Monday, March 09, 2009

Why Are These Shows So Late?!?

There is a day culture and there is a night culture. For a lot of years now, I've been living with one foot in each. When you play music in a band, it generally means lots of late nights. But why is that? Why do these shows have to be so late? I mean, there are a lot of people who really can't go out that late. Many times, when I tell someone what time we are playing, they respond with groans. I don't blame them. In fact, sometimes, when I find out what time we are playing, I respond with groans.

A typical line-up in a rock club involves three bands. The first generally is slated to start at 9:30 or 10:00. They almost always start a little later than that. The scond band then usually plays at around 11:00 with the last band starting at midnight. That's how it often goes down where I am from. If you play one of the rock and roll assembly-line clubs in NYC or Boston. Places like Arlene Grocery or T.T. The Bear's you'll find more bands per evening playing shorter sets and going even later in to the night. In my town, bars have to be closed by 2:00 AM. They usually like the music to stop around 1:30 or so, so they have time to kick everyone out.

Now, to people who live in the night culture this all makes perfect sense. It all revolves, like so many things do, with the consumption of alcohol. It's all about pacing. If you know that 2:00 AM is your cut off time, then it makes sense that you wouldn't really want to hit the bar until at least after ten. Since bars have bands just as a way to bring in more pople to buy booze it follows that they wouldn't need them to play until it was likely that drinkers would actually be showing up. It's as simple as that.

Unfortunately, for those living in the day culture this can be really difficult, especially on weekdays. It would be like asking some of the night culture people to wake up at 6:00 AM to go to a show. Just crazy.

The rub is that a cultural shift has begun. There are many many people out there who are die-hard rock music fans but they have just happened to have reached a stage in their life where the late night life is very difficult. They might have children at home. They probably have early morning jobs. These people don't want to see live music any less than the late night crowd, it's just very difficult for them. Unfortunately, selling music without also selling booze is also very, very difficult. And selling booze at 7:00 PM to people who have to return home to relieve their baby sitters is not very profitable.

In a perfect world, a great band could play a show at seven o'clock and a big crowd of folks would like nothing more than to pay to see it. However, in most towns across the country, the number of people who fit that mold is not big enough to sustain an early evening music scene. That is, unless you are an already established artist with a catalog of records and fans. If you can tour across the country and you know that in each town you play there are a hundred true fans of your music, well, then you can schedule a show for as early in the evening as you'd like. Our local smaller national act venue here in Northampton, Massachusetts is The Iron Horse Music Hall. They have two shows just about every night. One at 7:00 and one at 9:30. They start and end promptly and they do very well. How do they do this? How do they bring people in at 7:00? They charge fairly high ticket prices, they serve dinner, and they book bands with built in fans.

Non-established national acts, however, that are playing in bars still have to play these late night shows if they really want anybody there to see them. We've tried many times to put on earlier shows but it is almost impossible to get people to come. The whole bar-as-a-music-venue culture is a all a huge mess and I've been trying to figure out a way to fix it for years.

The problem is that there are all different kinds of bands. A bar band is a great thing, they play music that makes people want to dance or drink or just feel like they are at a party. Maybe they play covers or a type of music that is easily digested as a familiar background mood. But for every great bar band there are a dozen interesting art bands. Acts they make music not for background but for foreground appreciation. I was at a show recently where a really interesting boy-girl duet was playing. The lyrics were good, the music was really well worked out, they played all kinds of different instruments - but there were only about four people listening. The musicians were suffering, the bar was suffering, and, in a way, the audience was suffering too.

A bar was not the right venue for this duo. But, and here's the really problem, what is the right venue? Is there a place where someone can play a show that is meant for listening and that people will actually go to? Doesn't seem possible. There just aren't enough people out there interested in actually listening to live music. I don't mean to blame anyone, everybody has their own passions, I just mean to say that the demand does not meet the supply. There was a venue in my town for a while that was actually called "The Listening Room". The point was to have a room just for the purpose of going and watching a show. You didn't have to worry about the clack of the pool balls or the people up by the bar screaming at each other while the music was playing.

The place was a huge success. For about four months. Then the newness wore off and people remembered that when they go out for the night they want to talk to each other, play pool, etc.

The demand just doesn't support the supply. If it did, then there would be a venue there that could have music earlier. Now, lots of people tell me, yeah, but if the shows were earlier I would come to them. They suggest that if the opportunity was presented then the demand would support the supply. Unfortunately, in my experience, there just aren't enough of these people out there to make it work. I wish I knew how to fix it.


geo said...

In Ireland, pubs are much more family friendly (most of them) and music is played at various times with kids running around (not ideal for all bands). Our culture (as usual--am I using enough parentheticals for you?) is divided between young and old, drinkers and abstainers etc., etc.

Ideally, a place would have two rooms, one for listening and the other for talking (but where you could still hear the music); start having bands or solo artist at around 6 for the after work crowd; have another not-too-loud band at 8ish, then have two rockier groups (or whatever) between 9-1, however it worked out.

Then a midget riding a unicorn would sell balloons to everyone, to make sure the giant ogre serving as doorman got a good sum for his work...oh wait, I guess I AM dreaming.

Anonymous said...

if you want us to see you play, then stop playing in bars at midnight. be creative and find other ways to play. where is it written that you have to play in a bar anyway. be creative and play earlier somewhere else and i will go to see you play. (First night doesn't count) its not like you are supporting yourself playing in these bars at midnight is it? how much did you bring home cash at the 11s last week. why you giving yourself away for nothing?

This is what i would do if I was you. If I had a band. I would create my own scene on my own terms. I would find a space in town somewhere. I would have noon hour shows for $5. Inside sell coffee and pastries/food. Stuff you don't make there. That is 1 person working and the food coffee pays for them. then i would keep doing it even if no one showed up. trust me, eventually they will, what are the alternatives?

then you do you show for an hour or two and people could drop in on their lunch break to see you, hang out, get some coffee and pastry. its only $5 and they could stay for a little while or longer and not feel like they are ripped off. They would get to know your songs. didn't the beatles do something like that at the cavern were they played during the day?

you could all the bloggers to participate. get tommy devine to serve the coffee, jim neal to bankroll it, and the guy from in the valley to take pictures.

i'm kind of joking, but i am serious too. This day and age you need to do something different, because otherwise when you are famous and being interviewed by terry gross on fresh air you won't have any interesting stories to tell.

Terry - "So let me get this right, you started playing noon hour shows at an abandoned shoe shop in northampton?"

You - "That's right."

Terry - "That's just unbelievable to me that you would do that, and people would come to hear you during their lunch hours."

You - "well back then half the town was laid off so it wasn't really their 'lunch hours'."

Other guy in band - "We also had celebrity bloggers serving coffee.'

Terry - "Let's listen to one of your songs..."

Henning said...

Hello Anonymous,

I completely agree with you. That's why I ended my post with: "I wish I knew how to fix it."

If I were a more ambitious outgoing business person I probably would think of a good idea. But I'm not quite at that point yet. Your idea is great. Couldn't work for us since none of us have a noon lunch break. Maybe Tony does but he lives an hour away.

One of the reasons to play a bar venue is that they often have a sound system and sound person. This is very important to me but it IS possible to work around. I CAN rent a system or bring someone in to do it. Of course that's a cost. But so what? I should be willing to spend a little to make some new fans etc.

Finding the venue that you speak of may not be so easy. First you need somewhere with a server license and a performance license I believe. It needs to be a space where there are no offices or neighbors that would be bothered by noise above or next door - that's why the Iron Horse can't start sound checks until after 5:00.

This is me. I'm the guy who shoots down ideas by pointing out what might be the problems. Maybe I'm a pessimist, maybe I'm a realist, most likely I'm just too lazy or shy to pursue these avenues.

Through the years our little label HAS inquired about shows at local theaters and art galleries but the cost was always too high or the response was always negative. I'm sure there is a space somewhere that would be perfect, but I don't think I could get people to pay five bucks to come in very often. And I doubt that the coffee/pastries would pay for the person selling them. But, if it was promoted like crazy, a band with lunch breaks and local members might be able to pull something like that off. Maybe, if a radio station got behind it, or something, then it might work.

I love hearing ideas like this. We are playing a 1:00 show at J.F.K Middle School on March 28th as part of WRSI's Meltdown Show. That's something anyway.

I hope you don't think I was complaining that people weren't coming to shows. Not at all. I have no expectations. I don't feel that we are owed an audience unless we earn one. When I am upset about a lack of audience, I am never upset at the people who don't come. I am upset that I haven't figured out a way to provide enough incentive for them to come so that I can trick them into listening to our songs.

Anonymous said...

In Ireland children must be off pub premises by YEs you are dreaming !!

Anonymous said...

Are there any local "coffee houses" (and by that I don't mean Starbucks, but people who meet [frequently in church basements] to hear music [usually folk])? would be my local example. I've never understood why something like this can't work for music other than folk. I'll admit, I'm one of the night people in terms of the hours I keep, but that might be changing soon and I'd always prefer to see concerts in a venue where the music is the priority and the boozers are not present (let alone the key to a profitable evening for the venue).