It wouldn’t be fair to put me into the “latchkey kid” category. Well maybe “part-time latchkey.” My mother didn’t take on a job until I was in high school. I would come home directly after school to make sure my younger brother made it home safe (my older brother helped with this also). We were forced to stick around until mom or dad got home from work. While this created drama at times, our love for our younger brother made sure that the task was always completed.
Growing up in a middle-class suburb in Wayne County, many of kids in my neighborhood were quintessential latchkey kids. I was usually drawn to these types because I sensed they had a certain freedom that I didn’t – they didn’t have someone watching over them all the time, they watched any movie they wanted, they usually had freezers stocked of good junk food, they had the latest video game systems, and most importantly they listened to music that was off limits to a lot of us. The parents of a latchkey kid would use television screens and stereo systems to keep their kids busy, not much different from a parent today sticking an iPad in their child’s hand.
If it wasn’t for my latchkey friends I would never have been able to dive deep into Prince’s Purple Rain, Beastie Boy’s Licensed to Ill, Eddie Murphy’s Delirious, Led Zeppelin, and Chuck Norris movies (I had to list him in there). I can still smell the cigarette smoke and fuzzy navels coming from the kitchen table where our parents would play cards until three in the morning. The kids would hang out in the living room watching movies, listening to music, and not being bothered by our parents. We would conspire on how we could pause the video tape on the scene where Apollonia jumps into what she thinks is Lake Minnetonka in the movie version of Purple Rain. This wasn’t hard because the adults were more concerned about what cards they had in their hands.
We had access to vinyl records, cassette tapes, 8-tracks, VHS tapes, and a box on top of the TV that allowed us to watch HBO, a new technology at the time. These were all tangible things. Imagine a 12 year old kid holding an Ozzy Osborne Bark at the Moon vinyl record in his hands, or Motley Crue Shout at the Devil. We had an 8 track of the Bee Gees Staying Alive, but only a few of us actually had a working 8 track player. This created a mystery about what was on that tape.
As kids we saw the weekend neighborhood card game as an opportunity to share and trade music. We would let each other borrow albums, videos, and cassette tapes that we made by recording songs off of the radio. It was always set back when we would play a tape and it would get chewed up because it was worn out, or someone wasn’t using a Memorex tape (those were always the best brand to get). MTV was a huge influence on what we liked, but you know what? MTV was doing some really cool things. Not like the MTV of today.
All of these things created an experience. You would hear an artist on the radio, but had no idea what they looked like so you had to investigate. All of the hard work you spent to investigate the artist created a connection with them; they became larger than life to you. I owned a copy of David Bowie Let’s Dance (and still do), but was clueless as to who he was before the 80’s, the only option I had was to get the records to find out. Digging into the artists background and body of work created “engagement”; you had to make a commitment to the artist.
I love technology – I am not knocking downloads, mp3’s, or streaming services. You can’t argue that forcing your album on 500 million people (U2) does not create a high level of engagement; it does, but is it meaningful engagement? Is there an experience being created? Here’s the experience I have when I am forced to listen to something. I give it a try, but it better be good within the first 30 seconds or I am gone. If I truly experienced a “meaningful” engagement with the artist, when that record came out I would give it a good listen. I would be more tactful about my judgment and I would be more willing to spend money on what they have to offer. To me there is no experience when you visit Spotify or iTunes other than instant gratification of owning something.
I want to hold art in my hands, I want to look at photographs of the artist, I want to read the liner notes of an album. I want to know more about how the record was created. The only experience I have with these services after I type in my password is “cha-ching” (you get the drift). I love the idea of streaming services, but right now there is no value in them as a user or to the artist. The only people that truly benefit from this “experience” are the services making the money. Artists get paid tenths of cents when their songs stream and the user is left with an experience that is easily forgettable.
I am not a savvy tech genius or future contestant on Shark Tank, but what I “feel” is that the only way to enjoy music to its fullest potential is to make it a tangible experience. How do you make it tangible in a digital world? To me it’s about keeping it local. It’s about extending a hand in your community. It’s about investigating an artist that is in your reach. I shop at the local farmer’s market for a few reasons – the food is grown locally, money stays in the community, and quite frankly I love talking to the farmers. Going to the farmer’s market is a tangible experience that sustains a community of passionate people. Go to a local record store (yes, they still exist) and immediately go to the Local Record section. Buy something that looks visually appealing to you. Hold the record in your hand. After you have listened to the record, go to the artist’s website, read about them, look at their photos, and use your imagination. Go to the next show they play in your area, approach them, talk to them, and buy a t-shirt. I know this is a very simple concept and may not be the answer, but the idea is there. It is now a tangible experience and rather than giving your money to a large corporation located a thousand miles away, you are helping keep the money in the local art community.
Yes, there are some problems. People are busy; they don’t have time for this type of engagement. Venues that have live music have shows that are scheduled too late for most people. I really wouldn’t stick around to 1 a.m to watch a band play. But if you go on at 8:00 P.M., I am more willing to stay longer. People always complain about the experience of seeing live music. The venues need to treat their patrons like it is a special occasion every night. Have you ever been to the Fox Theater in Detroit? Their staff goes out of their way to treat you in a “grand” type of way. This adds to the experience. How many times have you been to a club… and the door guy is a dickhead? If you’re a club owner, don’t let your door guys be dickheads – that’s the old way of doing things – it makes for a bad experience.
Instead of replacing your Thursday night live band with a DJ, put bands on earlier and bring in the DJ later for people who just want to party – the DJ can be part of the “experience” also. Sound guys, don’t be a dick to the bands; they are the reason your bills are getting paid, and you’re probably making more many than they are for the show. Not all sound guys are like this, but bands need confidence, and getting a bad sound guy can ruin the experience. I find that to be really backwards.
Radio, Radio, Radio. Please give more time than one hour a week playing local music. I know radio stations are usually corporate-owned and they have a playlist, blah blah blah, quit doing things the same old way. I really believe that radio can find a way to engage their local community more than one hour a week and be successful. Radio is vital to the tangible experience; radio needs to take chances just as the artists do. Radio is so formulaic now; please get personalities on the air that add to the “experience” of listening to music. Your radio station could be the launching pad for the new Wolfman Jack or Casey Kasem – I miss those guys tremendously. Those DJs cared about music and it showed on the air as listeners were engaged with the artists they featured.
Michigan artists could be one of the largest pools of innovative thinkers that exist anywhere in this country. My experience over the last year and a half of covering the artists of Michigan has convinced me that there is enormous potential. I see an opportunity here. If artists start combining their innovative thinking with musicians and film makers, we can get back to a place of tangible objects and an experience that can build long lasting relationships. You don’t need a Ph.D, M.A., M.B.A, and J.D, to have someone take you seriously. You just need to surround yourself with people just like you. Embed yourself into the community and keep it local so we can all depend on one another. Unity is contagious – something will give eventually.