Thursday, August 28, 2008


This article originally appeared in the 8/28/08 issue of Metroland

Initially, it was with casual interest that I read last week that a couple hundred college presidents are calling on the states to roll the drinking age back down to 18. Apparently, the big idea is that drinking in a controlled and legal environment will be safer than today’s clandestine, look-over-your-shoulder binge-for-alls. There’s supposedly an epidemic of kids getting so faced that they hurl themselves off of balconies, drive their cars fast into oncoming traffic, or simply croak from alcohol poisoning. Lowering the drinking age, the reasoning goes, will save lives.

I’ve always considered the “saves lives” argument incredibly disingenuous. And I even made the argument myself to legislators during a mercifully-short stint as a lobbyist for the liquor industry (Don’t laugh. Well, OK, go ahead) in the mid ‘90’s. I felt like a whore. But people bought into it, because it was politically efficacious. Who’s gonna be against saving lives?

But really, c’mon. Raising the drinking age to 30 would save lives. Prohibition would save lives. Outlawing cars, sports, making people stay in their houses all day, not allowing people to get out of bed, hey now, we’re talkin’ saving lives!

In any event, I thought, eh, it’s probably a good idea to lower the drinking age. I have some concern that, due perhaps to media overload, overbearing boomer / yuppie parents, and school curricula dictated by mind-numbing political correctness, today’s 18 year old is generally the emotional equivalent of a 1980’s 14 year old. But given that most 1980’s 14 year olds drank a ton of booze and most are none the worse for wear, I’ll say so what?

I’ll lean on the old standby argument, which is unassailable: if you’re old enough to go into the military, to get assigned to Gitmo and to spend your time torturing fellow human beings in violation of international law and all tenets of basic human decency, well, Sport, I say you’re old enough to sit back and enjoy a frosty Cosmo with your boyfriend at some dump on North Pearl Street. Am I right or am I right?

Then a thought struck, and I realized that these college presidents are unwittingly pushing for the single greatest boon to working musicians, since, oh, I dunno, penicillin?

OK, let’s get almost-serious for a minute. For a couple of years the mantra among the technorati has been that musicians have to give their music away, because free music is an inevitable consequence of the internet. Musicians can make up the slack by courting fans, gigging, selling merch, etc. Not a bad plan, really, but then gas hit $4. Oops. Touring, which for most bands is an iffy proposition at best, just got a whole lot harder. Things have gotten pretty bleak pretty fast.

If the drinking age goes to 18, you’ll see hundreds of new bars and clubs opening overnight. And many of these clubs, in the mad rush to get bodies inside drinking, will take the revolutionary step of offering live music to their patrons. Suddenly, there will be places to play again, all over the place, and some of these places might even pay the musicians decently. Imagine what it’ll be like in big college towns.

I’m painfully aware of the significance of this, because my band was a victim when the pendulum swung the other way twenty-five years ago. From 1980 to 1983, we toured non-stop, and there were always gigs, good paying gigs, gigs on weekdays, gigs in some pretty nice clubs and at a lot of colleges. Things ebbed and flowed depending on how current our releases were and where in the country we were, but it was generally pretty consistently fertile out there. The drinking age was 18, and to be sure, kids under 20 made up a good percentage of the lunatic partiers who would come out on a Monday night to see us play a show that started at 11 PM.

Then, in 1984 Congress passed a law that required all states to raise the drinking age to 21 or else forfeit millions of dollars in federal highway funds. State legislatures across the country fell over each other to raise the drinking age to 21. And the bottom fell out of our ability to tour. Clubs closed in droves, and those that stayed open did The Tighten-up. Gig guarantees shrunk or disappeared. Clubs had fewer nights with live music, and were more selective about who got booked on the shrinking schedule. Like a lot of bands and a lot of clubs, we struggled along for a few months, then just gave up.

These days, bands criss-cross the country on a wing and a prayer, playing on five-act bills in crappy clubs for a share of a tiny gate, hoping to sell a few t-shirts and CDs to pay for gas to get to the next town, sleeping on floors, eating noodles and fast food, etc. When you’re young, it’s exciting maybe for the first tour, but it gets tired real fast. It’s not making a living; in fact, it’s barely living at all. All this could change dramatically.

There’s a lot of talk about high-tech “solutions” for working musicians, many of which are untested, theoretical, or have more to do with marketing than making music. Here, we’re talking about gigs. Music gigs. It doesn’t get more fundamental than that.

Lower the drinking age to 18. Now.


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