This past weekend, I played two shows, each with a different band.
First, SPACESHIPS made our first appearance at Cheers—a bar in town that has been a mainstay in the South Bend musical community even when there wasn’t much of a South Bend musical community to speak of. Then, Dad Jokes played our first local show in months at The Well, the coffee house/venue run by Chroma’s/Dad Jokes’ own Pat Quigley.
And neither was well attended.
It’s not necessarily a new experience—just about every band ever has played shows for six or seven people. It’s part of the gig.
But as the local scene has grown over the last few years, it’s become a much rarer occurrence. And in my hubris, I’ve started to think that we were past that as a community. We’ve seen over fifty people come out on a Monday or Thursday night. We’ve had weekends with several competing shows, each with a great turnout. We’re throwing multiple music festivals per year, got dang it. This is a scene where people show up—isn’t it?
But even a good scene can have bad days. And sometimes, those bad days are a result of the scene’s success.
Nine years ago, when I moved back to South Bend from Chicago, there wasn’t much of a scene at all. There were some regular open mics, a couple cafes that would let acoustic artists play, and a string of church gymnasiums that would host shows until the pastor decided it was bringing in the wrong kind of kids. A couple bars would host cover bands, and occasionally an original band could squeak through. If we were lucky, there might be one local show every couple weeks—and getting people there was a chore.
Fast-forward to today—I don’t need to rehash that entire earlier paragraph, but things have grown. Things are vibrant. There are several places in town hosting all kinds of music and art. It’s not unusual to have five or six shows across town in the same night. And sometimes, that competition does wind up sapping some of the crowd for your show. Like on Friday when SPACESHIPS’ show with two unknown out-of-town bands was up against the return of an absolutely insane Japanese surf punk band. Or on Sunday when Dad Jokes was competing against the season finale of Game of Thrones (that one is a little less relevant, but no less understandable).
As human beings, we are still confined by a finite amount of time to engage with all of the art being produced in the world—just ask all of the unplayed records and unwatched movies and unread books sitting on my shelves. And while it might be disheartening to look out from stage and see a small handful of people watching you, it’s a little comforting to remember that your potential crowd is still supporting underground art—even if it is at another show.