Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Rejected by America

Inescapable conclusions from 19 years on the road

I'm sitting on a plane, heading home after a two-month tour. At times just like this, I often feel compelled to write a bit of a recap, mentioning some of the tour's highlights or more notable anecdotes. At the end of this tour, though, the overpowering reality I am left with isn't so much related to highlights or anecdotes -- though those also happened, of course. What I am mainly left with is the unmistakably massive contrast between the experience of touring on each respective side of the Atlantic.

The two months of touring that I just completed involved about 45 shows. I spent a little more than half of the tour in northern Europe, where I did about two-thirds of the gigs, between Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, England and Scotland. The rest of the tour was in North America – Texas, Florida, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Vermont, Quebec and Ontario.

I have no idea how many people reading this might find any of what I'm about to write about here relevant. I have no idea to what extent my experience is specific to me, specific to DIY musicians who do politically-charged music, or if it might have even broader relevance. But the trend for me, anyway, is now very clear, and thus seems worth sharing.

It probably might have been clear many years ago, but I think I tend to be a very optimistic sort, always hoping that things will be better next time. There is also the strong tendency among performing artists to project an air of impending fame, on the assumption that everybody wants to see “the next big thing,” and nobody wants to see a washed-out has-been of some sort.

So I don't know if this has happened to you, too, fellow DIY touring artists, or whoever else. But as for me, I have been rejected by America.

There are, I suppose, three main reasons I tour and play music for a living.

  • It's fun to play music and fun to travel and see many parts of the world on a regular basis.
  • I need to pay the rent, etc.
  • By touring I'm also participating in some small way in various social movements, and having at least some kind of impact on those movements and on people's lives.

Now, of course, this is the age of the internet, and as long as the videos I put up are getting a few thousand views now and then, I can take part in the whole songwriting and education thing from my living room.

But there are a bunch of things that are special about the phenomenon of live concerts, that people leave their homes to attend as a group. And as far as that phenomenon goes, the phenomenon is dead in the USA for me.

To clarify in numbers that hopefully make sense: most of the gigs I did in the US and Canada on this tour had fewer than twenty people in attendance, and, at age 48, I was often the youngest person in the room. Of all the gigs I just did in North America, only one had more than 50 people in the audience.

In Europe, by contrast, a large majority of the shows had well over 50 people in the audience, and several of them had well over 100. Most of the shows that had fewer than 50 people still had more than 30. Most of the gigs in Europe had a very multi-generational audience, sometimes with more young folks and sometimes with more older folks, depending on the type of venue, the type of town, and other factors. I don't think I was ever the youngest person in the room -- though I was sometimes one of the oldest.

I don't know if anybody is wondering why I call this rejection, but in case you're unsure, here's the rub: in order to satisfy any of my three basic criteria for why I do this touring and performing thing, I need an audience of more than twenty people, the vast majority of the time.

Out of principle and, once upon a time, because of practical considerations, I rarely ask for what's called a guarantee – a financial commitment from the organizers of a gig that I will make a certain amount of money no matter what happens. Generally, when I'm organizing a tour and not flying to a specific location for a one-off gig of some kind, my methodology has been to cobble together gigs that mostly don't involve guarantees, in the hopes that most of them will involve organizers who are able to generate sufficient interest among the locals such that several dozen of them will be compelled to leave their home to go hear a concert, at which they will generally have to buy a ticket or make a “suggested donation” in order to get in.

When I don't ask for a guarantee, this means that some nice volunteer organizer doesn't get stuck paying me out of their own pocket if we don't get enough paying customers in the door. Which then means there might be more people willing to try organizing a show, who won't feel so bad about it afterwards if it doesn't work out. What it also means is I'm taking the risk of losing money on a gig, or conceivably on an entire tour.

So the number twenty is a key number here because typically at shows in the US people are paying $10 to hear the concert. In Europe, individuals going to my concerts are paying something roughly similar. Without drowning in mathematical minutiae, suffice it to say that after the expenses involved with touring, I need to make at least $200 per gig in order to break even. To actually make money in order to pay rent and feed the family during the months when I'm not on tour, I need to make significantly more than $200 per gig on average.

This is also why the aforementioned number 50 is equally relevant. When 50 people come to a show, this means I'm likely to make more along the lines of $500 for that show. When most of my shows are like that, then the finances work, and the rent gets paid and everybody gets fed when I'm not on tour, without the use of a credit card.

In terms of the non-monetary factors I mentioned – having fun, and feeling like I'm contributing to something bigger than myself – consistently playing for very small, mostly elderly audiences doesn't cut it either. To me it seems only natural that, as a performer, if you're regularly the youngest person in the room and it's not because you're working in a retirement home, this is a sign that you are becoming irrelevant. As for fun, there just isn't a whole lot of fun involved with doing a money-losing tour for small crowds, no matter who constitutes that crowd.

It has taken a long time to realize this, but my basic business model used to work in the US, and it now does not. It still works in Europe – better than ever, in fact. Or actually not better than ever, because of the fact that the euro is worth like 30% less than it was compared to the dollar a few years ago. But the numbers of gig offers, the crowd sizes, and the money – before you convert it to dollars – is better than ever in Europe, for me.

So, I'm not depressed. I love Europe. I'm very happy that there are many countries in Europe where I seem to have an audience that wants to keep coming to my shows in significant enough numbers to allow me to make a living.

I used to be very happy about touring in the US for the same reasons, but no longer. And rather than quietly drift into obscurity like so many other artists that you US people don't hear about anymore because they don't tour in the US anymore, I thought I'd announce my disappearance in advance.

I'm sure many of you who have made it this far in this post may be wondering why is there this contrast between the US and Europe? (By “Europe,” by the way, I mean the countries I tour in in Europe, which tend to be the wealthier, English-speaking countries of northern Europe such as the ones I mentioned before, along with a few others that I didn't get to on this tour.) The fact is, there are many contrasts and many similarities, and I don't know which ones are in play here.

Some things are global in nature. Such as the anti-capitalist movement circa 1999-2003, and the antiwar movement circa 2001-2005. These movements both rose and then declined at a similar pace on both sides of the Atlantic. During the heyday of these movements, I had a lot of good tours on both of these main two continents that have so far represented the bulk of my livelihood.

Now this is basically conjecture, but it seems like after these movements both did their rise and fall thing, what happened afterwards is we were left with the sort of baseline that existed in the absence of said movements. That's when the differences come into play, I suppose.

In the US most people work longer hours for less money. They have less time to go out and less money to spend when they do. When people step up to the plate to organize an event, they almost always have to first figure out where the event is going to be held, and this space often has to be rented in advance. Whereas twenty years ago there were well-funded student organizations that were responsible for about half of my US gigs, those organizations either no longer exist or no longer have budgets allocated to them by university administrations.

Where I play in Europe, the vast majority of people are members of a labor union. Labor unions have active union halls in every city -- oftentimes several in each neighborhood of each city. The unions have budgets for cultural activities, which they host regularly, through popular adult education programs. Many cities in Europe have squatted social centers or formerly-squatted social centers which tend to be vibrant centers of all kinds of activity, including concerts. These volunteer-run spaces generally have no rent and little other overhead, and they can often afford to pay artists well. Some of them get money from their government's cultural ministry, which they use for buying state-of-the-art sound equipment, paying bands, etc.

By all accounts from musicians who toured in the US before my time, like in the 1970's, everything was much better. It was vastly easier to get media coverage. Labor laws in the US for touring artists were much better for the artists, requiring venues to temporarily employ bands rather than treating them as disposable items of some kind. Schools and libraries had budgets for putting on cultural events. In the US back then, as with Europe still today, unemployment did not necessarily mean poverty. The welfare state still existed back then, and lifted up all the boats a bit, as welfare states do. People in the US without jobs could often still afford to go to shows – as is still the case in Europe, but has long since stopped being true of the US.

In any case, there are too many possible factors going in both directions, and I'm not an economist or a sociologist. But what I can say for sure at this point is that the United States has told me to get lost, and I don't see any option other than doing what I'm told in this case. I'll keep touring Europe as long as Europe tells me I'm wanted there – as long as a few dozen people predictably come to most of my concerts there.

As for the US, my home, where I live, where my family lives, the country on which the fate of the world unfortunately hangs in so many ways, I'll stay. I'll play gigs for small crowds in Oregon and Washington, locally, where I can afford to play for cheap. Maybe I'll take up busking again. I'll write songs about current events and put them online, where people can listen to them for free – a budget anyone with internet access can afford.

But as for touring in the US the way I've been doing it since 1997, I'm done. No more. I'll still do the sorts of gigs where they pay for my travel costs and pay me a few hundred bucks on top of that, from some kind of institutional budget or philanthropic sponsor. Gigs like that represent maybe 5% of the gigs I do in the US. But no more touring for the foreseeable future.

If you miss me, drop me a line or come visit Portland. Or Europe. Not that 90% of you in the US reading this can possibly afford to travel to either of those places. But at least most of you still have somewhere to live that has electricity, and can probably listen to my new album on Bandcamp and write me an email, anyway.

America, I'll miss you.


Sylviane Mergelsberg said...

So sad for America. :(
Welcome to Europe.

Unknown said...

If you are in the Chicago region,let me know and we can have a house concert for you. Doing one for Tom Neilson on April 10th.
Dave Bartlett

Mark said...

I've been sitting , thinking how to respond to this. First, I'm very very sorry and sad to hear you will not be playing in America now. It's been about 1 1/2 years since I organized that small concert in Tulsa (about 20 in attendance). It was my first and I hoped if I did it again the experience would help bring in more people.
Know that as long as you keep writing and playing I will keep up that subscription to what you write.
I've been thinking about moving to Europe myself, someplace sunny like Spain. The USA is just about more conservative, fascist, imperialist than I can stand and all the protesting etc I could do makes no difference I can tell.
Mark Manley

Chris Hall said...

A couple of days ago I was looking at a pic or a short vid clip from somewhere of one of your recent concerts and was struck both by the small number of people who were attending and also by their age. I see now that it must have been from one of your gigs in the US.

I'm saddened that this reality has altered how you view the US but am glad that Europe still seems to be able to support you gig-wise.

Hopefully one day I'll make it to one of your dates in England but please don't stop composing, writing and playing for all of the world to hear.

David Rovics said...

Just to be clear, my dear Mark Manley, I will definitely still be playing in America! Just with a necessarily, radically different business model, at least until my audiences start increasing in number again, if that happens at some point in the future.

Unknown said...

I first heard you in New Hampshire at the NH Peace Action annual meeting some years ago. There were a log more than 20 people but the majority were my age 60= for sure. Of course when you started there was no Internet and so concerts were the best way to advocate etc. I too am saddened by the lack of young people interested and concerned about what the US has become. In some ways the Military Industrial Complex has convinced most people that 'there is no hope" and so they have given up. I think you are right o charge what you are worth and see who is your market. Too often we think artists and musicians can do free or almost no cost gigs which of course is not true! Regardless I appreciate all the work you have done and will do either here or in Europe. As they say "hang in there" !

matimuse said...

Keep doing what you do so well hombre!

Larkworthy Antfarm said...

The voices of the visionary poets and folksingers are drowned out by all the distracting noise emanating from the cheerleaders for the mediocre empire we live in.

And your voice resonates truth which is the last thing they want to hear. I can't help but think Woody and Pete both lived your story. You are a rebel, a prophet and an outsider. Sadly, you may never be valued at your worth.

Allan E. Petersen said...

It was a pleasure and inspiration to listen to your songs in Denmark! Thanks for keeping our spirits high and Pete Seegers and Joan Baez´ tradition living! Sure America needs you. For many people in my country Bernie Sanders´ succes has proven that there´s still room for alternatives.

j said...

I debated whether to post a comment. For a time, I was one of your biggest fans, and it wasn't only the music, but the politics more so. I know everybody is a critic, and I don't want to come across as though I know anything more than anybody else. But let me explain why I started paying less attention to your music. In a way, it reflects upon the "left" in America, and their relevance.

It was because of how the "left" (and in my view, yourself) came to conclusions about the war in Libya and Syria, not to mention the entire "Arab Spring" (which I feel was largely phony). Instead of, like myself and many young people, seeing the wars in those two countries as sort of "contra" operations designed to overthrow governments, the "left" bought into the idea that the whole thing was organized from within by "activists" and generally shared the line that the particular governments must go. I lost interest in a lot of what the "left" (and their musicians) were saying and doing after that.

That is just my case. But I do believe that many people younger than myself fell the same way. I am only slightly younger than yourself.

Anyway, thanks and I hope I haven't said anything to offend, because I really used to be one of your biggest fans.

Unknown said...

David, you are a seminal songwriter and I admire your talents. Saddened this model is needed, but the empire is a rough place. Wish you only the best and thank you for tons of inspirational music.

Unknown said...

I'm sorry man, being an Aussie muso I have the same problem. At womad a few weeks ago I talked at length to Wade Schuman from New York band Hazmat of the world's great bands, he gets live TV broadcasts on BBC and he can barely get gigs IN HIS OWN TOWN!He said touring Europe 8 months a year keeps him from total poverty...the guy's 52 and basically has no option but to live on the road! The world's getting tough...and people's culture's suffering.

David Rovics said...

John Yorks, I believe your theory about my decreasing relevance among US youth would only make sense if you could explain why my fans in Europe are growing in number and youthfulness. Would this be because European youth support the Al-Nusra Front? Seems unlikely. And I don't, either, and never have. Though I'm all for overthrowing dictatorships, generally, and a big fan of the tactic of civil disobedience and occupying physical space, a la the Tahrir Square phenemonae and Occupy Wall Street, to a lesser degree. I don't think I've ever been guilty of romanticizing these movements, however, and I don't think I've done that with any of my songs on these subjects. You clearly think I did that, so I'd be curious about which song(s) you think did that, assuming you're talking about songs and not tweets or something. Anyway, to each their own opinion. Thanks for sharing yours.

Unknown said...

Hi David,

i like your music very much and i even managed to visit one of your concerts a few years ago here in bonn. As you mention the payment of touring musicians:

I developed a currency that is using the Bitcoin technology ( Though i am a fan of Bitcoin, it is missing a social factor. I dont know if you are familiar with the principle of an unconditional income? Because i designed the currency the way that our association can pay out a small income each month potentially to every person. To apply for such an income people at the moment just have to set up an account (with an Email and a Worldleadcurrency-address) at

At the moment it is not much more than an experiment (like Bitcoin was back in 2009) but i set up an Worldleadcurrency-address for you on our "Support your Favorite Artist" ( site, where we list artists that people can donate the currency to.

If you want to know more, you can always contact me.

Many greetings Rik

Unknown said...

Hi David, I have some questions which are not meant to be antagonistic, but hopefully clarifying. When do you think this phenomenon began? I'm 64 years old and have loved your music since i first heard it. Folky music in the sense of "protest music" has had it's up and down with the rise and fall of social movements. After McCarthyism broke in the late 50's and the civil rights movement and later the anti-war movement and all the movements that sprung out of that, folk music grew to probably its highest listenership ever. When the war ended, the movement dimmed as did the music. It started And restarted as movements grew and dimmed. While probably all your technical and economic questions are correct, it is a waning period of the movement that has probably done the most to create what you've suggested. With the Bernie phenomena, it seems to have picked up a little and hopefully (altho i have no crystal ball) i think no matter what the outcome of the election it will grow even more. (Altho if Trump or Cruz wins, i'm out of here. Which European country do you think is the best to move to?)

And while i understand your literal needs for larger (and younger) audiences, don't put down your older listeners are if we are just has-been from a past period.

Since i am not that far away from Portland, hope to see again in one o your local forays. And maybe you should come to Folklife in Seattle this Memorial Day weekend and talk to other musicians there about this phenomenon.

No matter what it says below, please send any replies to I rarley look at my gmail account.

David Rovics said...

i'm posting this here in response to dean (i'll also send this to your email, dean). all very salient points indeed, no offense taken!

i love my older audiences, but when the average audience size is below 20 in number, it's generally not financially viable. just logistically. of course then there's the feeling of irrelevance when you don't appeal to youth, but i could potentially live with that if i had bigger audiences of baby boomers than i do.

in any case, you're completely right that the whole thing rises and falls for me with social movements. between 1999-2003 there was an active anticapitalist movement in the country, as you know well. between 2001-2005 there was an active antiwar movement. average age much older, but size and enthusiasm similar. during the brief period when these movements overlapped, i almost moved to dc. i was playing for tens of thousands of people at protests there every other month for a while. i was also played on democracy now every few weeks for a couple years. these things resulted in me frequently having audiences similar to the kinds of audiences i had at the time and have had since that time in europe. there is a very clear correlation, i've found.

since writing this piece and hearing from lots of other artists i have discovered that, not surprisingly, we're all in the same situation, aside from the few rock stars i know, who operate in a whole different world in terms of publicity, etc.

JC said...

Aw, David! I wish I'd known sooner! I'm from Canada, and just realized I missed your 2016 tour dates. You will, however, be happy to know that I first learned about you while in university. Our student association was attempting to shut down our chapter of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group(OPIRG). You'll be happy to know, that OPIRG won the battle...and then played your song "Bullies" on their radio broadcast :) That was my first exposure to your music. So, there are some pockets of young people out there in North America who very much appreciate your music! You said it yourself, "We are everywhere."

Unknown said...

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