.

      When I saw Haken two years ago (my concert review: https://progarchy.com/2015/04/27/haken-live-in-detroit-with-next-to-none-42515/), I paid $25 for a ticket, and four bands played that evening. Ya, the venue was a glorified bar in a suburb of Detroit, but Mike Portnoy was there (his son’s band was doing their first tour) and he played Rush’s “Spirit of Radio” with Tiles. That was amazing, and that was only the first opening act! Haken came on a few hours later and blew everybody away. I remember talking to a dude probably 10 years older than me who said he and his friends drove all the way from Indianapolis to see this show, so prog fans are clearly willing to travel long distances. I drove about 2 hours to see that show, and it was worth it, especially considering the price.

      The place I mentioned in my article in downtown Chicago is a similar venue with similar prices for prog concerts, but like you said, tolls, parking, dinner, etc. can get expensive very quickly. I didn’t know that bands won’t get paid if not enough people show up. That’s really sad, especially since small venues are making all of their money on alcohol, like a movie theater selling popcorn.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Bryan,
    You raise some excellent points. I’m in my mid-50s, and I love seeing young people at shows. That said, it takes a lot to get me out of the house, especially on a weeknight.

    For popular bands, scalpers are a pox on the industry. It seems that no matter what a regular Joe does, the best seats always go to resellers.

    FWIW, Neal Morse sells tickets to students for half-price. You just need to show your student ID at the door.

    Liked by 1 person

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