To Play or Not to Play: Indie Artists Debate Whether Canceling Shows is an Effective Means of Protes | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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To Play or Not to Play: Indie Artists Debate Whether Canceling Shows is an Effective Means of Protes

A Conversation with Death Cab for Cutie's Nick Harmer, Rogue Wave's Zach Rogue, Tacocat's Emily Nokes, and The Thermals' Hutch Harris

Nov 29, 2016 The Thermals Photography by Ray Lego (for Under the Radar) Bookmark and Share

On March 23, 2016, the state of North Carolina passed The Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, otherwise known as House Bill 2 or HB2. The law, as written, strips out anti-discrimination protections for gay, bisexual, and transgender people, as well as prohibits transgender individuals from using the bathroom of their choice in public buildings. The backlash was swift. Within days PayPal, Deutsche Bank, and Red Ventures cancelled planned expansions in the state. Movie and TV productions looked for new settings. Numerous cities banned official government travel to North Carolina. By April 8, Bruce Springsteen had cancelled his upcoming concert, and Ringo Starr, Pearl Jam, and Maroon 5 would soon follow suit. It seemed as if the arts and business communities were speaking in unison: North Carolina’s government had crossed a line and there would be repercussions.

But it wasn’t that simple. A few days after the wave of show cancellations, Against Me! lead vocalist Laura Jane Grace, a transgender artist, announced that the band would be going ahead with their scheduled May 15 show in Durham. Pulling the plug on their show was not an option, they said, and they would use their performance as a protest against the law and an opportunity to start a dialog within the community. “Visibility is more important than ever,” Grace explained in an interview before the concert, then hit the stage and burned the birth certificate that the law now said was necessary to prove that one was using the correct bathroom.

Soon, Cyndi Lauper, Animal Collective, Father John Misty, Mumford and Sons, and Duran Duran all announced that they’d be going forward with their shows, as well, with many of them making statements during their performances and donating a portion of their profits to LGBTQ organizations. The consensus that once had appeared so clear now clearly wasn’t, and musicians were left to debate just how they should respond to a law that they uniformly opposed. Should artists who want to change a law do so by using their clout to cancel shows and inflict pain on the local economy, thereby turning up the heat on the state’s representatives to create legislative change? Or are artists more effective when directly supporting those affected by such laws, using their performance to build community and create consensus that will eventually result in cultural change? Is there a right way to protest?

“For us, when we were first thinking about it, our initial gut reaction was to cancel the shows,” says Death Cab for Cutie’s Nick Harmer. On tour with CHVRCHES at the time, they had booked two North Carolina shows for June long before the legislation was announced and soon realized they were caught directly between the two camps. “We knew that playing in North Carolina with HB2 being what it is was going to be a real conflict for us internally, and we needed to figure out some way to make peace with that. We had some conflict initially about turning [the shows] into benefits, too, because we didn’t want to seem like this band from Seattle, Washington, that rolls into North Carolina and tells everyone how it should be. We didn’t want to feel like we were standing on a soapbox.”

Instead, the band reached out to Revolutions Per Minute, an organization that helps artists connect with charitable organizations and strategize about how to best use their work to influence change. From there, they were put into contact with two LGBTQ rights groupsFreedom Center for Social Justice and Southerners On New Ground (SONG)who provided guidance on how to best use their shows to make a statement. The members of Death Cab would not have to be seen as self-appointed saviors swooping in to perch on their soapboxes, because Freedom Center and SONG would set up tables inside the venues and control the messaging for the night. All of the proceeds from their shows in Charlotte and Asheville would be given to those two groups. Those shows will be, however, the final time that band plays in North Carolina until the law is repealed. “It would be irresponsible for us at this point to go ahead and seek opportunities in that state until this bill is repealed,” Harmer says. “It needs to be communicated clearly to lawmakers that there are economic impacts to decisions like this.”

If the debate over whether to play or cancel boils down to a monetary one, we have real data to consider: Death Cab’s decision to play the two shows yielded a $50,000 donation for the two organizations. Bruce Springsteen’s cancelled show reportedly cost the Greensboro Coliseum, the venue that would have hosted his performance, $100,000 in lost revenue, not to mention the lost proceeds to all of the restaurants, stores, and hotels in the region that never benefited from the patronage of 15,000 partying Boss fans. But to reduce the debate to a discussion of economics leaves out the vast majority of artists who play for several hundreds of people per night. What should artists do when their choice doesn’t have the potential to move the economic needle in an appreciable way?

“We’re not going to hurt anyone financially by cancelling,” admits Zach Rogue of Rogue Wave, who ultimately decided to keep their May 18 show at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro. “If we were a massive band and were playing in an arena, then, yeah, absolutely I would do that, because it would make so much more of a political statement. Because there probably are a lot of crazy bigots that maybe like Springsteen, and he can draw a line in the sand and say, ‘Look. You’re not part of my party. You can’t come.’ I think it’s great that he did that, and it’s very brave. I think it helped further the cause and opened the door to other artists to examine their feelings on the subject.”

For Rogue Wave, their North Carolina show essentially became a party and a protest. The band placed signsPrince’s unpronounceable “Love Symbol”on the venue doors, and Rogue instructed his guests to disregard the HB2 law while they were there. He stuck around to mingle and listen to the frustrations of attendees who felt hurt and embarrassed. For a band whose decisions don’t have the potential to dent the local economy nor result in a substantial donation to local organizations, perhaps the only result of cancelling a show is to punish their fans for policies beyond their control. For Tacocat, a Seattle band who has a long history of playing queer-friendly venues, the decision to keep their April 19 show at Durham’s Pinhook was easy. Their community made it clear that a boycott would only be hurting the people waiting to see them play.

“That was something a lot of people were talking about, like, ‘You’re cutting off something that is pretty vital to this scene,’” says the band’s Emily Nokes. “Music is, in some cases, all that people have in a small town or in a community where maybe you’re vastly outnumbered by bigots or something. I grew up in a really small town in Montana, and the idea that being a teenager who has nothing to do with the local politics at all, hearing bands won’t play, it would be like nothing cool is going to happen anymore. It would just perpetuate a really serious and sad problem. I think cutting people off from that would just be awful.”

To add yet another wrinkle to this discussion, artists have to consider just when a law or policy represents something so odious that simply entering that state or city is unacceptable. If HB2 doesn’t cross that line for some artists, what would? On the other hand, if artists are boycotting North Carolina due to anti-LGBTQ legislation, why stop there? Why not cancel shows for anti-worker or anti-immigrant or anti-environmental legislation, as well?

“Where do you draw the line?” says Hutch Harris of The Thermals. “You can find a reason to boycott any state and you won’t have to look very hard. Have you been to Florida, or Texas, or Utah? We were strongly againstand critical ofthe boycotting of Arizona to protest the SB 1070 immigration law. Punk bands like us exist to play for kids in fucked up cities and statesto show those kids there is a way out; there is a better life. One irony is we still got hate mail from ill-informed idiots who thought we were boycotting Arizona.”

To expand this debate even further, internationally-touring artists have to consider if certain countries should be shunned, as well. In the 1980s, it was South Africa, with few acts willing to perform in an apartheid state. Today, that debate has shifted to Israel, with Brian Eno, Roger Waters, Thurston Moore, among others, putting the country on the no-show list for its government’s treatment of Palestinians. But if avoiding a single state for legislative abuses is complicated, boycotting a whole country is even more so. “Again, where do you draw the line?” Harris continues. “Every major country is guilty of human rights abuses. If you’re going to boycott countries, start with the United States. Have you seen how our police force treats Black Americans? It’s despicable.”

Most indie bands never have to make the decision to play in Israel, as very few acts are ever offered opportunities to book such shows in the first place. But it does appear that artists are increasingly bypassing places that are perceived as not representing their values. Check out the tour itinerary of many indie acts, and you’ll see similar patterns, with most shows dotting the coasts and very few landing in the South or Midwest. Even if acts aren’t officially boycotting Arkansas and Alabama because of specific legislation, the end result is the same. Already isolated communities become even more isolated.

“I think it would be unfortunate if we perpetuated a vacuum, like all these liberal bands play in liberal places for liberal people,” Nokes says. “We won’t go to the South, because we don’t like it. We won’t go to this state that has bad politics…,” she says, trailing off in frustration. “But then it’s cutting out a demographic of people that arguably need it more than like, say, Seattle. By playing shows you’re giving them an opportunity to have something productive and positive in their life.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar’s August/September/October 2016 Issue. This is its debut online.]


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