James T Baker has a problem. The local bluesman has been trying to make a go of it for 30-some years, but after being relegated to out-of-town shows and farmers markets, then recently losing a regular gig to a smooth jazz guitarist whom I won’t name, he’s ready to call it quits—and he’s not going quietly.
I got wind of Baker a few weeks ago when he sent SFR an angry email that at first seemed like the delusional ravings of a crackpot. But the more I read the letter, the more it made sense.
“I’ve been here over 30 years, and I can remember cool places like The Senate or Club West,” he wrote. “But now it’s the same thing at The Cowgirl or El Farol or Evangelo’s over and over and over...boring!”
I had to meet this guy. I’m aware that when I suggest that the Santa Fe music scene might not be the greatest pocket of talent found on the planet, readers can’t pull out their pens fast enough to spell, “I hate you!” So the chance to discuss the scene with a genuine musician (Baker’s tunes are incredible, by the way) who has “grown tired of casting my pearls before swine” excited me.
“What’s the problem with Santa Fe music?” Baker asks me over coffee. “For one thing, there are too many people who will buy crap…and ‘Nobody say anything about anything or it’s trouble.’”
Despite Baker’s very true assertion that Santa Fe tends to produce a whole lot of music for the dinner hour, music lovers and musicians don’t complain because they’ve grown accustomed to background music. And who’s going to complain when competition for gigs is so fierce?
Or as Baker puts it, “You can’t get gigs around here unless you’re willing to play music nobody is going to listen to.”
I put this out to you, musicians of Santa Fe: How many times have you had to make concessions to suit venues whose priority is to sell the more expensive steak or the bottle of wine from the private collection?
Of course, restaurants are within their right to do whatever they think is best for their businesses, but I also think that each musician in Santa Fe represents all musicians in Santa Fe—if you play crap, then the whole music scene is crap. If you accept a lower rate solely to get a gig over someone else, then you undercut the whole business of playing music.
“Musicians should stop playing for nothing, because it just ain’t worth it to pack up all your gear and bandmates for a hundred bucks,” Baker says. “It’s up to the clubs to pay these musicians what they’re worth, but then the artists will have to make it worth their while…no more playing mostly covers, no more playing the same set from three years ago, no more expecting everybody to love what you do just because they happen to live in the same town.”
Baker sure raises a lot of questions, but I like it. We should be asking ourselves these questions, because we can only hide behind statements like “The scene is pretty good for Santa Fe’s size” for so long.
Sure, Baker’s perspective is probably influenced by hurt feelings (not to mention concern over an ailing business), but these are still valid points that need to be discussed before our decent local musicians look to Austin or Portland or wherever else people go to shows to actually hear music.
“When we only have a handful of venues and music becomes an afterthought, where’s the room for musicians to write and play something good?” Baker asks. I open my mouth to respond, but I should have guessed he’d answer himself. “It isn’t there.”
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