Rockin’ In The U.S.A.: Author Steve Waksman Discusses ‘Live Music In America’ From Scalping In 1850 To Beyoncé’s Coachella & Beyond

By Michaelangelo Matos

A new book about the live music business that doesn’t even mention AEG until near the end? Worry not: Steve Waksman’s “Live Music in America: From Jenny Lind to Beyoncé,” just published by Oxford University Press, has a much longer story to tell– one that rewrites the story of American music. 

Steveinperformance JPB
ROCKER/ACADEMIC: Author Steve Waksman seen here shredding with his former band The Electric Eyes, is also the Elsie Irwin Sweeney Professor of Music at Smith College in Massachusetts.
Photo by Julian Parker-Burns

Waksman, a music professor at Smith College, begins with the Swedish opera star Jenny Lind, whose 1850-52 tour of America, initially presented by P.T. Barnum, served as an arena tour blueprint, and ends with Beyoncé’s climactic “Homecoming” show at Coachella in 2018. In between, we learn about everything from the pioneering concert tours of the Fisk Jubilee Singers to the rise of jazz in the 1920s, of rock in the 1950s, of festivals in the ‘60s (including a spotlight on soundman Bill Hanley, a stalwart of George Wein’s Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals who also did sound for Woodstock and Bill Graham’s Fillmore East) to a trenchant history of live hip-hop to the end of the ‘90s.

Throughout, Waksman tilts the frame of music history and changes the image utterly.

Open “Live Music in America” to any of its 692 pages and something will catch your interest. There are endless parallels with the music business of today, at every stage of the journey, which Pollstar discussed with Waksman following the book’s publication. 

Pollstar: You began work on this book 14  years ago. Let’s say it was published in February of 2018, right before Beyoncé’s “Homecoming,” which is now the book’s conclusion. How were you initially planning to finish it?

Steve Waksman: When I first started the book, I envisioned that the end was going to be dealing more with the ways in which live music was interacting with other types of media and new media, and how there was a blurring of the boundaries between the live and other types of media experience. But as I got more towards the end, I was like, there’s really no coverage of hip-hop as a live music phenomenon, except in really scattered ways. So, I felt like that was this void that I could fill. When “Homecoming” happened, it just seemed like it was a logical next move, from having thought so much about how hip-hop matters as a type of live music, and was completely connected to the larger history of race and the ways in which segregation has mattered in life and in music history.

The other piece that I had been thinking about through the whole book, and had never quite had a sense of what my angle was going to be, was on more of the business side of things, dealing with the 21st-century changes to the live music industry in terms of consolidation: Live Nation, Ticketmaster, that whole set of new corporations and institutions that have really redefined the commercial contours of the live music industry. There were other people who were doing that work; I could leave it to them. But I felt like it had to be in the book somewhere. 

Basically, live music is a form of big-box entertainment. It seemed like that was a good place to synthesize these strands in the book that had been there all along. “Homecoming” definitely was like having history replay itself in a really interesting, meta way.

One thing that may surprise Pollstar readers is that it takes so long to come into the current era – you don’t even mention AEG until page 542. Did you want to write anything about the modern landscape that didn’t make it in?

Clearly, the big consolidation is one part of that story. But in the introduction, I referenced the fact that the live music industry has become so much more central to the music industry writ large in the 21st century.

That didn’t exist when you started the book. 

Right – there’s definitely aspects of that I wish I’d had more space to address, like Ed Sheeran being the top-grossing live music act of his era. Also, another strand – the way that live music is tied in to the economy of certain cities. I deal with some of that with regard to the earlier version of Newport from the ’50s and ’60s. But that has a really particular importance in the age of the modern festival – like the various Electric Daisy Carnival events and how they are tied to places like Vegas. I had to cut myself off because the book was already too long. 

For derring-do, does any other figure in live music promotion compare to P.T. Barnum?

There’s a lot of them who want to compare to P.T. Barnum, like Jerry Weintraub, who’s constantly evoking him in his memoir, which is fascinating. There are definitely more recent live music promoters who I think were comparably important, but their mode of operation was quite different. I think of George Wein, who is absolutely one of the great music curators of the 20th century. He was a hype artist, but it was a much more respectable hype than Barnum’s. Although Barnum did sink his teeth into Jenny Lind. That was definitely a respectability move on his part. 

Bill Graham is somebody else – not just for his individual pursuits, but really for laying the groundwork for a really significant course-change in the industry as a whole. Again, the motivations there are really complicated. He liked the idea of elevating things. It’s remarkable how often that’s a motivation. He wanted rock music to be at the Metropolitan Opera House. The fact that he even wanted it tells you something. He very much thought that the shows he was putting on at the Fillmore were art. And he always bemoaned arena rock as the loss of that art. But he didn’t shy away from going in headfirst once he realized that it was the only way he’s going to really stay solvent. That is where you see the some of the links between folks like Wein and Graham and someone like Barnum. They’re very capable of adapting when the market shifts around them so that they don’t get left behind.

The Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind was Barnum’s choice because she had such broad appeal, which today we might call “crossover.” Telling the story of American music through live shows tells us that this was a winning strategy 70 years before the record business discovers that “Crazy Blues” sells to white and Black people. In 1850, before the Civil War, crossover worked. It’s very revealing.

Totally. I had to go back to a point well before recordings are a really dominant part of the cultural landscape, so I pushed the start of the book back into the middle of the 19th century. As soon as I started reading contemporary accounts of Jenny Lind on tour, it was immediately obvious how contemporary, in the current-day sense, so much of what was happening around her. Scalping! At a conference I showed these ads from 1850: people selling Jenny Lind’s tickets on what we would now call the secondary market. People were blown away.

She’s the logical starting point for the book because the level of celebrity she had engendered this whole different commercial culture around live music that had not really existed the same way prior to her. It’s a celebrity that isn’t bounded by a single audience demographic. At that point, that was mostly a question of class. To some degree, I would say gender crossover, too. It’s not like women only stayed home. Lind provided a public entertainment that women could patronize and maintain their respectability. That was a really important thing at that moment in time. It’s really about middle-class respectability becoming a more modern, prominent part of public American life.

How did you begin to understand the soundman Bill Hanley’s centrality to the shift from folk and jazz festivals to rock ones?

It was another one of those things that sunk in slowly. I would be reading about Woodstock, and there’d be a sentence about Hanley in some oral history, and I’d be like, “Who’s that guy?” And I started to pick up on the fact that he did a lot more than Woodstock. He’s the Zelig of popular music—that Woody Allen character who’s just like, “Oh, that’s that guy in that picture.” I started noticing how much Bill Hanley was coming up – not just in the books on Woodstock, but also in the books about the Fillmore East, where he did the sound, and the Newport Jazz Festival. Promoters are a key part of the infrastructure. But then, who are the people that actually allow the event to function? People are starting to pay more attention to that. 

You make the case that Fresh Fest ‘84 and ’85 were at the heart of a mid-’80s, hip-hop, arena-show golden age. How was that curtailed?

It was curtailed by the reflexive reaction of a white-oriented music industry to this perceived threat that young Black people had when they all gathered together in large numbers, which was also why Black music artists were in the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s, to a significant degree. This rhetoric is: Every time there’s a hip-hop show, violence breaks out, so we’ve got to be careful. It becomes very conventional by late ’85. And gangsta rap as a subgenre of hip hop was not there as a
thing that specifically spoke to those anxieties yet. It wasn’t like NWA showed up and suddenly everyone got scared. Everyone was already scared when NWA showed up.