Emerging from Underground
Last week, I tried to buy tickets to see Phoebe Bridgers in St. Paul. It sold out before any tickets reached me in the queue. The next day, I tried to buy a copy of Ani Difranco’s self-titled album on Record Store Day. I went to three record stores; it was gone at every one of them. It was a back-to-back series of bummers.
- “Souljacker Part I” — Eels
- “What Else Would You Have Me Be?” — Lucero
- “Recollections of the Wraith” — Shabazz Palaces
- “Running Away” — VANO 3000 (w/ BADBADNOTGOOD & Samuel T. Herring)
- “Perfect Song” — Special Explosion
- “Like A Lady” — Pom Poko
- “Gee Angel” – Sugar
- “rom com 2004” — Soccer Mommy
- “Too Much Pressure” — Count Bass D (w/ Snoop Dogg)
- “Threats” — Jean Grae (w/ Chen Lo)
- “Beached” — Sun Daze
- “Out of Habit” — Ani DiFranco
- “Hotwax” — Beck
- “In the Ditch” — Helmet (w/ Gang of Four)
- “No Difference” — The Let Go (w/ Mac Lethal)
- “Ashes to Ashes” — Warpaint
- “Cannock Chase” — Labi Siffre
- “Gettin’ Happy” — Dolly Parton
Thinking back on these bummers, I’ll confide that I thought there might be a common thread — that there was some kind of larger story to tell. But I struggled to capture my frustration.
I wrote 3,000 words about the concept of artificial scarcity — how concepts like Record Store Day, which are designed to support local business, ultimately just price fans out and bolster the secondary collectors market.
It sounded like sour grapes, so I scrapped that and wrote a different 1,500 words about the ticket industry. There was a personal story about waiting in line for Nine Inch Nails tickets in the mid–90s, and oh boy it doesn’t take long to veer into “Back In My Day Eddie Vedder.”
Neither idea captured the actual issue: I’m ready for my music life to be back to normal, and it’s just out of reach.
Humans as a species are tactile and social; it’s only natural to gravitate toward live experiences and physical artifacts, which has made the last eighteen months very difficult for music lovers — or, at least, those who experience music in a tactile and social way. Supply chains have wreaked havoc on the vinyl pressing industry, and everyone is ready to get back to live music, which makes tickets even harder to come by. The market is eager. Consumer confidence is up. And the music industry is ready to get back to business, frustratingly so, without or without the rest of us.
There’s a hazy area when expectations become entitlement, especially when dealing with a limited product. As a fan, I have expectations: I follow and respect an artist, and I want to give back. But when I am not given the chance — when tickets sell out before I even have the opportunity to buy them, or when a pressing is so limited that certain areas only get two or three copies — a creeping entitlement emerges. That those things should have been mine.
And so I felt selfishly deflated. At least, until I went on a date to a parking lot.
As a way to navigate the lack of social performance during the pandemic, the Sioux Falls art and music community began Headlights Theater, a pop-up performance series combining dance and local musicians. The name describes the concept: one parking lot, a circle of cars, and an ad hoc stage illuminated by halogen light.
Headlights Theatre narrowly balances artificial scarcity with actual scarcity; parking lots are purposefully small, limiting the number of cars. The difference is that you don’t have to have a vehicle to participate — you can bike in, or walk in; you can sit on the edge, or share someone’s hatchback. They could do this in a larger parking lot, but that wouldn’t provide the same feeling. The intimacy is what matters.
That intimacy isn’t necessarily tied to the music itself. The social aspect of live music is about community, and in that parking lot I saw our community coming back together. Some had been connecting throughout, but some of us — the more anxious of us, the ones who missed previous shows because (in all honesty) we were scared of what live music might become after the pandemic — rediscovered that energy.
Preserving intimacy is difficult. We all want to be a part of something, especially if it’s small; my most lasting memories are from small shows in weird places; catching that energy, being in that moment. Feeling as if there’s something unknown and underground. Then, it moves out of the underground. It takes on legendary status — the things we love, if they’re good, will always garner more attention, and in turn it shuts us out.
That attention is good for the artists. But it’s good for us, because it’s rare. It allows us to let things go, to turn back toward the community that built it. We missed live music. We all did, and that’s why things sell out. But beyond those sell outs, we’re seeing a return to form in all corners — small bands getting noticed, performance art being celebrated. We’re crawling out from the underground and embracing it all, again. We know there will always be music, but you can’t knock us for being a little over-excited.