Why Boston Calling Is Bad for Live Music in New England

Paul Westerberg fronts the Replacements Sunday at Boston Calling.

Paul Westerberg fronts the Replacements Sunday at Boston Calling.

Watching the Replacements tear through their set Sunday evening in City Hall Plaza at the Boston Calling Music Festival was a first-rate concert experience, no question. With raffish charm, the band veered back and forth across the line separating ragged from precise during an eclectic 65-minute performance heavy on gnashing punk songs from their early records, odd covers (including “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five) and beloved songs like “Bastards of Young,” “Alex Chilton,” “I Will Dare” and “Can’t Hardly Wait.”

Boston Calling was the latest stop for the ’Mats reunion, which has confined itself to the festival circuit since Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson (augmented by Josh Freese on drums and Boston’s own Dave Minehan on guitar) returned to the stage for the first time in 22 years last August. Although the Replacements have a pair of standalone headline gigs coming up, their focus on festivals means it’s entirely possible that they wouldn’t have played a show in New England if not for Boston Calling. All the same, Boston Calling as a whole has a stifling effect on live music in southern New England.

The festival debuted in 2013 with a single weekend in May, then added another installment in September. This year, Boston Calling expanded each weekend to three days, with a lineup in May that included the Decemberists, Jack Johnson, Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, Jenny Lewis, Warpaint and more. September featured the National, the Hold Steady, Lorde, Neutral Milk Hotel, Nas and the Roots, Spoon and more. Great acts, all around. But Boston Calling has an exclusion clause that prevents headliners from playing within a 150-mile radius for three months before and after the festival, effectively precluding shows in Northampton, Providence and Hartford or Wallingford, Conn. — all places where many of those acts would have been likely to play.

The effects of Boston Calling are obvious enough in the context of Northampton-area concerts. In the years before Boston Calling, Mountain Park in Holyoke had hosted many of the same acts that have since played the fest, including the Decemberists, Vampire Weekend and Death Cab for Cutie. The past two summers, the Mountain Park lineup has featured the somewhat less inspiring likes of Yes and Get the Led Out, a Led Zeppelin tribute act.

Jack Johnson opened his 2010 tour in Hartford at the amphitheater in the city’s North Meadows section, and didn’t play a Connecticut date on his latest tour. Andrew Bird (Boston Calling, May 2013) used to perform semi-regularly at the Calvin Theatre. Jeff Mangum played a sold-out show at the Academy of Music in Northampton in 2011, but his band Neutral Milk Hotel took their reunion tour to the Klein in Bridgeport, 154 miles away from City Hall Plaza in Boston, instead of western Massachusetts.

There’s no mystery why Boston Calling imposes such a sweeping restriction (75 miles is more typical): they want the festival to attract music fans from all over New England, which is understandable. But Boston is already a dominant cultural hub in the region, especially for live music: it’s a must-play, major-market stop for any act on an East Coast tour swing, many of whom rarely bother with secondary markets anyway. Imposing contractual prohibitions on the acts that do play smaller towns seems unnecessary, especially because — if we’re being honest — Northampton, Providence and Hartford aren’t really competing on Boston’s level anyway.

Though there are other, excellent festivals in New England, nowhere else in the region has the resources to put on a three-day indie-centric festival like Boston Calling. At the same time, most people don’t go to festivals to see just one band (Replacements fans notwithstanding). Taken together, those facts mean that Boston Calling is unique, and therefore a draw, regardless of whether the individual acts playing there have other gigs within a two-hour drive. Sapping the live music scene elsewhere in New England doesn’t add much to Boston’s primacy, and it’s mean-spirited besides.

Still, though, thanks for the Replacements.

  3 comments for “Why Boston Calling Is Bad for Live Music in New England

  1. Mike
    September 8, 2014 at 7:44 pm

    hey, i know the guys who run it. the radius clause you cite is incorrect, it’s significantly smaller than 150 miles

    • Eric R. Danton
      September 8, 2014 at 7:50 pm

      Interesting. I heard that number from other people in the industry.

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