Rockin’ In The USA: Author Steve Waksman Talks ‘Live Music In America’, From Scalping In 1850 To Beyoncé’s Coachella & Beyond

Opera singer

By Michaelangelo Matos

A new book on the live music industry that doesn’t even mention AEG until the end? Don’t worry: Steve Waksman’s “Live Music in America: From Jenny Lind to Beyoncé,” just published by Oxford University Press, has a much longer story to tell, a story that rewrites the history of American music.

ROCKER/UNIVERSITY: Author Steve Waksman seen here shredding with his former band The Electric Eyes, is also music teacher Elsie Irwin Sweeney at Smith College in Massachusetts.
Photo by Julian Parker-Burns

Waksman, professor of music at Smith College, begins with Swedish opera star Jenny Lind, whose 1850-1852 American tour, originally presented by PT Barnum, served as an arena tour plan, and ends with Beyoncé’s culminating “Homecoming” show at Coachella in 2018. In between, we learn everything from the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ pioneering concert tours to the rise of jazz in the 1920s, rock in the 1950s, festivals in the 1960s (including a spotlight on soundman Bill Hanley, a mainstay of George Wein’s Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals who also sounded for Woodstock and Bill Graham’s Fillmore East) to a poignant history of live hip-hop until the late 90s.

Throughout, Waksman tilts the frame of music history and completely changes the picture.

Open “Live Music in America” ​​to any of its 692 pages and something will capture your interest. There are countless parallels with today’s music industry, at every step of the journey, which Pollstar discussed with Waksman after the book was published.

Pollstar: You started working on this book 14 years ago. Let’s say it was published in February 2018, just before Beyoncé’s “Homecoming,” which is now the book’s conclusion. How did you originally plan to finish it?

Steve Waxman: When I started the book, I imagined that the ending would be more about how live music interacted with other types of media and new media, and how the boundaries between live and new media changed. faded. other types of media experience. But as I got closer to the end, I was like, there’s really no coverage of hip-hop as a live music phenomenon except in a very scattered way. So, I felt like it was that void that I could fill. When “Homecoming” happened, it seemed like the next logical step, having thought so much about the importance of hip-hop as a type of live music, and being completely connected to the larger story. of race and how segregation has mattered in life and in the history of music.

The other element that I had been thinking about throughout the book, and I never really had a clue what my angle was going to be, was more on the business side of things, dealing with 21st century changes in the live music industry in terms of consolidation: Live Nation, Ticketmaster, all this whole bunch of new companies and institutions that have really redefined the business contours of the live music industry. There were other people doing this work; I could leave that to them. But I felt like it had to be somewhere in the book.

Basically, live music is a form of large-scale entertainment. It seemed like a good place to synthesize those strands into the book that had been there all along. “Homecoming” definitely felt like history replayed in a really interesting meta way.

One thing that may surprise Pollstar readers is that it takes so long to get into the current era – you don’t even mention AEG until page 542. Did you want to write something about the modern landscape that didn’t make it?

Obviously, the big consolidation is a part of this story. But in the introduction, I referenced the fact that the live music industry has become so much more central to the wider music industry in the 21st century.

It didn’t exist when you started the book.

Well – there are definitely aspects of this that I wish I had more space to go into, like Ed Sheeran being the highest-grossing live music act of his day. Also, another strand – how live music relates to the economy of certain cities. I’m dealing with some of this in relation to the earlier version of Newport from the 50s and 60s. But it has really special significance in the modern festival era – like the various Electric Daisy carnival events and how they relate to places like Vegas. I had to cut myself because the book was already too long.

For bravery, is there any other figure in live music promotion that compares to PT Barnum?

There are many who want to compare themselves to PT Barnum, like Jerry Weintraub, who keeps bringing him up in his memoirs, which is exciting. There are certainly newer live music promoters who I think were relatively large, but their modus operandi was quite different. I am thinking of George Wein, who is absolutely one of the great music curators of the 20th century. He was a hype artist, but he was a much more respectable hype than Barnum’s. Although Barnum sunk his teeth into Jenny Lind. It was definitely a gesture of respectability on his part.

Bill Graham is someone else – not just for his individual pursuits, but truly for laying the groundwork for a truly significant shift in the industry as a whole. Again, the motivations are really complicated. He liked the idea of ​​elevating things. It’s remarkable how often that’s a motivation. He wanted rock music to be at the Metropolitan Opera House. The fact that he even wanted to tell you something. He really thought the shows he put on at the Fillmore were art. And he always lamented arena rock as the loss of that art. But he didn’t hesitate to go head first once he realized it was the only way to stay truly solvent. This is where you see some of the connections between people like Wein and Graham and someone like Barnum. They are very capable of adapting when the market changes around them so that they are not left behind.

Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind was Barnum’s choice because she had such appeal, what today we might call “crossover.” Telling American music history through live performances tells us it was a winning strategy 70 years before the recording industry discovered that “Crazy Blues” sells to whites and blacks. In 1850, before the Civil War, the crossover was working. It’s very revealing.

Totally. I had to go back to a point long before recordings were a truly mainstream part of the cultural landscape, so I pushed the beginning of the book back to the mid-19th century. As soon as I started reading contemporary accounts of Jenny Lind on tour, I immediately realized how contemporary, in the current sense of the word, much of what was happening around her was contemporary. Scalping! At a lecture, I showed these advertisements from 1850: people selling Jenny Lind tickets in what today we would call the secondary market. People were blown away.

She’s the logical starting point for the book because the level of stardom she spawned spawned this whole different business culture around live music that hadn’t really existed in the same way before her. She’s a celebrity who isn’t limited by just one demographic. At that time, it was mostly a class issue. To a certain extent, I would also say the crossing of the sexes. It’s not like women stay at home. Lind provided public entertainment that women could attend and maintain respectability. It was a very important thing at that time. It’s really about making middle-class respectability a more modern and important part of American public life.

How did you begin to understand the centrality of sound engineer Bill Hanley in the transition from folk and jazz festivals to rock festivals?

It was another one of those things that slowly sank in. I was reading about Woodstock, and there was a line about Hanley in an oral history, and I was like, “Who is this guy? And I began to understand that he was doing much more than Woodstock. It’s the Zelig of popular music, that Woody Allen character that says, “Oh, that’s that guy in that picture.” I started noticing how high Bill Hanley was rising – not just in books about Woodstock, but also books about the Fillmore East, where he did the sound, and the Newport Jazz Festival. Developers are a key part of the infrastructure. But then, who are the people who actually make the event work? People are starting to pay more attention to it.

You argue that Fresh Fest ’84 and ’85 were central to the golden age of mid-’80s hip-hop and arena shows. How was this reduced?

It was reduced by the reflexive reaction of a white-oriented music industry to this perceived threat that young black people had when they all congregated in large numbers, which was also why music artists blacks were in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, to a significant degree. This rhetoric is: every time there is a hip-hop show, violence erupts, so we have to be careful. It becomes very conventional at the end of ’85. And gangsta rap as a subgenre of hip hop wasn’t there as
something that spoke specifically to those anxieties at the moment. It wasn’t like NWA showed up and suddenly everyone was scared. Everyone was already scared when NWA arrived.