Dispatches from the desk of John MacMillan

Pizzarelli and piracy

Guitarist John Pizzarelli

John Pizzarelli with his trusty 7-string guitar, spends roughly a third of the year on the road.

I and my WP² (which, as regular readers know, means my “wife-partner-person” Gabriella…) recently heard jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli play at Toronto’s Koerner Hall. I write “heard”, but really “enjoyed” would be a better verb. Pizzarelli is a fabulous entertainer: charming, funny, gracious and a master guitarist and singer. (He’s also way taller than I expected, and has hands the size of canned hams, but I digress….)

Pizzarelli’s show made me ponder the modern travails of musicians. A friend who co-owns Toronto’s Pilot Tavern (where I perform comedy on occasion, and habituate more often) told me recently that these days his is one of few jazz venues in the city that actually pays entertainers to perform; in The Pilot’s case, different groups play every Saturday afternoon and there’s no cover charge. Others, notably the (in)famous Rex Hotel on Queen St. West, simply charge a cover that gets paid to the talent, or the entertainers pass the hat to patrons.

The bigger challenge, however, is the unintended effect of illegal downloads. In the days before digital, musicians could earn royalties from songwriting or record sales. Those sales were limited by the numbers of outlets — record stores, mail order or the Columbia Music Club (of which some people are probably still members, given the pernicious ‘fine print’…) — but if you were any good and developed a following you could make a living from your creative work.

The Internet changed that. True, it allowed for a broader dissemination of music, and stole power from the A&R guys who served as gatekeepers to success and fame. But it played into the venal human impulse to steal; to commit ‘victim-less’ crimes that enriched peoples’ ears while robbing creators’ wallets. And it forced musicians to hit the road like latter-day lemmings. When the best way to ensure payment from your work is to contract with concert promoters, you jettison your family and health and hit the road.

Don’t get me wrong: performing live gives a greater high than any narcotic. It’s effervescent and immediate and, in a world filled with electronic fascia, there is nothing more engaging than the authentic. Maybe that’s why entertainers like John Pizzarelli spend roughly a third of the year on tour. But the cliché is true: the road wears people out. Sinéad O’Connor writes about it on her blog; the fatigue of travel, the enervating slog from hotel to stage to van to hotel. A lot of that activity is a direct, if unintended, effect of music piracy.


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