By Joseph Gillespie
Musicians are lying if they tell you they haven’t imagined playing to a sea of people. It’s an addictive thought.
But who is that group comprised of?
Think of the shows you’ve been to. I can tell you right now that most people at a Tom Petty concert are not Tom Petty fanatics. They are incredibly diverse in their ages, interests, and backgrounds; some are familiar with the deep cuts, but most just want to hear the hits and have a good time with their friends. This is a social experience, a form of entertainment. These are not compartmentalized scenesters or barflies stumbling into your Wednesday night noisecore throwdown. This is Ivan, your good-natured coworker who is always talking about Third Eye Blind’s debut album. This is your aunt Linda who has always wanted to watch you play. Unfortunately, this massive silent demographic is often overlooked at the local level.
As a touring musician and someone who often attends smaller shows, I find it surprising how quick musicians, promoters, and venue owners are to blame the masses for an unsuccessful show instead of analyzing the role they may have played in it.
When it comes to engaging the general public, local shows run into problems in two primary ways.
First, they are frequently disorganized and haphazardly put together. Your friend who doesn’t come out to shows often has different expectations than the local show hero. Things that turn the “casual music fan” off: massive bills, bands who do not fit with each other on the bill, very early or very late-running shows, inaccessible venues—either far away, in a less than decent part of town, or literally inaccessible to people with disabilities—extremely loud music or no ear protection available, late set times or delayed set times. I’m not saying that these things are encouraged or accepted by those involved in the scene. However, those who don’t go out to shows as often will be even less tolerant of waiting an extra hour to watch you play on a Tuesday than the always-counted-on show kid who has been baptized in the local scene’s dysfunction.
These are not things to brush off. Just because you have 20 people who will always come out to see the local show on Friday does not mean that each show’s potential is truly being met.
Healthy local music scenes thrive when those involved work their asses off and focus on the needs of both the musicians and the attendees. The best scenes possess an understanding of genre specificity while maintaining a focus on the big picture: attracting larger touring bands, supported by the best locals, and cultivating a musical culture that is professional and creative in how and why every show is thrown. Every microcosm within the larger scene will have its go-to people, its go-to promoters, and its go-to names, but in a successful local scene, the dialogue between the bubbles and the strata must remain focused on what is working and what isn’t working. If a local band are excited about playing a venue they know will be punctual and organized, that will trickle down into the band’s attitude and the attitudes of those who come to support them.
The second primary problem is a doozy: lack of inclusion. This is a difficult issue to discuss, because it relies so heavily on individual action within distinctive musical communities within the scene as a whole. Inclusion—the concept and what it looks like in practice—can also be very different based on geographical location, making context incredibly important. However, the basic concept is still the same: anybody—regardless of race, religion, gender, orientation, ability, or opinion—should be able to enjoy a show.
Of course, if you’re a Neo-Nazi trying to throw punches at a Leonard Cohen tribute show, you should be escorted the fuck out. Though an extreme example, it illustrates that where you draw those lines is extremely important.
For your scene to grow, the boys’ club mentality—especially in rock music specifically—must at least be acknowledged. Shows are subcultural gathering spaces. For a musical subculture to thrive, it must be built on a respectful and inclusive group ethos and maintain a healthy, forward-thinking attitude that encourages all types of people to participate equally. If sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, or similar behavior is swept under the rug, it will inevitably shut people out and bleed toxicity into the scene.
Building a community space for everyone is crucial. I have talked to female friends about why they don’t go to shows nearly as much as they’d like to, and I hear the same things:
“I can’t stand in the crowd without some guy grabbing my butt.”
“I feel like a sexual object. I can’t wear what I want without someone making me feel uncomfortable. I just want to watch the band.”
This example of toxic masculinity is too often brushed off in the same way police shootings are: “Of course there are a few bad apples…” This apathy toward action, this unwillingness to do the uncomfortable thing and start a dialogue is killing shows across the country and driving home the idea that music scenes do not represent the freedom and individuality they ironically espouse. The majority must not remain silent. We must support the opinions and experiences of anyone who feels uncomfortable.
If you are part of a show that falls short of expectations, do not quickly jump to blame the venue, the friends you thought would show up, the other bands, or the people who are smoking outside. How do you adapt and learn? Think about the slew of factors that go into a show like the one you just played. Was the sound guy disorganized or lazy? Did you play with bands who made sense for you to play with? Did the promoter do their part? Was the venue in a part of town that is accessible to the people you thought would come out? Was that sexist asshole frontman spewing his diatribes over the seven people in the room?
More than anything, ask yourself: “If I wasn’t playing, would I have chosen to spend my evening at this show?”
Something can always be done better. Play a different venue. Work with people who are focused on the show, not those who are trying to grow a personal brand or get a check. Speak out against toxic behavior. The union between artistic integrity and entertainment should never come at the expense of any group or individual who simply wants to experience live music.
Photo by Catherine Patchell