The Farm System Is Gone

It was the mid-1960s – and there was a band on every block.  The Beatles and the entire British Invasion inspired more musicians than you can imagine.  Until then, the dominant force in pop music was singers backed by musicians.  Suddenly, it was all about a self-contained unit that could sing and play. The whole game had changed.

The good news was as these garage bands practiced – and got good — there were actually places to go play and get paid; lots of them.  The pay wasn’t much – but back in the 1960s, bands were low overhead.  Amps and drums fit in the trunks and back seats of big American sedans from Detroit.  If you were really lucky, you had a VW bus!  And the sound system; the first band I was in that played out frequently had a single Electro-Voice horn with what was probably a 20 lb. magnet that screwed in the back.  We had four mic on stands and a Bogen PA amp with a modest mixer – maybe it had reverb or echo. That setup handled all the vocals.  There was no such thing as miking the drums or amps.  It was all dead simple.

My first band, the Rebounds, played at fraternity and dorm parties at Trinity College, University of Connecticut, Wesleyan University, Central Connecticut State College, CYOs (Catholic Youth Organizations), youth councils, high school dances, and a variety of other venues in the central Connecticut area.  Our pay back in 1966 (when the minimum wage was I think $1.25) was $60.00 for the four of us.  And the band fit in the corner of the dining hall of a frat or dorm.  

Best of all, work was plentiful.  Live music was a huge attraction for parties and events so there was no problem keeping bands busy. It truly was a golden era; and an uncomplicated time. The music we played back then was a mix – British rock, though almost never Beatles music because that was a sacrilege to attempt those songs. Instead, we played Beach Boys, Yardbirds, Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Animals, Rascals, Tommy James and the Shondells, that kind of thing.

Getting gigs was a skill I was good at; better at that than playing, truth be told.  I hated late nights and smoke-filled clubs and parties (because everyone smoked in the ’60s).  My dad would drive me to a college campus and I would walk – door to door – asking if the social chairman of the dorm or frat was around.  I had a little printed piece with a photo and a song list.  That was all we needed.  Sometimes we’d get talked into doing an audition, which was essentially a free party for the frat or dorm on the promise of getting a paid gig if we passed the audition.

As we made more money we could afford to go record a demo at a local recording studio.  We booked four or five hours of time to cut three or four songs.  The cost was a fortune in the mid-1960s – $150.00.  Those songs would be individually cut on what was called an acetate – a metal disc with a plastic coating that was put on a lathe and a single record was cut.  You could play this thing 40 or 50 times before the fidelity severely degraded.  It was something we could take around to places who might hire the band since everyone had a record player.  We got even more gigs as a result.

A huge boost to live music happened in 1972 when the drinking age in Connecticut and other New England states was lowered to 18.  That opened the door for on-campus pubs and a plethora of nightclubs – all of which clamored for live music.  The live music business was in its absolute heyday.  All those gigs meant that the quality of bands improved greatly because musicians could actually make a living playing music instead of having a day job to support themselves. The sheer amount of work available meant that musicians had the equivalent of baseball’s farm system at their disposal.  They could work their way up to the top venues and get the attention of a label to secure a record deal.

Things changed dramatically in the early 1980s when New England states reversed the drinking age back to 21.  Campus pubs disappeared and nightclubs folded by the score. DJs also gained favor and MTV set a different expectation for live music performance.

In short order the farm system that so successfully nurtured talented musicians essentially disappeared.  It does make one wonder how budding musicians these days will be able to get experience in an era when the opportunities to play live aren’t as plentiful as they once were.  

(by Tony D’Amelio)

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