Saturday, August 16, 2014

Sioux Falls Is Starving

I've been an apologist for nearly eight years. An earnest, despondent, and sometimes embarrassed apologist. Maybe I was born that way, maybe it's all part of the culture, or maybe it's just my environment. For eight years, I've usually blamed the latter.

I'm sorry, South Dakota just isn't ready for live music.

It's not you, it's us.

I started booking concerts in South Dakota as a 19-year-old sophomore at South Dakota State University. Arriving in Brookings from Minnesota, I had no preconceived expectation for the music scene. Obviously I knew bands wouldn't be driving through on a regular basis, but during my tour the previous fall, I was informed that Phantom Planet had either just played there or was about to. And it was 2004, so that meant something. But what I ended up arriving to was a complete apathy for live music. People weren't disinterested in music, that seems almost inhuman, they just didn't care about hearing something new. And that's the worst enemy of anyone who lacks the budget to book the world's most popular acts.

I spent three years battling an apathy for discovery with mixed and sometimes amusing results. Considering that the first show I was responsible for netted maybe 40 people (including those of us who were required to attend), getting attendance up over 250 for acts like The Whigs or Cloud Cult was certainly a marketing success. I even aimed to please during the fall of 2007 by booking a then-unknown country band called Lady Antebellum. I had a captive audience over 2,000 incoming freshman, surely once they heard how talented this band was, they'd rush the stage and never again cast judgment on a band they'd never heard of. No such luck - they just wolfed-down their free dinners and ignored the artists who would go on to win Best New Artist at the CMAs in 2008 and haul-in seven Grammys* over the next four years.

This is how I turned into an apologist. I believed in the bands that I booked. I knew they were having success elsewhere and that their music was well-received. So when rooms didn't fill up and the audience had nothing to give back to artists, I'd put my tail between my legs, hand them their check and offer up a sincere, "I'm sorry more people didn't show up." It's a phrase that followed me to Sioux Falls when my only job was to show up when someone booked a show. "Your set was great! Thanks for coming! I'm sorry more people didn't show up..."

But something's changed and I can't explain why - at least not scientifically. In the past two weeks, three different venues booked three very different shows: Jason Isbell at the Orpheum, Fitz and the Tantrums at the District, and Future Islands (with the Dan Boeckner-led Operators) at Icon Lounge. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the warm welcome that was received by Jason Isbell and Fitz and the Tantrums. And Monday night's show at Icon was no different. Icon filled up for two fantastic sets, bands hung out with enthusiastic fans before and after the show, and Operators grabbed a great memento at the falls.

South Dakotans have always turned out for the big acts. But bands who don't receive commercial radio airtime have a harder time out here. I still chalk it up to lack of familiarity and not ticket prices or quality of the performers. It' just that those of us who seek out new music on a regular basis are in the minority here. Radio still reigns supreme for discovery. But somehow a lack of airtime didn't hurt these three shows. Was it quality promotion? Was it friends frantically reaching out to friends begging them to show up? Or is the audience in Sioux Falls growing?

New venues and record stores have opened up over the past two years, while others have expanded. Did they foresee a perceived need, or were they just trying to elicit a demand? Local radio certainly hasn't changed their strategy, but as social media and streaming continue to expand, are people being influenced more and more by their friends? I've asked myself a lot of questions like these over the last few weeks and I'm no closer to finding an answer for the sudden interest and enthusiasm for live music. But my intuition tells me this isn't a fluke.

As I looked around at the hundreds of sweaty, entranced and dancing concert-goers on Monday night, I couldn't help but think, "Sioux Falls is starving." People are aching for an opportunity to see new and independent music in their own backyard. They're out to prove that it has a place in Sioux Falls alongside the '80s hair metal, classic rock, butt rock, hip hop and pop acts who experience routine success here. Sioux Falls is growing rapidly and so comes diversity.

Now I only hope that my intuition doesn't fail me. I hope that venues and influencers keep taking chances. I hope that promotion doesn't grow complacent. And most of all, I hope that people keep showing up. It feels nice to not have to apologize for once.

* During 2009, the first year Lady Antebellum was nominated for a Grammy award, a fellow entertainment coordinator was working a shift at a local restaurant when a Lady Antebellum came on over the radio. His coworker drearily complained, "Ugh, I wish they would bring them here!" Calmly and with an appropriate amount of disdain, my friend stated, "We did." Take that, apathy!


Some Other Stuff

STREAM // Alt-J: Every Other Freckle (SoundCloud) ... This is shaping up to be an interesting record.

WATCH // Ty Segall: Feel (Conan) ... This dude keeps getting better and better.

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