4 Tips For Making Live Music Suck Less

Reaching-larger-audienceLive music is struggling in different ways but for many of the same reasons as the recorded music industry. With these helpful tips and a little effort, the live music experience can be substantially improved for participants on both sides of the stage.

Guest Post by Cortney Harding on This Week in Music Tech

First off, this is worth a read, if just for laughs: http://talkingpointsmemo.com/theslice/live-music-is-terrible

This piece is written by a comedian and clearly he overstates the case for effect. But I spent the weekend in Nashville for the Pollstar conference, and when I wasn’t falling on ice (free idea: Uber for CLEARING YOUR FUCKING SIDEWALKS), I was talking to people about live music and seeing bands (and one very weird award show).

Fundamentally, the live music space is broken for many of the same reasons most of the music industry is broken — strip away all the apps and new distribution channels and nothing has changed for the past forty or so years. Venues are still generally cavernous spaces with very limited seating and bands at 9/10/11pm, with half hour breaks between each set. Buying tickets is a pain in the ass, with scalping, sites that crash all the time, and a big supply and demand mismatch for most shows. If there has ever been a show in the history of live music where the venue’s capacity exactly equalled the number of people who wanted to see the show, I’d be shocked. Instead, you get sold-out shows with tons of people shut out, or undersold shows where money is lost. You’ve got overpriced drinks, surly bouncers, and shitty sightlines, not to mention all manner of assholes in the crowd. It’s enough to make you want to spend your money on the approximately one million other options you have if you’re young, have some spare cash, and live in a decent sized media market.

Cat_26Live shows usually suck, and yet, when they’re great, they’re brilliant. I did some back of the envelope math and I’ve seen probably about a thousand live shows in my time, and can recall maybe twenty or thirty of them with any real clarity. But seeing Liz Phair do “Exile in Guyville” all the way through, or PJ Harvey play the old Knitting Factory, or Lykke Li play for a hundred executives at Mercury Lounge…it’s pretty goddamn amazing. So I keep going, hoping that out of all the terrible to forgettable bands I slog through, there will be another memorable show.

All this said, here are some ways to change the live experience for the better:

Make the shows easier to find. When I was getting ready to go to Nashville last weekend, I thought I’d see if any good bands were playing while I was there. Sounds easy enough. After a bunch of time digging through their local alt-weekly’s site, I gave up — I couldn’t get the information I needed to establish whether or not any bands I liked (or would like) were playing. And I’m a pretty big music fan, and willing to do the research.

There are apps for this, of course, like Songkick and Bandsintown. But how about syncing up a TripIt account with a ticketing company that can then tell me what shows I might like to check out while I’m traveling. I’d also love to be able to see a list of what the most-buzzed-about new bands are and when they’re playing my market — I already know that I like what I like, but I want to be able to see new things before they totally blow up.

Start shows earlier. I tried to find the blog post an artist wrote about this a while back but the internet ate it. Regardless, clubs are leaving huge amounts of money on the table by ignoring an older audience that can’t stay out til midnight because they have kids and regular jobs. Start the show at 8pm, so people have enough time to get out of work and eat something, two bands on the bill (sorry, third opener, but no one is watching you anyway), quick set changes, wrap it all up by ten. Done and done.

I realize that this won’t work for, say, Avicii. But for legacy acts this is a great way to cater to their fan base without making it a huge struggle for them to come out.

Shorter transition times. I started going to see live music in 1995. Twenty years later, with all the technological advances, it still takes half an hour between bands. And yes, I know that this is to give people time to go to the bar, because that’s where clubs make their money. But it also turns away plenty of customers; go back to the blog post I wrote about the NEA study, where one of the biggest reasons people gave for avoiding events was that they had no one to go with.

I go to plenty of shows solo, just because I go to so many and it can be hard to rally someone for every gig, especially when your friends are getting older and having kids (see point above). I’m used to it and don’t care all that much, but standing around by yourself for half an hour between bands blows. So plenty of people wind up skipping the show.

To deal with the smaller window for drink sales, venues can add more drink stations. The costs would be slightly higher, but better attendance would likely balance it out.

Rethink the room. The vast majority of live venues are big rooms with no place to sit down. That’s been the way we watch live music for years, but no one has ever stopped to ask if that’s the best way to watch music. I don’t have a solution, but it’s worth stepping back and questioning conventional wisdom. I’m a fan of venues with bleacher seats, like the old Northsix in Brooklyn; any place that allows a short person like me to get above the crowd is great.

Because the live music biz isn’t imploding like the recorded music biz, it’s easier to be complacent and think the money will keep rolling in. But it’s also good to start looking for fixes early, so when venues find themselves behind the eight ball, they won’t collapse.


Free piece of advice for musicians: if you want to lose a room, the easiest way to do it is by taking minute long pauses between each song. I saw this TWICE in the three days I was in Nashville. Don’t do this.

Share on:

1 Comment

  1. Definitely some valid points, Cortney. But if you’re not talking about indie rock shows (which based on your cited examples seems to be your wheelhouse), many of these issues have already been addressed at club level venues that cater to older audiences and audiences that prefer jazz, R&B, folk, acoustic music, etc.
    I agree that the problem of finding out who’s playing in a given market has not been solved if you’re searching out new music without knowing the venues in a given city.
    Buy besides seeing artists that just aren’t good live, the biggest unsolved problem with live music is the sound–particularly at the club level. There are some great house FOH engineers at small venues but there are many more bad to mediocre ones. If an act doesn’t have its own engineer, its’ a crapshoot.
    Beyond the skill of the engineer, many clubs don’t seem to have the right system for their rooms or understand the acoustics of the room, which means the sound is often bad or far from as good as it could be even with a solid FOH.
    I read an article years ago where someone compared sound at most clubs to watching TV on a standard def set smeared with vaseline. Breaking Bad probably wouldn’t have seemed as brilliant if you had to do that every week.

Comments are closed.