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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2009/02/22
by David Steinberg

Seeing Music in a Time of Recession

We’re only a few weeks into it, but 2009 is already shaping up to be an interesting year. Stocks are sliding, taking retirement funds with them. It’s a rare company that isn’t laying people off at the same time that states are finding it hard to support social services. Even among people that have reliable jobs, there’s an undercurrent of panic right now that’s hard to ignore. Sure this means that we’re in potential danger of a serious financial collapse where people are losing their houses and it might reach the point where there occasionally won’t be food on shelves, but the real issue that I’m worried about is what this means for seeing music.
Most of the people who read this column have done some stupid things to see a concert. Everyone has a story or two about flying across the country to see a concert or selling goods in the parking lot to extend their tour by a show or 17. In good times – or even the quasi-good times that was the first Bush’s recession that we were going through when I graduated from college – you can get away with this sort of behavior. To a large degree the touring crowd lives off of the excesses of the American economy. People sell products to those who have full time jobs and if that falls apart, there is always the desperation move of trying to spare change. For that matter, I knew someone on Dead tour who was willing to teach me the ins and outs of safely dumpster diving.
If this is just an ordinary recession, it won’t be that big of a deal. We’ll get by on a little less for a few years and then we’ll go back to booking cruise ships to have an amazing venue for bands to play. Unfortunately, this one appears to be a little different. The downturn is more systematic [1] and a lot deeper than any one that we’ve seen recently. You can’t live off of the excesses of a rich society when there’s a vast underclass trying to do the same thing.
Admittedly, tour has moved away from the living on the edge mentality as credit cards have become a lot more common with college students and people are choosing to rack up debt instead of sleeping in their cars in 12-degree weather. However, we are in a credit crunch now. The free cards to college student phenomenon might turn out to be a short lived one, leading to fewer flights and more long road trips.
It is that side effect that might be most interesting down the road. Yes things are scary right now and I don’t think anyone would mind if suddenly the economy were back to where it was before the bubble popped (especially if it were to happen in a more healthy way) but there is something to be said for recessionary times. Underemployment leads to more free time, which lets people pursue options other than work and sleep. And, at least for the young, there’s something inspiring about the ridiculous event. When I think back to my days on Dead tour, what stories do I come back to? Sleeping in my car in Ontario when I already had a cold. Selling 72 sodas in the lot in Buffalo to somehow make enough money to get to Louisville. Desperately spare changing in Auburn Hills to get enough money to make it back to Bard, making sure to stealthily pass off our Canadian quarters at the toll booths in order to stretch our money that much further [2]. These are the adventures that defined my youth and as stressful as they were at the time, I wouldn’t replace them for an easy trip.
There’s been a theme in the advice given to those wondering how to cope with the biggest downturn in most of our lives. During times like these, it’s experiences that are the important things, much more than material possessions. Thats the advantage musicians have right now. They’re selling just that. There’s a bit more pressure now as people are going to be more reluctant to pay for a sub-optimal project, but if a band can come through and provide peak moments and some excuses for adventures, there’s a chance that they might actually thrive due to the downturn. Maybe Phish chose the perfect moment to come back in after all.
[1] If you want to see the details of what exactly happened, this video does a better job of explaining things than any I have seen:

"The Crisis of Credit Visualized": from "Jonathan Jarvis": on "Vimeo":

I especially like that it doesn’t pass the blame off to the homeowners whose sole mistake was believing someone who was telling them that they could achieve their lifelong dream. If people who studied these issues for years weren’t quite sure how the CDO’s worked exactly, it’s hard to blame someone who wants to trust that the nice banker knows what he’s talking about.
[2] It’s the old sandwich trick. Put a CDN quarter between two US quarters and hand it to the toll taker at a 75 cent booth. Take off (eh) before he can notice.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at
He is the stats section editor for The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at

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