Last week, I was asked to be a part of a group that consisted of music promoters, writers/critics and club owners that joined talk-show host Jeff Styles in a discussion about the local music scene.
I’ve been writing about and covering music in Chattanooga in one form or another for more than 25 years, and in many ways, things are much the same today as they were three decades ago. For example, when it comes to the number of clubs that we have offering live music, we have maintained essentially a zero sum gain.
We’ve always had some really talented performers, and we do today. What has changed is that our local bands are doing way more original music than they were 30 years ago. That said, cover bands still draw far larger crowds.
There is one myth I’d like to clear up because it keeps coming up: There never was a concerted ban of local acts by local club owners. Way back in the late 1970s, Overland Express was contractually obligated to play only Yesterday’s locally for a year or two. That’s another story, however, and a good one.
During the ’80s, many local bands might have felt like they were being kept out of places like Yesterday’s and the Brass Register, but it was simple economics and not a ban per se. A lot of the locals drew about 15 people to their shows and were therefore simply not invited back.
At the same time, Overland, Soul Survivor, 37 Targetz, the Malemen, 90 Proof and other local acts were playing to packed houses around town.
I can remember many conversations with musicians who were arguing that we needed a club that would support local music. The irony was many of those musicians rarely, if ever, supported other local players. Put it down to jealousy or competitiveness or whatever, the effect was that small crowds and low bar receipts kept some of those bands from playing, not a ban by club owners.
We are still a walk-up town when it comes to buying tickets. In some ways, I’d like to think this has changed a little bit. Elton John sold out faster than any other show at McKenzie Arena, and Alison Krauss sold out before her date as well, but those are rare.
Speaking of tickets, we do seem to have a perceived price point that we will not cross, but again, Sir Elton had no trouble getting $87 and $137 a ticket for some seats.
We seem to be somewhat schizophrenic when it comes to what we will go see, as well. Nightfall and Riverbend have both been around for more than two decades. Price is not a factor at either, as the first is free and the second is less than $3 a day (or about 10 cents an act).
Fans of Nightfall are perfectly willing to check out an act they’ve never heard of. For some, that has become part of the allure and one of the series’ best attributes.
The majority of fans of Riverbend, however, seem terribly reluctant to check out an unfamiliar group. That is overgeneralizing things, of course, but by and large, Riverbend is not a “new” music festival for that reason.
Riverbend fans, and local concertgoers in general, appear to want the familiar. Same as it ever was.
Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...