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New book on the history of live music explores race, gender and why concerts cost so much

Pandemic or not, live music came back with gusto this summer at festivals, as well as outdoor and indoor concerts — albeit with more nervous promoters.

But long before COVID-19 threatened to upend the concert industry, Steve Waksman, a music professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, started writing a book on the history of live music in America.

One of the first tasks on Waksman’s literary to-do list was to actually define live music. Is it simply the opposite of recorded music? Is it a massive gathering of screaming fans? Is it anytime you have both a performer and an audience?

“Live music is an incredibly complex cultural phenomenon," he said. "But I think we often just think about it as this thing that happens. It's like, ‘It's live music. What do you need to do? You plug a few instruments into some amplifiers. You rock out.’ But it's not just that."

For one, live music is huge business. Waksman starts his new book, “Live Music in America: A History From Jenny Lind to Beyoncé,” with the 1850 tour of concert singer Jenny Lind, which was organized by promoter P.T. Barnum.

“Barnum was an unabashed cultural capitalist and really was a model for, I think, the notion that you could sell culture,” Waksman said, “and make it into something that people would want to pay significant amounts of money for over and over and over again.”

Today, it’s not unusual to spend hundreds of dollars on a concert ticket. But Waksman said prices first took off in the 1970s, when rock performers began to hire agents to demand a larger piece of the pie.

“So you have Led Zeppelin, most famously … saying, ‘You know, any concert that we play, we get 90% of the profits from,’” Waksman said. “This was considered to be ridiculous by the terms of the day, but promoters went along with it because they still made money.”

That was followed by a consolidation of corporate promoters, like Live Nation and Ticketmaster, who could then control the live music economy. And now, Waksman said, consumers are willing to pay a lot for proximity to celebrity, for an alternative to screens, and to have a communal experience.

“Whether that's to sing along or dance or scream at a certain particularly high moment when a song crescendos or something,” Waksman said. “And I think it's that channeling of a sort of collective response that's especially powerful for people, that we're all part of something and we don't even have to talk about it. We just all kind of feel it at the same time.”

Throughout the book, Waksman explores less famous musical periods, such as Vaudeville, early jazz, and the introduction of classical music to the masses in the 1920s and '30s.

Smith College music professor Steve Waksman, at his home in Northampton, Massachusetts. His new book is called "Live Music in America: A History From Jenny Lind to Jay-Z."
Karen Brown
Smith College music professor Steve Waksman, at his home in Northampton, Massachusetts. His new book is called "Live Music in America: A History From Jenny Lind to Jay-Z."

Waksman also probes seminal events in popular music, including Bob Dylan going electric and the 1969 Woodstock festival. He questions some long-held assumptions.

“Woodstock absolutely was a crucial event. It mattered because it had significance on a sort of larger cultural and generational level,” he said. “As far as the history of music festivals goes, though, I don't know that Woodstock was so groundbreaking.”

He said the Newport jazz and folk festivals of the early 1960s, in Rhode Island, had a greater impact on what would become the modern music festival.

“They were not anywhere near as big as Woodstock,” Waksman said. “But they were events where a lot of work was done to figure out what kind of infrastructure you would need in order to make a festival work.”

During that era, he said, many music festivals were looked at as a public good, a nonprofit venture designed for all social classes.

“And so, there was a lot of push for things to be free,” he said. “Nobody is calling for free festivals nowadays.”

“That said,” he added, “I do think there is still a very strong belief that festivals aren't just about the money. And so, each festival producer has to figure out what story they want to tell, because I think audiences still want to be part of a story.”

Waksman also considers live music a reflection of societal attitudes, especially around race. Black performers were banned from white venues for years. Some performers, like Ma Rainey and Mamie Smith in the 1920s and 30s, became popular at theaters for Black audiences only.

Chuck Berry was once hired because concert promoters thought, after hearing his song “Maybellene,” that Berry was white. When they saw he wasn’t, Waksman said, he wasn’t allowed to play.

“Segregation died hard,” he said. “And it's still very much in place — not in a legal sense, obviously, but in the sense that the concert industry really grew in a way that favored white artists and genres that were identified with white artists.”

Outside of major performers like Jay-Z, Waksman said, it’s still much harder for Black artists, especially in hip-hop, to get booked on major concert tours. For one, insurance costs go up.

“This is because there is an industry-wide fear of Black audiences,” he said, “because there is a belief, which is really rooted in racism, that Black audiences are more inclined towards violence and disorder, and that it's less safe to put on a concert that is primarily going to draw, especially, a young Black audience.”

Waksman’s book ends with the story of Beyoncé performing at Coachella in 2018. It was the first time a Black woman headlined that festival, and the event represents what Waksman wanted to say more generally about live music.

“How race matters, how gender matters, how these are not just spaces of utopia and belonging, but also spaces where social division and inequality can also be reproduced,” Waksman said. “And how the impulse towards progressive social change can be reconciled with the impulse towards making the most money, but that it takes dedicated effort in order to bring those two objectives together.”

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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