Gigs, venues and prices

Written in 2012.

I’ve been thinking about gigs, venues and prices, because I was booking my tickets for Simon Felice for September when he returns and all three venues are standing only, around £15. The last two years there seem an unusual number of exciting bands around. I’m away on holiday at the time, but the Larmer Tree Festival in Dorset has Jonathan Wilson, the Alabama Shakes and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

The Civil Wars, The Unthanks, The Decemberists, Simone Felice, Bap Kennedy and Jonathan Wilson are ones I’ve seen recently.  They generally play in black painted rectangular boxes, standing only, at around £15 a head (of which £2.50 is VAT for the taxman). These places are not huge either, though the O2 Academies in Bristol and Bournemouth can pack a lot in, and both have balconies for the vertically-challenged. i.e. most women in the audience. (Bap was in a restaurant, but others on his tour were these boxes).

The audiences are almost all over thirty years old. There’s a majority of males (well, the women just can’t see and have their noses at armpit level). A majority are over forty. Many are over sixty. I hear the complaints about knee, back and ankle ache on the way out. 90% of these audiences would prefer to sit. This is not dancing music. In the 60s and 70s the audience would divide into two groups …one lot would stand watching at the front while others … wait for it … DANCED! That was the point of non-seated venues. When prog took over (or folk-prog) most often the whole audience sat on the floor. At folk clubs, sitting on the floor was standard.

We found four and a half hours standing (queueing, waiting, support band, waiting, main act) for The Civil Wars hard work.  Maybe these bands attract an atypical demographic but it’s one I happen to be in. BUT fire regulations kick in at a whole different level for a seated audience, plus repairs and cleaning are much more  – they might not be if they stopped allowing beer into seated areas. I asked a few of my daughter’s friends (age 32). Many had NEVER seen a live band, or if they had, it was in a 3000 seat concert hall. To them “clubs” mean a DJ. Thinking over the last year or two, the shows where I’ve seen a large majority of under-25s have all been dance theatre. I’m not counting Shakespeare, because the schools send them. Perhaps that’s why there are so many urban dance groups on talent shows on TV.

These bands can travel from the USA and play to between 200 and 400 people for small sums of money. In contrast, we go to the concert halls. Van Morrison was £65 in a 1250 seater, Joan Baez was £39.50 in an 1100 seater. Bob Dylan was £85 in standing only 5000 capacity hall (only 3000 if seated. Mean bastard). Not to put too fine a point on it, Simone Felice Band, The Decemberists, Bap Kennedy, The Civil Wars would in 2012 blow any of the forementioned off the stage. They have energy, current material, new ideas on their side.

There’s a level between … the community theatre circuit. These are converted cinemas, all seater, run non-profit in small towns by groups of volunteers. My locals are the Tivoli, Wimborne and The Regent, Christchurch. They seat around 500. The bands who know about these venues are middle-ranking older ones … Judy Collins, Steeleye Span, then the golden oldies brigade … The Searchers, The Animals, Joe Brown, Chris Farlowe, The Manfreds, The Blues Band  … and of course those never-ending tribute bands. The community theatres tend to be £20 to £25 a ticket. They sometimes have three shows in a week too. In fact, the Simone Felice  / Unthanks “level / age group” should be trying for these places instead. But these places don’t risk “newer” bands.  The black painted boxes do.

The newer bands all seem to be in their early thirties too. I’m reminded that Stevie Winwood and Robbie Robertson were playing professionally at fifteen. Most of the pro musicians I know started out between eighteen and twenty-two, depending on whether they went to college. The place I’ve booked to see Simone Felice for September has a seated capacity of 130, standing 220. It’s £14 a ticket. When friends were playing in semi-pro R&B and then soul bands (while still 17 or 18 at school) they were regularly playing to 300 to 400 in packed clubs. They often played four or five nights a week too, especially along the South Coast in summer.

The university / college circuit took over from around 1966, and then every university had at least three bands on a bill. The typical late 60s line up would be the big name (The Who, Muddy Waters, The Kinks, Alan Bown Set, Family, Simon Dupree & The Big Sound), then the rising band being promoted (Eire Apparent, The Groundhogs, Savoy Brown) then at the bottom the local semi-pro guys. When I was in Hull, I watched Joe Cocker climb from third on the bill to top over several shows. There were bands … The Alan Bown Set, Simon Dupree, Long John Baldry… who had a huge following in these venues and could charge as much or more than chart bands. So the entry point was number three, and you built on it. A band might be top of the bill at a smaller college, second at a bigger one. Clubs existed then, and they were around the size of the black rectangles of today … and bands played them on weekdays, but not, if they could help it, on Fridays or Saturdays when the higher-paying university gigs came along.


Jon Lyness (USA)

Great post Peter. I have had a similar frustration with standing venues.

There’s a hierarchy of NYC concert venues pretty much as you describe, ranging from the top tier theaters (Madison Square Garden, The Beacon Theater, Town Hall, a few others) which book the famous artists, to the cheaper clubs that tend to feature younger bands, the majority of which are standing-room only. New York used to have a number of mid-priced seated clubs that booked the older folk/rock/blues artists, but economic realities have forced a number of them to close over the past decade (The Bottom Line being the most obvious, and sorely missed, example).

I’ve wanted my wife to join me for Simone Felice both times I’ve seen him here, but bringing her to the standing-room, “limited seating” club venues that he currently plays is a gamble. If we don’t both get there hours early (which takes planning akin to a military operation) and snag those precious few seats along the wall, she’s not going to have a good time (and thus, neither am I) standing all the way through the set. Most of Simone’s music is sparse and initimate, and I think would work much better in seated venues, but I guess he is not yet enough of a draw to play them. (And I have to wonder if that will change any time soon, as he seems to be building more of a following in the UK than back home.)

The idea of standing through a show is bewildering to my wife, and it’s not my first choice either (I’m 39, but don’t have the best knees in the world… maybe I stood through too many shows in the 90s?). Increasingly when I take her out for music, I’d rather take her somewhere like the Beacon Theater, with reserved seats and a guarantee of decent sightlines and a good experience. But shows there tend to be more expensive, especially when the Ticketmaster mafiosos take their cut, so those of us who like the older artists and are on a budget have to pick and choose which shows to attend.

Peter Viney

Thanks, Jon. The sight lines are the issue. Karen is 5 foot tall. She has no chance of seeing anything. I’m 6 foot 2 inches (or was when I was younger) and I can see in a standing venue, but it’s no fun at all staring at people’s backs. I posted this before, but we went to see Dylan at huge expense and all she got was a vague glimpse of the top of a white hat. I’m sure the standing only are pushing women out of the venues. These medium to small community theatres, at say £20 seated here (rather than £15 standing) are the answer if they can be persuaded to book people whose careers started after about 1985!

Oliver Gray

I expect you know I’m the promoter at the Railway. I’ve recently taken to escorting short female punters to the front of the room, which they seem to appreciate. When the show isn’t sold out in the Barn, I put out a few rows of chairs at the front. That works quite well, as the sight lines improve dramatically. And of course we have our upstairs, all seated room for smaller acts.
We have put on Simone three times. He and I have often discussed maybe using the Discovery Centre in Winchester (he also likes the all-seated option) but you would never believe the bureaucracy involved in council owned venues. I simply had to give up. Plus the costs are astronomical compared to the Railway. I’m sure you realize that for a band of that status, a reasonable income is an important part of the equation and we can keep the costs down by using the Railway. In my experience the atmosphere is better in a black box too.