Turning Gigs and the Internet into a Real-World Experience

Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir with promoter Peter Shapiro, advertising the Dead’s final “Fare Thee Well” tour.

Live music should be all about small gigs with great bands and enthusiastic audiences. But instead, the reality is small gigs with no audience, or massive gigs with massive audiences (and equally massive ticket prices), that are way too large for much in the way of musical communication.

This interesting Wired article about legendary US promoter Peter Shapiro got me thinking once again about live music – about which I have rather uncompromising views.  Shapiro does the promotion thing exactly right, and is as passionate as me when it comes to performances in small venues where artists can truly interact with the audience.

But this isn’t happening very often – if at all. Rock stars are forced by the business to play massive stadia, so they’ve developed cartoon styles of playing and acting – and even of songwriting (with its own “stadium anthem” genre).

The huge sound systems and massive venue size make them stick figures on enormous stages, separated from the audience by distance and technology.  They cannot hear what the audience is hearing – completely dependent on a team of sound engineers for how their music sounds, and work in an on-stage bubble inspired only by the atmosphere and indistinct roar of the distant crowd.

Apart from notable music industry megalomaniacs, we become musicians out of a desire to communicate with others (rather than wanting to be a star).  There’s a rewarding two-way vibe to live performance, but there’s a threshold of audience size above which this fades rapidly.  So many top musicians would prefer to play to much smaller audiences, in really well-designed concert rooms.

There are “secret” pre-tour gigs by many major artists – to blunt the shock of that first gig.  My favourite is the Stones first ‘secret’ gig – in August 1989, at Toads Place Connecticut, before the Steel Wheels tour. They’d not played for seven years, but you can hear them slot quickly back into the audience banter and slickness of a gigging band. In the recordings you can hear a stoned near-stage voice bleating “Mick Jagger – bring on the good times…”, who introduces each band member in terms of their sexual preferences.

Anyway… back in the day, Peter Shapiro promoted the Grateful Dead and embraced the whole jam band scene. Not many people know this, but the Dead’s pioneering use of the internet was actually a major factor in its development – through their lyricist John Perry Barlow, who is now a Fellow Emeritus at Harvard University‘s Berkman Center for Internet and Society

So now, Shapiro is working out how to use the internet to create the same kind of artist connection he achieves for bands with his live gigs.  But he’s up against the homogeneity of FaceBook and social media generally.

Musicians seek to utilise social media for their promotion. But getting people to listen to unfamiliar music is very difficult.

And too many promoters book bands on the basis how how many “followers” and “likes” are shown on their FaceBook and other sites.  This is lazy – and no substitute for deciding who to book by going to see the bands playing. The end result is poorly attended gigs.

But because social media isn’t optimised for music distribution – as people use it for other purposes than music, it’s an uphill struggle. Many musicians end up spamming – especially other musicians; with “like me and I’ll like you” as just one of many pointless interactions.

Whereas a specific music portal pointing into interactive band websites could change all that – as Shapiro is attempting.

Shapiro’s Capitol theatre in New York; turned into a hugely audience friendly venue with wonderful projected patterns on the walls, and pre-show instrumental-only music to set the scene for the bands (as opposed to the usual sound guy’s DJ trip of crap music that he only turns off when the band is standing on stage – or at our gigs when we start playing along to it…)

The aim of a venue should be to always provide great music, so that people attend the venue, rather than come only to see specific bands.  People will make repeat visits to music venues that work really hard to put on great music and be a fun place that values their presence.  Extending this sense of belonging to the internet – and the connecting of this to the live gigs that are what (most) bands actually want to do, is a big but potentially rewarding 21st century internet challenge.

Bringing back the humanity to music…  Much needed.

Hugh McManners

Oxford-based singer-songwriter and guitarist, with a love of the blues, psychedelic rock and the poetry of song. Past lives in Australia and the British Army; and a forty-year career as a writer.

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