I’ll begin with my credentials. I ran a very small record label in the college town of Columbia, Missouri from 2002 to 2008. During that time, I managed or provided moral support to a number of bands and individual performers; I also played in at least three bands myself, some of which played shows in and out of town, and one of which actually went on a proper multi-city tour. I’ve been performing in front of people since my first violin recital as a toddler, and I had mad jokes at that recital. I have attended many many live shows, in a spectrum of venues, in a variety of professional roles, both as a single-and-looking person and as a happily romantically committed person. (I shouldn’t need to explain the impact of romantic status on one’s approach to social gatherings.)
So I know what I’m talking about when I say: Live music is not a “fun evening” in any sense of the phrase.
Let’s start: The musicians you don’t know will bore you to death. Maybe you’ve been dragged to the show of a random band and were totally blown away. It’s happened to me! Maybe three whole times, across my entire life. But from a probability standpoint, any given stage will contain far more charisma-deficit oafs capably playing songs you have no emotional connection to, with harmonies that make you pinch your own arm for fun, and with sound run by a guy who is probably preoccupied by a flamewar he started on the local sound-guy messageboard. And you will watch all of this while having a stranger’s entire beer spilled on you. There is no target audience for Dude In Hat Spilling An Entire Beer On You, and yet that’s what we built this entire discipline of art upon.
And this is just evening shows. We shouldn’t even need to discuss the experience of attempting to brunch off a hangover, seeing a stuffed-polo jazz ensemble setting up, and thinking “That’s what my headache needs: clarinet!” This thought has never existed, even in random number generators.
“Fine, but nobody likes things they don’t like!” True. So let’s move on and say you score tickets to a musician you love. Rest assured that…
The musicians you love will disappoint you. Fandom is about artists as perceived entities, not as actual people. There’s a reason for that: It’s sustainable. Just as the scariest things are the things you can’t quite see, the best celebrities are the ones you don’t know anything about (hi, Cee Lo), and the best concerts are the ones you didn’t quite make it to. I paid $160 to see YMO on what might be their last U.S. tour ever, partially because my friends in L.A. reported “amazing live stunts! Special guests! Taiko drummers! Three encores!” What we got in S.F. was six dudes solemnly touchscreening their way through adult-contemporary-ambient versions of my former favorite songs while checking their email. I have a video projector at home; I could have spent a handling-fee-free evening enjoying any number of their shows from 1980 (when Akiko Yano was still with them!) on Youtube, with access to my own bathroom.
Even the competent shows can disappoint. I once went to a perfectly good Ween show...which lasted three hours. If your boss called a three-hour meeting, you’d stab your resignation letter to their face. And at this meeting, your boss probably wouldn’t yell at you for passing a saliva-soaked joint incorrectly (this happened to me at said Ween show).
Which brings us to another eldritch nightmare: fellow fans. Last year my wife and I saw Cibo Matto on their reunion tour. The performance itself was top-notch; they played all the songs I loved, said songs sounded great, and they were very charming onstage. 10/10! What was not 10/10 was the twenty-five-minute unofficial pre-show of a dude directly behind us, explaining Why The LEGO Movie Was Funny to his date in “simplified” English. At no point did we hear her speak. I have enough free-floating misgivings about the crypto-racist sociological origins of my love of Japanese pop without having an entire no-budget episode of Black Mirror about it pumped directly into the back of my hair via stranger spit. Yes, this is the second anecdote in a row to mention spit but SERIOUSLY WHY WOULD YOU PAY TO BE THIS CLOSE TO GROSS HUMANS GODDAMMIT UGH.
@mindykaling If you hate live music, sex must REALLY annoy you!
— Artifice (@artlab) March 8, 2014
Again, art is about the relationship between work and audience. Live music endangers that relationship by introducing unstable factors: artists, and an audience that isn’t just you. Maybe these will improve the experience and not interact with your notions of subcultural identity in shitty ways? Maybe! But even if other humans manage not to ruin everything…
Live music, as a medium, is structurally flawed. True story: I didn't go to my first “real” concert (i.e. one not held in a rural church's youth center) until I was 18. In order to see They Might Be Giants, my then-favorite band of many years, I spent three hours in a car with a girl who had dumped me days before, and her two friends whom I didn't know. (I’d already paid for the tickets and had nothing else to do.) The actual sad part is that right up until TMBG got onstage, I thought all live shows were like the Van Halen “Jump” video. I was genuinely stumped when there wasn't a giant Superman logo/platform on the stage for John Linnell and John Flansburgh to pop out of. They didn't even wear cool outfits! I spent three hours in a hellcar to see TMBG and they had the gall to just be two middle-aged dorks in plaid shirts playing guitar real good for a long time? The songs sounded nothing like they did my extensive collection of cassettes, as listened to alone in the middle of the night in high school while having feelings! I was heartbroken.
Later, hearing Beck perform live, I was infuriated that so much of the performance was just a tape-playback of the sample tracks from the album mixes. You might recognize this same audio dynamic from any hiphop show you've ever attended: a beat someone spent forty thousand dollars in studio time on, squeezed out through a large, sad boombox, accompanied by a person shouting over his or her own sore throat while pacing. Oh boy, live music!
In other words, there’s an unresolvable tension between Wanting To Hear Songs Exactly Like They Are On The Radio, and Wanting To Hear Those Same Songs Substantially And Objectively Improved Since We Paid Money For This. (Which is further complicated by Why Can’t We Even Hear The Vocals At All, Who Is This Jackass Sound Guy.)
Some bands rise to the medium’s essential challenge, playing their songs better-than-perfect. A lot of them don’t—because there’s no incentive for them to improve. That’s because…
Show-booking is not a meritocracy. At least for a huge chunk of a band’s early career. In the summer of 2007, my friend and I toured the Midwest as our novelty rap duo (thanks for not googling it, we all have pasts.) We didn’t send out demos, or get really good by practicing a lot and earning respect; instead, we booked every single show through friends of friends who just needed someone to fill a slot.
This is not to diminish the opportunities these folks gave us, or even to express false modesty; when we were good, we were good! But a big chunk of the time, we were unprepared, unprofessional and generally not trying. And we got paid anyway. We once got handed $400 for a twenty-minute set in which our backing track stopped working eight different times. Did we piss off and disappoint our friends? Certainly. Did venues turn off our power halfway through our set? Yes, at least once! None of it stopped us from booking the next show. Getting gigs is largely about social capital and networking, which means two white males with college-town cultural fluency will get cut all kinds of slack that they never need to reel in.
The author (left, cat mask) performing in January 2008. Photo credit: Jeff Lautenberger
This disparity of standards runs deep, even in “enlightened” spheres (look up “Das Racist assault” and read the comments). Back when I ran a label, one of my signees was infamous for his “anything goes!” live performances. One time I watched him pause between every song to yell “WHITE POWER!” which is not a terribly subversive statement in central Missouri; another time, I watched him surprise-bodyslam a female audience member. These times and others, I’m very ashamed to admit, my only thought was: “This guy will do anything to give a great show!”
Male performers face zero accountability for bad behavior, while women performers (and audience members) are required to exist at “the intersection of who you are and who you’re expected to be,” dealing with everything from IRL dangerous situations to gross thinkpieces. Between men and women, who do you think stays in the industry long enough to develop a sustainable career? Who do you think populates the “anything” of “anything goes”? Who do you think was in charge of organizing Woodstock ‘99?
And in a parallel, concrete sense, the venues of live music are themselves exclusionary. Even if a venue claims they’re wheelchair accessible, the reality might be totally different, especially during a crowded show. As Malice Walker tweeted, “I can't count how many times I had to call venues just to make sure the info they had on their websites was accurate. … (Physically) Disabled people rarely factor in to considerations of artistic demographics.”
And for a form of entertainment predicated on bodies encountering bodies, live music settings are doggedly anti-body. Women get groped, or worse. People of color get profiled. Trans folks get harassed; sometimes that harassment is an actual advertised feature of events. Even people who just want a place to sit usually end up out of sight-range of the stage.
So is anything in life fun? Yes. Plenty of live music is actually good. Marching bands, for instance! But the best shows I’ve seen haven’t been united across a genre. I’ve fallen in love with just as many Dadaist basement-thrash noise bands as I have exquisitely choreographed kpop supergroups and jazz-drummer elder statesmen—more or less, anyone who takes seriously the intentional creation of a shared experience through live music, i.e. puttin’ on a show. At its best, live music has far more in common with live theater; the performance, not the songs or the performers, is the product valued. (In other words, people pay to see plays get acted, not read.)
Bad shows aren’t fixable and shouldn’t be. Guaranteeing a good show every time would kill the joy of being present for magic. But bad systems? They can be reformed.
Bands: Structure is important! Have jokes ready for when the audience needs a pause (or for when your laptop crashes), unless audience banter is totally #offbrand, which it isn't, unless you’re Kraftwerk, which you aren’t. More importantly, use your position in the room (socially and literally) to shame your fanbase’s bad actors.
Venues: Have real accessibility, for wheelchair users and other folks, and an enforced zero tolerance policy for harassment. Have seating that works. Soundproof your bar area. Pay your bands.
And finally, a proposed rule: if you're dragging a friend to a show you don't know if they’ll like, give them the gift of zero expectations and buy their ticket. They'll get you back in beers if they feel like it. Together, we can make live music as fun as possible for everyone, and as ditchable-for-Netflix as possible for everyone else.
Channing Kennedy is a writer and performer in Oakland, California; he's the host of Just Jokes, a podcast and live show examining comedy's responsibility to society (if any). Probably the best show he ever did was one that involved setting off a baking-soda volcano in an ice cream parlor while dressed as Button Gwinnett. He tweets at @ckdotbiz.