southern Utah music scene
Image: Justin S. Campbell / CC BY-ND 2.0

The Independent’s Bob Kulon recently had several good points about musicians’ unions. Generally, if one is primarily an orchestral musician, it’s beneficial to be in a union. Otherwise, freelancing is usually far more lucrative. And in some places, one is often forced to pick between the two.

But I don’t think that any union would have any significant influence on the music scene in southern Utah, because the problems with the local culture here run far deeper than mere attitudes toward appropriate pay.

I’m a professional musician who relocated here from Florida about two years ago where I was able to make a living by playing as a freelance session musician and playing live gigs as a hired gun. Before that, I was living in Nashville and doing the same, although simple supply and demand makes it a uniquely difficult place to live exclusively as a musician. But in retrospect, it was a cakewalk compared to southern Utah.

So I guess I should really say that I was a professional musician before I moved to Utah.

southern Utah music scene
Image: Cory Maylett / CC BY-SA 3.0

I gave it a go here in southern Utah, but I quickly realized that the “music scene” here, like much of the culture, is simply hostile toward non-Utahns. I’ve been lied to by music store owners and dismissed by venue managers. I was treated by the owner of one venue with more disrespect than I have ever suffered in my entire life. My jaw still drops when I think about it.

Upon my inquiry, the owner of a local record store and music venue told me that they didn’t have live music … and then I watched them have live music. A local coffee shop sports a banner that reads “LIVE MUSIC”; however, no one is allowed to play on their stage, and their beautiful baby grand piano sports a C-clamp that holds it shut like a musical chastity belt.

When I think about the southern Utah music scene—or more appropriately the relative lack thereof—I think of that poor C-clamped piano, like a bird with its wings clipped.

To me, a piano that no one is allowed to play is the perfect symbol for music in southern Utah.

No union has the power to save the southern Utah music scene, and there are several reasons why.

There is one booking agent in St. George (who is ironically a board member of SUSWA) who has helped keep local musicians’ pay artificially low. It is common knowledge that there is really almost nowhere to play here—or to hear live music. Most of the venues treat musicians badly, but one St. George restaurant that features live music throughout the week is particularly abusive. I would like the public to know that a musician is paid the insultingly low fee of $50 to play there. A duo or trio will split this meager pittance. (That is unless he or she is on the “inside,” at which point I’ve heard that pay may be more.)

Consider tipping musicians heavily at such venues, because what you give is just about all they will receive. The one time I was paid a fair wage at this particular restaurant, it was because the frontman who hired me was willing to employ me at his expense; it actually cost him money to play that gig.

As both a veteran musician and a former restaurant co-owner, general manager, and fine-dining bartender, I can assure you that restaurants can afford to pay their musicians quite well indeed. They simply don’t because they can get away with not doing so. The American service industry, with the encouragement of the Restaurant Association, is incredibly abusive and exploitative towards its employees across the board, and that extends to musicians as well, especially here. Their gatekeeper, of course, receives a fee for assisting with this, which hurts the musical community.

I don’t want to give the impression that the booking agent in question has a stranglehold on the scene. Earlier this year, a local band undercut the entire musical community at a St. George pub, securing routine gigs for an abnormally low fee. In a healthy musical community, that level of misbehavior would’ve resulted in long-term consequences. Having a union in southern Utah wouldn’t have made any difference in the actions of this particular band.

There’s another factor in the situation which probably won’t come as a surprise: the nepotism in southern Utah is thick enough to cut with a knife. I’ve lived in a small town and experienced it before, but it’s truly refined to a fine art here.

I could write my personal memoirs solely about how this phenomenon bleeds into the southern Utah music scene, but allow me to illustrate with one story—one of many. Before I knew better, I participated in an open mic competition (“competition”) last year at a St. George venue that turned out to be quite transparently rigged. I’m not saying that because I didn’t win. The person who won was a friend of the family of the owner, who had the score sheets in his possession alone for some reason before the results were announced. And the judges knew it. They weren’t even sitting down and listening to the winner during her performance. Her guitar didn’t even plug in and was hardly audible.

Dan Wenzel was my duo partner at the time. Dan is also a Nashville veteran who attended Belmont University, played professionally at Myrtle Beach for years, and has had lots of radio play in St. Louis. Both Dan and I thought that one performer, Josh Larsen, was so great that he might beat us, but he came in dead last, and the person who we were sure could only come in last was the one who won.

At this same venue, my partner and I were refused our $200 fee for hosting an open mic night. When I asked the owner to sit down and talk about it with me, he called me a “buzzkill” and walked away. It totally blew my mind.

That was when I realized what is really going on here. The good ‘ol boy system has deep roots. Any union would have a tough time with that.

Consider George Streetfest. It is popular and successful for two major reasons: public drinking is allowed, and out-of-state acts are brought in. And they’re actually paid.

In fact, a recent poll run by the Independent even showed that in regards to Streetfest the public cares most about the live music and the booze.

While I don’t drink, the general public does. To pretend otherwise is to live within one’s imagination. For one day a month, thanks to Emceesquare Media, St. George vaguely resembles an American city. It’s pretty cool.

To my amusement, the local music community was at one point up in arms over the fact that out-of-town bands were being brought in. But there are so many local acts, and most of them have oversaturated southern Utah. While locals may have had reason to protest, fresh bands are arguably more than half the reason to attend Streetfest. Booze may be a good reason, but anyone can put whiskey in a flask or Cabernet in a Coke can and walk around downtown with it. You can’t bottle fresh music.

Consider the Zion Canyon Music Festival, whose future is in jeopardy. The fact that a music festival in a tourist magnet like Springdale is not flourishing boggles the mind. And I know that the people who put that festival on and have volunteered countless hours have tried their damnedest to keep it alive. This is an indicator that something is wrong that a union can’t remedy.

Consider also the recent Live United LIVE festival. Its only real draw was Howard Jones. Otherwise, the rest of the lineup featured musicians regularly seen and heard locally already. There was little to get excited about other than a free car. The Live United LIVE festival was, despite George Scott’s recent article, a rather lukewarm success. There may have been 5,000 people to see Howard Jones, but they weren’t there to see most of the other acts because, as I mentioned, the other acts—to whom I offer the utmost respect—have simply oversaturated the area, which is usually a big mistake.

That’s because there’s just no one else playing here. And that’s because there is no culture here to support it. Theater? Yes. Music? No. Even our local orchestras are staffed by volunteers because funds are not allocated to pay professional musicians. (I wonder how a local union would affect that situation.)

I want to be very clear that I have high regard for the musicians and bands in southern Utah. If they have oversaturated the area or have to play for free, they’re hardly to be blamed. With two venues in Cedar City and a mere four or five in St. George, it’s difficult to avoid, and I do admire their tenacity and immutable passion despite it.

When I do play, it is usually out of state or at least out of the region, because southern Utah is generally inhospitable towards musicians who don’t have the correct last name. In California, Colorado, Nevada, and up north in Salt Lake City and Park City, people appreciate good music and will pay well. Those are people for whom I’m willing to play. And I know others here who feel the same way.

It’s not entirely bad. Some people are trying to positively impact on the southern Utah music scene. For example, Steve Lemmon has used his position at DSU to bring some really great stuff to the Tanner Amphitheater in Springdale, and a group in which he plays, Many Miles, has wisely not oversaturated the area. And Tuacahn has the money and inclination to do the same. I think that we’re lucky to have those resources in our community. The top-notch acts they bring in aren’t cheap.

They sure as hell don’t come and perform for 50 measly bucks.

To pretend that an area encumbered by something so asinine as a law against dancing will ever have the kind of music scene that people deserve is simply fantasy. When those who have held this society’s head underwater for so long pass on, the leaders of the future will have a chance to learn from the numerous mistakes of their elders. It’s encouraging that the area is growing rapidly, because the only hope is fresh blood. And that blood is being transfused into southern Utah daily.

George Scott claimed in April that the southern Utah music scene is “thriving.” But I have to disagree. Much like people around here see the FLDS community, noting their restrictive clothing and feeling sorry for them, as if—denied the freedom of fashion—those people have never truly lived, I see the general public here exactly the same way. You just don’t understand what you’re missing. I invite you to visit any other city in the world and experience the richness of a burgeoning music scene. There is nothing like it. It is a human kaleidoscope. It is like falling down face-first into a German chocolate cake, and as great as I think Streetfest is, it is only the teeniest little hint at what St. George could be like with a proper music scene.

Whether or not that will ever happen, I can’t say. But the reality is that bringing in a union would have little positive impact on anything. It can’t conjure more gigs, and it would likely interfere with those trying to encourage any live music at all. Neither the supply nor the demand is here. And the best don’t play for free and seldom for cheap.

A collective change of values cannot be instituted. Live music should never be considered a novelty.

(Oh, and dancing is a human right, damn it!)

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