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The Recession We Had To Have (And How The Piano Bar Business Basically Shot Itself In The Foot)

September 5, 2018

One of the things I really like about my job that is that every night’s gig is different to the last… And very often in ways that I couldn’t possibly have anticipated. 

 

That isn’t to say every night is mind-bogglingly fantastic, but I’d say about 95% of them are really enjoyable, which - in terms of employment satisfaction - is about as much as anyone could ask for.

 

There was a time when a piano entertainer’s contract salary amount was a status symbol - that the money one made at any particular venue was a meter of how “good” one was; but these days it seems that success equates more to how much work one has.

 

During the late ‘80s and ‘90s, piano bars (especially in Norway) were all the rage. At one point there were around half a dozen full-time piano bars in Oslo alone, and at least two in every other major city in the country. The money was often crazy (as in, we got paid VERY well) and it seemed liked the party would never end.

 

But what goes up must come down, and end it did. The EU expanded as communism retreated, the arse fell out of the oil market, the GFC hit and things began to change. Gradually piano bars that it seemed would always thrive were suddenly gone, but there were still the same number of players wanting work. Luckily for many, Holland became the new mecca for piano entertainers, and that helped quite a bit. Meanwhile, the scene in Norway kept shrinking and the country now has only a handful of decent piano bars left - and I can only think of a couple which are open 5 or more nights a week.

 

Some people have suggested to me that the piano bar industry is dying. I don’t agree with that, but it definitely has gone into recession. I also believe that - to quote a former Australian Federal Treasurer - that this was a recession we had to have. The business had become bloated with egos; players were often being paid far too much money, while the less-reputable agents circled like sharks, taking whatever they could (except responsibility) - especially when it became clear that the bubble was about to burst and things were going pear-shaped.

 

That brings us to the present day. The global economy is quite different to the pre-GFC model, and - more importantly - audiences have changed. Or, more accurately, grown up. That means that the music being asked for in piano bars 20 years ago during that “golden age” is not quite enough anymore, and we as entertainers are largely being forced to adjust accordingly. It might be the same age group of people as we entertained back in the day (i.e., regular party-oriented bar-goers) but these are different people; and they’ve grown up with different music than their parents, who we were likely playing to back in the 80s and 90s.

 

In my opinion, our industry - just like the rest of existence - is continually in the process of redefining itself. Just as the advent of drum machines in the '70s and then MIDI in the '80s forever changed things from the old "nothing-but-piano-and-voice" days, the use of technology in performance continues unabated, while audience tastes and demands continue to evolve.

 

I personally don’t think that’s a bad thing, because I get bored easily. I've always been keen on anything that gives me a better sound or improves the experience of people coming to my shows. On top of that, adding new songs keeps me on my toes and keeps more people interested, while there are still plenty of opportunities to be otherwise entertaining whilst interacting with the punters, and to play the best of the older stuff when necessary. Meanwhile I find myself playing more gigs in more countries and venues during the year than ever before, and actually enjoying it more than ever (even if all the traveling is sometimes a BIT of a drag)...

 

Sure, the venues might be fewer and the money (taking account of inflation) not quite as good as it was in 1997; but the gigs are still there for those who are able/dare to retool and work up a sweat. So - as Stevie Wonder once wrote:

 

“You ask me am I happy, we’ll as a matter of fact, I can say that I’m ecstatic....

 

Yes, I still am, thanks very much. :-)

 

 

 

 

 

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