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Columns > Note for Note - Holly Isbister

Published: 2005/06/05
by Holly Isbister

Vegas Musings

A little over a month ago I spent a weekend in Las Vegas. When I booked the flight in January, it seemed like a good idea – I live in the arctic tundra otherwise known as Chicago and Vegas is like a womb this time of year. So I hopped a plane for Easter weekend to meet up with my girlfriend Stephanie there.
What I predicted was a weekend of sunshine by the pool, drinks involving little paper umbrellas, and a little gambling. What I did not predict was hitting a slot machine jackpot for 3 grand. I had Stephanie on Secret Service duty as we walked back to our hotel room to stash my new winnings in the room safe. But what impressed me more than the attendant counting thirty 100 dollar bills into the palm of my hand, was the disbelief that on this night, at this time, of all 500,000 slot machines (or however many there are in Vegas), I had gotten lucky. Stephanie, at the machine next to me, did not. And that got me thinking.
The music industry today is a crap shoot so to speak. I think we can all safely agree that talent is not always rewarded monetarily, or even with fame. Some of the best bands I’ve seen were playing in some tiny smoky bars, telling me they’re practically hemorrhaging money with every stretch of road they drive. To devote your life to playing music and go out on the road is quite a gamble. And many bands can’t survive financially in the highly fickle and highly competitive music market. Craps has the best odds of winning in Vegas, and just as playing craps might increase your odds of beating the house, being a pop tart, pop star these days is tantamount to having the lucky dice throw. But what about jambands? Are they all relegated to keno at the 24 hour buffet in a 2 star casino? How does a jamband hit it big? And what does the payoff look like?
Traditional radio outlets have never taken a liking to jambands for a number of reasons. The song lengths don’t fit their programming needs. In addition, most jambands fail at creating the kind of energy they have live in their studio recordings. But there are a few exceptions to the rule, and these bands are finding a brand new outlet for their music that is sure to prove the wave of the future: satellite radio. I had the chance to interview some of the folks at XM Satellite Radio recently and I was most taken by their commitment to different kinds of music. Here’s a radio provider with the time, money and interest to spend on creating an entire channel devoted to jambands and live music. So far they’ve only garnered 4 million subscribers (not a ton, considering how much terrestrial radio stations reach), but there’s no doubt in my mind that their superior programming and convenience will soon have the attention of the masses.
Another exceptional outlet for bands on the rise in this scene has been the internet. While much of this topic has already been discussed in a number of articles, one of the emerging technologies to keep an eye out for is the Podcast. A Podcast is a collection of music that Ipod users can download quickly online and listen to on the go. Jon McLennand, Podcast coordinator for Umphrey’s McGee was initially amazed by the amount of hits the Podcasts were generating. He comments, "With each successive broadcast the hits have been increasingly steadily. This will be a great way to expand the listener base, and constantly feed them with fresh material. The first one started off with 3000 hits, and already within 2 months, they’ve climbed to over 6000
These two outlets are a good start, but are certainly not the only ways to get a lucky break in this scene. And while I don’t have the secret recipe for success, I do have a hunch about what stardom looks like in our little corner of the music universe.
One way you know you’ve made it big is when you, as a celebrity, begin to spawn celebrities of your own. You might be a successful jamband if you have celebrity fans. I’m not talking Fred Savage and Bill Walton. I’m talking about Wavy Gravy and Lawn Boy and Plastic-Water-Bottle-On-Head-Guy. If you don’t know who I’m referring to, you probably didn’t see enough Phish shows prior to the breakup. These characters established their reputation (and infamy at times) by appearing at shows frequently enough to be recognized by dabblers and die-hards alike.
What a surreal moment for a musician, to know that this fan achieved celebrity status simply by being a hard-core fan and having a good gimmick. I mean, you don’t hear about Plastic-Watter-Bottle-On-Head-Guy because he gives generous sips of his pallet quenching liquid to envious bystanders. Although I did see Lawn Boy tossing free candy out at several shows. These celeb fans are also indicative of the size of your fan base. It’s hard to be a celebrity when all fifteen people in the scene know you. There’s no mystique to that.
In conclusion, and going back to my previous point, it would be nice if the better musicians on our scene got the money and recognition that their less talented counterparts in mainstream music are enjoying with glee. But even the smartest, biggest gamblers lose in Vegas. And some of the most talented musicians of our day will crap out before their lucky number has been rolled. It makes me appreciate the bands that stay true to their passion for playing inspired and original music, even when they’re losing, because sometimes that dollar in the slot really pays off.

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