Nirvana 1989-1991: Not a Seattle Band, a Californian Band

Posted: October 21, 2013 in Bleach and the Sub Pop Era 1987-1990, Nirvana Live Stats 1987-1994

Seattle this, Seattle that…What a sweet way to call an end to the Nirvana Tour phase of the Nirvana Legacy blog, by telling everyone that Nirvana stopped being a Seattle band long before they hit fame.

The reality of the U.S. music industry is that it, like most industries in most countries, is centred on particular locations. For bands wanting to make a successful career in music they have to go with both the demographics and access to the business; its how they make money. The ‘rootedness’, the idea of a band’s origins, is a crucial component of establishing their identity but isn’t necessarily key to understanding them as product. Initially its about creating a sense of the exotic, something new and different – “a Seattle band” circa 1988-1989 was a shorthand way for the media to easily emphasise difference in the same way that tagging something as southern hip hop in the mid-to-late Nineties was a way of establishing a different identity with consumers overloaded with East Coast/West Coast ID.

It’s an extension of a basic human urge of course, to belong. Most people identify themselves as their origin or birthplace rather than by their day-to-day living space. Nirvana, despite the origin in Aberdeen, despite living and playing in Olympia, despite being tied to Tacoma for a while, were indelibly tagged as ‘Seattle’. This is because they were part of a specific commercial strategy by Sub Pop that meant instead of marketing one band at a time they could market a whole scene at once and thus create a wider halo effect on each band’s sales and audiences that they would have had trouble achieving on the budgets available – definitely the Motown ‘hit factory’ effort. It meant that as Nirvana toured the U.S. and Europe the Seattle stamp associated them with a particular sound and style regardless of the differences between the bands under the banner.

This is the second use of geographic tagging in music; to create associations and similarity rather than difference. Once the new archetype (i.e., Seattle, Southern, Hyphy from San Francisco, whatever) is established new bands and artists adopting or being lumped beneath the tag are no longer establishing themselves as an alternative – it becomes a pledge of allegiance and tells consumers “if you like X, then you’ll like us/me too.” Again, it’s a shorthand alongside style, gender, genre that makes it easier to sift, categorise and define.

In the case of Nirvana, it was inevitable they would spend less time playing in State of Washington once they started proper touring from mid-1989 onward. Yet, it isn’t just that Nirvana ‘spread out’, it’s that their activity was strongly centred on the state most likely to give them the break through and industry attention that was required to give them a shot at the big time. Plus, being fair, the band were making barely any money for the majority of their peak touring era, it made sense to go the nearest state containing the greatest number of large cities and thus the greatest number of opportunities for large audiences in the smallest possible space. The answer was, of course, California.

From the commencement of Nirvana’s first U.S. tour on June 21, 1989 at The Vogue in Seattle until the break after the show in Salem, Oregon on January 2, 1992 Nirvana played 31 states. It wasn’t just about covering as many states as possible, however. Eleven of those states only received one visit each, three received two visits – an awful lot weren’t visited at all. There were rational decisions being taken about where to bother sending Nirvana and where might be worth it.

Nirvana Touring by State 1989-1992

It wasn’t just about proximity though, yes, Oregon was close but so was Montano (not visited even once in those two and a half years), Idaho (two visits to Boise) and Nevada (one trip to Las Vegas.) Neither Sub Pop nor Geffen was arranging Nirvana gigs in states just because they were easy to get to, they were arranging gigs in cities with decent audiences for the band hence the seven visits to Oregon (six to Portland, one to Salem) given its combination of proximity and alternative rock friendly audiences. So far so what?

Well, essentially, all I’m saying is that from mid-1989 until the close of 1991, Nirvana played twice as often in California as they did in State of Washington. This was a significant switch, instead of being the heart of the band as a performing entity, State of Washington became the retreat, the hideaway that they headed back to when they wanted to get away from the quest to become rock stars and its actuality. It was California not State of Washington that offered them the largest audiences because there are so many decent sized cities there – Nirvana played twelve cities in California compared to only three in State of Washington, the nearest competitors were Texas (on five) and Ohio, Massachusetts and Philadelphia (each on four).

Nirvana Touring Cities Visited

The total domination of California as the crucial location for Nirvana as an up-and-coming band and as a band to be ‘developed’ on a major label (remember that no one expected Nevermind to make them megastars, the late 1991 touring was set up to raise profile and try to ensure a healthy return on the band before deciding whether to continue with them or drop them – basic economic realities of the music industry) is clear. It combined the size of population, the density of that population and the presence of the most crucial U.S. music industry and U.S. music media hubs.

Undermining me neatly, however, and reminding me not to take numbers TOO seriously…Seattle was still the single city where Nirvana played the most but only by a couple of shows…

Nirvana Touring Cities Visited the Most

Ack! Restore the crown to Seattle…Go on…Do it.

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