How late should live music start? 10? 11? Midnight?

In my Savannah Morning News column today, I grapple with the question “Live music: Does it have to start so late?”

In my opinion, the short answer is no, but it’s a really complex question, the answers to which involve the desires of bands, the target audiences, the culture of individual cities and of individual clubs, and the business goals of club owners. Apparently a number of Savannah bar owners and musicians — both local and out-of-town ones — have decided the answer is yes. And they’re the ones whose livelihoods and futures are on the line, so maybe they know best.

But they’re making choices that have clear downsides and that limit future audiences.

BJ Barham of American Aquarium at The Jinx

Let me go into a little more detail about recent experiences that I allude to in that column. Clubowners, if you’re reading this, no offense intended! It’s your business, so scheduling is your call. But these examples are relevant in my mind right now.

Last Saturday night, a friend and I got to The Jinx a little after 10:30 excited to hear American Aquarium, a great rock/alt-country act from Raleigh. I love them. I knew nothing of the opener, Brian Olive, but obviously got there in time to hear part of his band’s set. Well, Olive didn’t start till 11:30. When I got a message a little after midnight from a friend visiting from New York, I took off and never made it back. Then on Monday night, I was excited to hear the band Parallels at Hang Fire. I arrived before 10 to find a near-empty bar, except for a couple of friends about my age who have been live music boosters in Savannah for many years. We talked for well over an hour before a DJ started at about 11. Parallels didn’t start until about 12:15. I was easily the oldest person left in the club at that point — something that happens disturbingly often — but the place was jumping. Not many people were paying close attention to the band, however; there were probably about 20 people on the sidewalk just chatting through the first few songs. It was more party than show. I left after the third or fourth number.

These are pretty routine experiences around Savannah. A lot of shows get rolling around 10:30, a sort-of-expected time that is still far too late for a lot of people, while others don’t start till well after that.

Now, it’s been a decade since I’ve had jobs that force me to get up really early, and my teaching gig just finished for the summer so I don’t have any morning commitments at all for a few weeks. And I think my biological clock has yet to catch up with my chronological age. So maybe I’m better at toughing it out for late shows than a lot of people. Still, it’s hard for me to get excited about a show after sitting around much of the night.

With shows so consistently late, the local live music scene is losing a lot of potential patrons: people with jobs that require them to be up and coherent in the mornings, people of a certain age who simply don’t feel like pushing themselves to stay up, people who have gone to dinner and are looking for a drink and entertainment before going home or to a hotel, people who have paid for babysitters for the evening, and on and on.

“But those people won’t come out anyway,” I imagine some would say. Well, not true. As I note in the column:

If bands start earlier, will live music fans show up earlier?

Sure they will, as they do routinely for performances at The Sentient Bean, for happy hour shows on Friday and Saturday at The Jinx, and for the tightly scheduled Savannah Stopover.

The Stopover audiences showed that 10 p.m. start times work fine if that’s what is expected.

Damon and the Shitkickers at The Jinx

I routinely drop by The Jinx on Saturdays about 7 to hear Damon and the Shitkickers, which typically starts their happy hour set a little after 6. Business is slow sometimes, and sometimes it’s great, but all in all the gigs have been a huge success for more than two years now. The audience literally includes 21 year olds up to 70-somethings.

I frequently hear this: “We don’t want to start until the crowd gets a little bigger.” So time and again I end up at shows where there are better crowds for the opening act than for the headliner.

Now, maybe club owners are making the best choices for their own businesses on any given night. But it’s hard to see how bands — especially touring acts — can build strong, loyal audiences when the demographic is so limited and the shows are so late.

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