NEW HAMPSHIRE—It’s midnight on Friday in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. The streets are empty, a solitary LED screen flashes and the only sounds are the howl of the wind and the ringing in our ears. Miles away from the center of the primary circus in Manchester, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism is searching for answers. We want to know how the music community has been impacted by the political, how bands on the road see the tumult in the world affect their work, their livelihoods, their audiences.
In a world where politics have become entertainment, how are politics impacting entertainers?
We talked to three artists—a nationally recognized cover band, a group of 90s hit makers, and an upstart indie band—to take the political temperature on the road. And while New Hampshire may be on the outskirts of the entertainment mainstream, far from the corporate power centers that fuel our celebrity industrial complex, it is a state filled with venues of every stripe and fans of every timbre. New Hampshire reflects the environment of so many peripheral music scenes, an outlier in the pop narrative that is indicative of larger cultural issues.
The artists we found on the road, grinding it out in the off season when less hardy bands were still at home, bring unique opinions to the table. Answers ran the gamut, from business-savvy neutrality and world-weary skepticism to fired up activism. None offered up the surefire clickbait of a snappy Twitter retort or the wonky policy analysis. There is passion, but there are more shades of pragmatism than artists are generally given credit for.
“It’s hard for me to determine if the election has an effect on our shows”
Frank Marino, manager and leader of Eaglemania—“America’s Best Eagles Tribute”—is on the phone as freezing rain pours down outside. The eight-year-old outfit is playing two sold out shows at Tupelo Music Hall in Derry, the venue for last Thursday’s Elizabeth Warren Get Out The Vote event. It’s the band’s busy season, a succession of one-night stands taking them from mid-sized theater to mid-sized theater up and down the coast.
“It’s our job to help people escape from reality,” Marino tells BINJ. “I would say that politics is the one subject that we really try to avoid. Honestly, in today’s environment, I find that people don’t really want to talk about politics in public at all. Unless you really know the person you’re talking with it is a subject that is really sort of taboo.”
This is a stark contrast to the sparring with strangers ethos that has become so central to music reporting during the Trump era. But it shouldn’t be surprising coming from a band that plays a technically meticulous yet laid back “Take It Easy” every night. Regardless of where you fall on the Eagles Appreciation Scale—big fan to Big Lebowksi—we can agree that those dudes weren’t just rewriting “Louie Louie.”
“The thing with the tributes is that some people come out because they love music,” Marino says. “Some people come out because they’re skeptical: Can they really pull this off?”
Eaglemania isn’t a pick-up bar band playing for beers, it is a small business with three crew and eight musicians, all with decades of professional experience under their belt. Marino handles managerial duties during the day, like buying advertising and organizing travel, then plays a three-hour set before heading back out on the road. It’s all very quotidian, a middle-aged answer to the satin-and-mustache- powered guitar heroics of his ’70s hard-rock band Mahogany Rush. It also gives Marino a unique view of middle America’s economic vitality.
“I have seen some theaters doing incredibly well and the production is phenomenal,” Marino explains. “But then I’ve seen towns and theaters that can’t get enough grant money. A lot of these theaters are nonprofit, performing art centers, community spaces … Some of these spaces are doing really well, but some are struggling. Really struggling. Some are closing down.
He continues, “I think the [local] economy is a big factor in how the theater does, how well the town does and how well the band does. If the theater is doing great, if people have the money to see a show then restaurants are doing great, the town is doing great. But the opposite is also true.”
“Hey, sorry we’re driving through … ” The phone cuts out.
“I keep losing signal. I think it should be good now.”
Somewhere on a New Hampshire highway, Diane Jean, leader of the Burlington, Vermont indie band Clever Girls, gets a solid cell signal. The band are on their way to the Press Room in Portsmouth, another date of a string of weekends leading up to a busy March. Earlier in the day a new single, “Spark,” hit their Bandcamp. They just wrapped a radio appearance before hitting the road. Two albums into their existence, Clever Girls are still deep in the D.I.Y phase of their career, playing small rooms, self-releasing music, and answering all their own emails.
“In a lot of ways, I feel like elections galvanize artists, especially the voices that want to support marginalized communities,” Jean says. “I think the reason that you so many artists, at least here in the northeast, are coming out and supporting [Sanders], is that so many artists come from marginalized communities one way or the other. It’s like a vote for Bernie is a vote for everyone”
From the inside, it can seem like the music community is one big Bernie voting block. The announcement of a Sanders campaign rally featuring reunited garage-revivalists The Strokes tonight dominated the music journalism new-cycle. New school dark wave singer Zola Jesus broke through to the mainstream press by announcing her endorsement of Sanders over her cousin, candidate Senator Amy Klobuchar. If the political press isn’t in the tank for Sanders, the music press may be (a fact that may be helped by Yang and Warren-inspired songs that are uninspiring at best, cringe-inducing at worst.) But that may be a better indication of the arts economy’s fundamental imbalances than anything else.
“Every artist I know has had to fight for healthcare if they’ve even got it,” Diane Jean explains. “It’s amazing to me that something so basic, something we’re all so worried about, could be solved. It definitely affects the livelihood of musicians.”
The plight of musicians isn’t one that generates a ton of sympathy despite music’s centrality within our culture. None of the candidates have a plank in their platform talking about, say, the pathetic federally-mandated royalty rates paid by music streaming services, or the exploitive new contracts Netflix is pushing on composers. Nobody is addressing the oligarchy in physical product distribution and the production bottlenecks preventing the very tenuous vinyl revival from taking hold. But music is the original gig economy, and the concerns of the musical underclass are shaped by America at large.
“When we’re not touring we’re working full time, over full time,” Jean says. “We have the incredible luxury of workplaces that, for the most part, really support that. But it’s tough to balance both … we don’t have to worry about being replaced, which is nice.
“But it’s not a time to be apathetic, no matter how hard it gets.”
Hurricane winds howl outside of Ron’s Landing in Hampton Beach. Lights flicker as a piano player sings ”Summer in the City” in the adjoining room. I’m sitting down over seafood with 90s hitmakers and roadwork stalwarts Fastball from Austin, Texas. They are one of those bands that everyone sorta knows—mention their Buzz Bin hit “The Way,” and some stranger will interject to sing you a verse or three—but have been working so consistently over the last three decades that they don’t get to cash in the nostalgic fondness that comes with absence.
“The first time we played up here was ’98 with Everclear,” guitarist, keyboardist, and singer Tony Scalzo tells BINJ. “Right over at the Casino Ballroom”
“I lost my voice that night,” interjects Miles Zuniga, singer-guitarist. “He had to sing everything … but this is the first time we’ve played in the winter.”
“I like it,” Scalzo replies. “I like the desolation.”
They exist in a liminal world. They played the upscale Boston chain-venue City Winery on Wednesday and just finished soundcheck at Wally’s, a drag-racing themed sports bar and one of the few rooms in this beach town that aren’t closed for winter. They’re still signing autographs before and after their show, but a few jokers are screaming, “Play some skynyrd!” from the pool tables during soundcheck. Most importantly, they still wow committed fans, like the 17-year-old standing outside in subzero weather waiting to sneak in, and win over strangers in equal measure.
“The beautiful thing about the times we’re living in are that [a musician] can go from zero to 400 mph in no time,” says Zuniga. “The downside is that there are no filters … we live in an ocean of noise, and that’s why Trump is the president of the modern zeitgeist. He always says something shocking, he understands the newscycle. He treats the presidency like a reality show, like we need drama. When things should be calm, he goes out and generates drama.”
The pair know a thing or two about showmanship—they’ll win over an uncaring room of locals by the time the night is over—but still seemed shocked at the way Trump has accumulated followers, and has used his TV skills to bludgeon his party and the nation into feeding his seemingly boundless narcissism.
“Do you think he knows he’s so hated?” Scalzo asks.
“Donald Trump is the living embodiment of the P.T. Barnum axiom,” says Zuniga. “There is no such thing as bad publicity. It’s very American. It’s so American. Donald Trump is the president America deserves. Like Hunter S. Thompson said: America is a nation of used car salesmen.”
The conversation continues with Scalzo reciting a litany of Trump’s digressions—“As a president, he’s an idiot”—but we never seem to stumble onto solutions or even silverlings. The check comes and it’s time to hustle back to the hotel, an underwhelming collection of rooms with a nice view of the nuclear power plant across the harbor. The rain has stopped but the wind still screams, a thin layer of ice glinting in the street lights as the sea sings it’s eternal chant in the background.
We get back to Wally’s as the presidential debate wraps up, though you would never know it even happens here in what might be the only place in the state that isn’t tuned to the horse race. There are “Hanoi Jane Urinal Targets” in the men’s room and dudes in their union jackets milling about. The bouncers are patiently escorting a pair of patrons to the door, who may or may not have been screaming about socialism. Or sports. It’s tough to tell if they’re talking about Tom Brady or Trump.
The search for answers turned up little in terms of consensus amongst the touring artists and the political temperature seems tepid. In this random sample of America’s road warriors, we’ve found ourselves a morass, muddled pool of emotions and economics that may be more representative of Middle America than the media lets on. As the show ends and the crowd clears out, something Zuniga said keeps popping out of our notes.
“I do know this, what you expect to happen is not going to happen. Nobody expected Obama, nobody expected Trump.
“Whatever happens next you will be confounded.”
Sean L. Maloney is a Boston-based, Nashville-trained journalist and content creator. His work has appeared in The Boston Globe, Nashville Scene and New York Magazine. He is also the author of 33 1/3: The Modern Lovers from Bloomsbury Publishing.