The Unbelievably Bad Usability of a Show

The Hold Steady at The Boulder Fox Theatre 4/10/09

I listen to about 6 hours of music everyday.  I love smaller ‘undiscovered’ bands because of their drive, feel and accessibility.  Every indie music fan drools every time they say “I saw ______ with 40 people in the room.”  Music geek pride, you listened to the music before anyone else did (or they even existed).

This works out well with my conscience, support bands via tour after I stream or sample their music.  They must make money from their tour, right?  All those blogs say that, it must be true.

So, I’m going to become a fan, go to the show, buy a shirt and watch my new friends become the next U2.

Awesome.  Rock and roll.

Major problem though: over the years I have learned to hate shows (I listen to about 1500 hours of music a year, about 18 of it is live).  That is pathetic.

Why do I avoid live music?

As a fan, the usability of a show is horrific.

Let’s go through the steps:

  1. Find out about the show (somehow, not through my allegiance to the band), price being 2-5x the price of a cd or about 1/3 of the ACDI
  2. Pay 1/2 the ticket price in add on fees
  3. Make a guesswork plan to figure out how much the venue is lying on the show time
  4. Call the venue to get more information, no answer, no support
  5. Wait in huge line for willcall tickets
  6. Come to the show, hope to not be too late
  7. Greeted? by a bouncer for ID and ticket
  8. Try to figure out the schedule, which nobody really knows
  9. Did you miss the first band?  Who knows, well, you can buy a drink at least
  10. Buy a drink 2x the price of the bar next door
  11. Try to figure out the opening acts, which is published at a merch table with a line around
  12. Band plays that you don’t know the name of
  13. Short break between band and act you want to see is an hour
  14. No chairs, your feel stick to the floor just fine
  15. Band (name?) plays a set
  16. Set order forever disappears into musictopia, for it isn’t posted anywhere
  17. Wow, this sounds pitch on what their album sounds like
  18. Beer spilled on you by drunk fan
  19. Kicked in head by out of place crowd surfer
  20. Swarm of bad cell phone pictures being taken the whole show (why the venue doesn’t shoot pro shots for fans to use to promote the band / venue is beyond me)
  21. Planned encore
  22. Ends exactly on time!  10:30 on the dot!  They sure know how to keep a schedule
  23. Pushed out by bouncers, fliers for the next show on as cheap as you can get cardstock

The entire experience, you are not interacting with one person that cares about your experience.   It more feels like a bar holding your ransom than a musician sharing their life passion.

Think about that.

Two friends just went to a show in Denver where the main act played a 30 minute set at 10pm (with doors at 9 with an opening act).  No communication from the venue or band about this.

You bought your ticket and you are a sucker.

Can we interest you in another show?

You know, so the band can make money.

When they come back to town in 12-18 months.

The usability of a show is horrible.  I bet we could fix it though.

hmm…

  • heyrich

    Granted that the usability of live music can indeed suck.

    What would greatness look like? The opposite of some of the stuff you mentioned would be having great communication between the band/venue and fans before, during and after the event.

    Before: Clear communication on agenda and set list. Simplify getting up to speed on all artists (bios, music, video, etc.) Easy, fair ticketing procedures. Venue entry that works more like Southwest and less like American.

    During: Real-time band/set/song info. A sanitary facility with decent prices. Merch sales whose profits go to the band. The goal is to make it easy for the artists to have a real interaction with the fans.

    After: Basically, make it be easy to share that you were part of something cool. Provide pics/video/audio and set lists from to the folks who attended.

    Could you do all that and be profitable? I dunno.

  • smazurov

    Seems like you're blending experience of a big act with love of intimacy. I saw 2 shows within a week,

    The Heavy played at Larimer which was $15 (with a reasonable $3 extra charge for online purchase). Beer was $3 New Belgium tap, well under what most places charge for same quantity. Show was packed, but I had no problems feeling the energy and bands gave it their all. We went outside and sat on the patio in a breeze between sets drinking beer and talking.

    Other was a sold out Black Keys concert. I showed up around door time and stood in line for 30 minutes, show started just as I got in and a ton of people probably missed a few songs due to slow line outside. Couldn't even get a beer but we all fillmore charges stadium prices for shit poured haphazardly into a plastic cup. Band was separated by huge security barrier and half the people there were to hear 3 songs and promptly get disinterested.

    Both shows were amazing and truly memorable but the enjoyment you get comes from expectations you set and money you pay. Lower the expectations (and door prices), higher the enjoyment. This, of course, is greatly offset by amount of fandom you have for the band. I don't think usability can be changed (with huge exception of ticket and show info). Venues will always overcharge, oversell and undercut to maximize their profit from the band, and tour managers will set the price based on demand.

    But I guarantee that a show you see with 40 devoted and passionate fans will always leave much better impression on you than a sold out “this album topped billboard charts, we must see them live” crowd and bigger venues.

  • jakesutton

    Agree 1000%.
    I make myself go to a lot of shows (call it at least one per month, but they generally come in bunches), but I secretly hate, hate, hate them.
    I'm weird in the concert going culture: I show up close to doors so that I can hit the balcony and actually get a seat (usually) and a corner that is usually sheltered from the douchebags (at least partially). I never need to be up front at the foot of the stage.

    Anyway, how to make it better? You've got to deal with ticket merchants, venues, and who knows what else… Seems depressingly impossible.

    Seems like the best bet would be to focus on the “unsigned band” niche a la CD-Baby and arrange something like an evening with 4 or 5 of them playing. Or even a festival type of thing… Dunno.

    Additionally, I agree with smazurov that the experience is often inversely proportional to the size of the crowd. Red Rocks has made me super stabby every time I've been except once (that time was a bunch of old folks watching Leonard Cohen).

  • Joel Gratz

    Andrew, you're obviously bitter. It's OK – it happens to everyone and you're still a good guy.

    What you're describing is the the current “PC” state of the concert-going experience. There are many different suppliers that are responsible for little parts of your whole experience. Nobody is looking out for the whole experience. The latter (and what you're hoping for) is more like the “Apple” model of integrating the entire supply chain and user experience.

    I don't know enough about the music industry to offer suggestions, because any change will dutifully eliminate one piece of the chain that is currently making money. This elimination is tough, but not impossible.

    Perhaps if you got drunk next time, you won't notice all of the problems with “the show”. I think that's what the promoters bank on, anyway!

  • Roseinbloom

    Agreed. Taking my sister to her first Green Day concert, after she'd been devouring books and articles about their great early shows in tiny clubs, she was taken aback by the GIANT STADIUM FULL OF ASSHOLES WITH CELL PHONES.

    Me, I like Amanda Palmer-style ninja gigs.

  • Drew

    There are very few things in life better than a live performance by a band you've been intimately following for over 6 years. In my case that band is JBT.

    I saw them Friday night with my friends and girlfriend at Red Rocks. It was without a doubt a brilliant performance. They played for over 2 hours and that's after MMW and State Radio played a lengthy set. All and all the show Friday night turned into a 6 hour masterpiece. All of us left with a smile (and a buzz.)

    Saturday was a different story. My experience at the Ogden that night was yet again another unfortunate one. Since the start of the new year I've noticed a change. On 3 different occasions the (infamous/notorious) Ogden Theater has closed its doors early (for whatever reason) leaving not only myself but others disappointed and pissed off.

    Passion Pit, Phoenix and now La Roux have all ended their sets short. If I'm forking over my hard earned money, I want to feel like I got some worth out of the show.

    *NOTHING* against the bands. La Roux Saturday night killed it…even though I only heard 2.5 songs. Those 14 mins were epic…I think the problem is with the venue.

    If there's an opening act, scheduled to take the stage at 9:00pm what time would you get there to see the headlining act?

    (…you're wrong)

    We thought 10:00pm (only an hour after the opening act went on stage) and were greeted by La Roux thanking Denver for a great time.

    One of my favorite shows of all time was when I saw Ratatat 5 years ago in a no nothing venue so I see jakesutton's + smazurov's point BUT other shows would have sucked if it wasn't for the energy in the crowd. Dancing in a club with 1000 people or so CAN be more fulfilling than watching a guy crying on an acoustic guitar…but hey, that's just me.

    *yes Andrew is referring to me in the above post.*

  • jakesutton

    You know what? I've come around a little — inspired by the idea of BankSimple, actually.
    If some Joes can take on the banking industry to make it simpler and more user friendly, then maybe someone could actually do the same vs. TicketMonster and LiveNation.

    Maybe…

    I do get the feeling that the venues are a big part of the machine (and therefore the problem), too. Not sure how that gets addressed.

  • jakesutton

    You know what? I've come around a little — inspired by the idea of BankSimple, actually.
    If some Joes can take on the banking industry to make it simpler and more user friendly, then maybe someone could actually do the same vs. TicketMonster and LiveNation.

    Maybe…

    I do get the feeling that the venues are a big part of the machine (and therefore the problem), too. Not sure how that gets addressed.

  • SimpliTEE

    Some keys to fixing the live music experience:

    – give people a FILTERED feed of upcoming MUST SEE local live shows based on the music in their interests (with Pandora-esque derivations)
    – offer Mainstream or Indie options
    – keeping the offerings streamlined to only select MUST SEE events to avoid current add on fees through direct venue purchase.
    – mobile device “event package” deliver to include all relevant info you will need for event:
    scanable ticket for display
    personalized directions
    parking options
    food options
    pertinent show info that fills the gaps you indicated in your post
    offer event concierge feature for special needs & customized packages
    – live event streaming for sold out shows (or a lower cost option if you would rather enjoy the show from home)
    – post show fanshare for things like setlist, photos, reviews, archived video, etc.
    also include post show merchandise options, so people don't have to tote shirts, cd's etc. around at the show

    Pricing model for all this??

    – monthly/annual packages… bronze, silver, gold
    – per event package
    – lower cost “web only” subscription option for live streaming feature

  • Ali

    Andrew – I dispise most live shows at big venues for the same reason. it seems so simple to just communicate clearly and establish a flow of events and expectations. With all the wonderful tech floating around the inter-ethers and everywhere else, it seems maybe it is so obvious that it's too obvious hence it's been glossed over?

    are you going to plot a scheme to make it better? need assistance? i'm game. 🙂

  • Ali

    Andrew – I dispise most live shows at big venues for the same reason. it seems so simple to just communicate clearly and establish a flow of events and expectations. With all the wonderful tech floating around the inter-ethers and everywhere else, it seems maybe it is so obvious that it's too obvious hence it's been glossed over?

    are you going to plot a scheme to make it better? need assistance? i'm game. 🙂

  • smazurov

    check out bandsintown.com for the upcoming shows portion, very very handy.

  • lpmaynard

    Stepan, you know I'll pretty much go to anything at Larimer, so I'm with you on this one. My feeling on Boulder/Denver shows is that they are 50% cheaper than shows in any major city (both tickets and beers), and you can work your way up to the front in just minutes. Even at Fillmore.

    Andrew, two notes. Swing by Larimer Lounge as much as possible if you don't already. Like Stepan pointed out, they provide an awesome experience way cheap. Also, if you like to geek out with your camera, most CO venues are liberal with press passes, as long as you make it clear you're not looking for a free ticket. Westword, Camera and Post aren't winning any awards for their concert photogs.

    Even though I go to a ton of shows, I still relate to most of your points. Especially on the confusion and the lack of chairs.

  • Russ from SoundRabbit here (local Colorado band – you don't know us, most likely, but we're working on that). Our take is that if we can shift the leverage away from the big promoters and put it in the hands of the artists, the scenes and the relationships between fans and artists will be changed in a pretty revolutionary way.

    Picture this: instead of a band being 'assigned' a schedule and route by a booking agency, they poll their fanbase and plan the tour accordingly. They may skip Chicago to play Bloomington instead, or skip NYC to play in Schenectady.

    Picture this: instead of a fan joining a 'fan club' for $50 and then buying the band's new album from iTunes for an additional $10, and then buying a live release for an additional $10, and then a concert ticket for an additional $20… and on and on… the fan instead becomes a shareholder in the band. The fan is part of a community of like-minded people who support the band financially and in exchange receive the whole enchilada – all official albums, live recordings, etc. – for the duration of their membership.

    Picture this: bands using the PBS model – no longer selling records, songs, and merch – but providing those items and various forms of content as 'gifts' to members in exchange for [tiered levels of] financial support.

    Picture this: revenues that are traditionally the bread-and-butter for a band (merch sales, ticket sales, CD sales/downloads) go instead to charity.

    Picture this: the band knows (from member polling) that they will have 500 people show up in a given city for a show – so they select the venue that will create the scene most comfortable for their fanbase. Polling and data from the membership tells them that the best experiences have come in loud/quiet/huge/tiny/big lights/dimlit/neat/sticky-floor/upscale/divebar rooms… so they pick the room accordingly. Can't find a room to cooperate with the needs of the band and fanbase? Move to a non-traditional venue (hotel event room, outdoor park/farm, school auditorium) and host the show themselves, custom. The control is the band's, and the scene is tailored to the fully vested fanbase.

    A win/win/win (homage to The Office)… the fans get way more return on their investment, the band gets residual revenues to fund their efforts, and all involved sleep well knowing that they're helping fund donations of money and time to charities (or maybe just one cause in particular).

    At least it works on paper…

  • jakesutton

    Russ, interesting thoughts for sure.

    I like the membership model and the idea of funneling other revenues to charities, etc., but I also like the perceived directness of “that song kicked ass, so I'm going to buy a t-shirt and then maybe that guy can buy a sandwich tomorrow”.

    Polling fans to plan tours is genius. Especially if you can actually use that data to leverage venues.

    Also, I checked the SoundRabbit site. I like what I hear. Keep it up!

  • jakesutton

    Still stuck on this…
    On the ticketing side of things, is there a downside to Brown Paper Tickets? http://www.brownpapertickets.com/

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