This new series – Anatomy of a Gig – is a space for people to comment objectively about live music events that they have attended, to build a resource for promoters and musicians on what works and what doesn’t work at a gig. In this way, the Anatomy of a Gig series will review the gig as a live music event rather than reviewing the music per se.
Upstairs in association with BBC Introducing ft. John Bramwell (I Am Kloot), O2 Academy Oxford, May 21st 2012
Last Saturday I went to the Upstairs event (in association with BBC Introducing) at the O2 Academy in Oxford, featuring John Bramwell. My husband was reviewing the gig for the local Nightshift magazine, but I went along as I am a fan of I Am Kloot, and therefore of John Bramwell. The gig was a strange one that left both of us quite annoyed. The aim of this blog post – apart from offering some catharsis – is to examine why this should have been the case. On this occasion, the three main factors that appeared not to work were: running order/programming, ticket price, and location of the bar/social zone.
Before I start, however, what do I mean by ‘the gig didn’t work’? If a live music event fundamentally consists of the following: artist, venue, audience, technology, promoter (Frith 2008), then a successful gig is one in which each element is functioning properly. But in the case of a live music event, this means not just that the element works on its own, but rather it requires the successful interaction of each element with each of the other elements. For example, that the artist’s microphone works when s/he sings into it, that the audience can hear the artist and/or their instrument, that the promoter has done their job and attracted a suitable audience to the event, that the venue is sufficient for the needs of the artist and audience. The main reason that the John Bramwell gig left me annoyed was that the listening audience could not hear the artist properly past a certain point in the room due to the level of audience chatter towards the bar area, and that this had a noticeable effect on the artist (at one point, for instance, he called somebody standing chatting near the bar a very rude word beginning with C).
Starting with the running order/programming, then. The editor of Nightshift had recommended that we get there early to see one of the early support acts, Sonic Rising, a seven-piece psychedelic garage rock band, whose wall of sound saw me with fingers in ears (I forgot my earplugs). Said wall of sound also had the added benefit of being so loud as to prevent any conversation within the audience, and so most of the people in the room paid attention to the performers on stage – they had no real choice, though, to be fair.
The following act, however, was a solo singer-songwriter – Jess Hall, who appeared on stage with a house plant for company – and for whom the crescendo of audience chatter during her inherently quieter set meant that it was very difficult to hear her voice, even when standing close to the crash barrier in front of the stage. It was as if the audience had been built up to a frenzy during Sonic Rising’s set (aurally if not necessarily physically) and could not be brought back down to a quieter, more contemplative level. The volume and energy of Sonic Rising (particularly the lead singer, bassist, and drummer) certainly seemed more suited to a later time in the evening. The only time the majority of the audience appeared to re-engage with what was going on on-stage for Jess Hall’s set was, unfortunately, when the singer was joined by three backing singers for one song towards the end of her set.
The Lake Poets followed Jess Hall. While the name of the artist suggested a multi-member band, the first half of the set was performed by a solo singer-songwriter from Sunderland, and it was only halfway through the set that his bandmates joined him on stage. While they managed to build up more volume than Jess Hall and were able to compete with the noise of the crowd, the long-winded harmonica solos did not appear to engage said crowd, and so the chattering continued.
By the time John Bramwell was on stage, it was as if the back half of the room had given up on what was happening on stage and were simply there to chat to their friends. In a room with around 150 people in, this created quite a noise. Bramwell is an amiable Mancunian who appeared to treat the gig as a bit of a farce even from the start (I should point out, however, that this was apparent only from his between-song chat as his performance was wholly committed). My husband and I moved right to the front of the room in order to be able to hear him better, as standing a few rows back meant that the audience chatter made it difficult to follow the music.
While the set was enjoyable, there was an underlying tension therein, particularly when Bramwell talked to or talked about the people at the back of the room – it set up an us/them divide which I personally found uncomfortable. The most awkward part of the evening occurred during the encore ritual at the end of the set, however. Bramwell played his ‘final’ song – ‘Proof’ – and left the stage. However, the noise of the audience chatter was so great that the usual coming together of the audience to call the artist back (see my article on encore rituals) did not work as they (the chatterers) were noisier than us (the Bramwell fans) and so the ritual was disrupted – the usual whooping and cheering that would encourage the artist to reappear simply did not happen. The sound engineer then had to jump on stage and ask us ‘Do you want some more?!’, at which point the fans responded ‘normally’ by clapping and cheering and Bramwell reappeared and performed two songs. All very cringe-worthy.
For unknown reasons, then, the promoter had chosen to plonk a seven-piece noisy garage band in the midst of singer-songwriters. To use my friend and colleague, Alan Deadman’s analogy:-
It’s like a good firework display, I always think of, you know. First of all, don’t get lots of shitty little cheap fireworks; get a few really spectacular ones. It’s like anything, you kind of, you get the order, you build it up; you’ve got to think of the climax (2008).
In this case, both the inclusion of the band and their position in the set list were at odds with the rest of the programme (although, to be fair, using the firework analogy, the only place they would have worked would have been after John Bramwell, which would not have worked for obvious reasons). It would be easy, however, to blame only the running order for the ‘failure’ of this gig, but I would like to focus on two other factors that helped to scupper it: ticket price and location of the bar.
The ticket price was £5 a ticket, and Bramwell himself commented on the price, gently mocking himself for playing a gig with a fiver entrance fee – ‘serves me right’ (in contrast, he is charging £10 adv, £12 on the door for a solo gig at the King George Hall in Blackburn in May). This raises the question: how much is ‘enough’ for people to value the music they have paid to see? Is a fiver simply too low for a five-band bill featuring at least one professional musician? In Oxford you’ll be very lucky to get a pint and a half of beer for that price.
I can only guess as to how much Bramwell was paid for the slot, but his agent should perhaps check the venue’s listings a little more closely in the future, as one thing I should also mention is that – as is often the way for music venues these days – a club night was happening directly after the gig, which almost certainly affected the Bramwell gig. The indie club event, Propaganda, started at 10.30pm in the same venue and gig punters were actively encouraged to ‘Come for a gig and stay for a dance. Stay in the venue for Propaganda for free’, therefore paying £5 for the gig also got you in to the club night (also a fiver). While this is pure speculation, I wonder whether those who were talking during Bramwell’s set saw the Upstairs bar as a ‘pre-bar’ for Propaganda and were therefore using it as a place to meet up with friends, rather than having any interest in the gig. Whether the strategy behind this strategy is cynical or genuine (get the punters in early so as to sell them more beer VS get the punters in early so as to introduce them to new music), the Bramwell gig showed that offering punters ‘free’ music in this way can be massively disadvantageous if those people have no interest in what is happening on stage.
Location of the bar
The final point I want to make is the layout of the room and, in particular, the location of the bar. Those who were talking throughout the gig (and who quite often had their backs to the stage while chatting to friends), seemed to be behind an imaginary line that went from the end of the bar to the door and cut the room diagonally:-
Photo taken from the doorway – the bar can be seen at the right-hand side of the left-hand photo.
Those behind this invisible line were in what I call the ‘social zone’, whereas those in front were generally in what I call ‘gig position’ (eyes, ears and body facing forward, attention focused on the stage). As defined in my doctoral thesis, social zones are those areas where the focus is on social interaction rather than music, (often) outside the musical performance zone or auditorium and often centred around a bar area. What can happen in such zones when they are in the same room as the gig is noisy disruptive chatter, which is exactly what happened at the Bramwell gig. Venues such as King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow sensibly have their bar round the corner and out of sight of the stage (although noise from the bar area can still cause problems), whereas venues such as upstairs at the Oxford O2 Academy unfortunately allow noisy social zones to occur.
I will finish, then, with a plea to the gig’s promoters – the three things above are (mostly) fairly easily fixed and would mean a much more pleasant experience for all those involved. Firstly, Sonic Rising should never have been on the same bill as John Bramwell (where the latter was headlining). Secondly, do not allow gig goers into the club night afterwards for ‘free’ – while this can be a means of reaching new audiences, in my experience it tends to backfire as audience members have no economic or emotional investment in the artist and are usually more interested in social interaction than musical performance. Even a nominal charge for both events (£5 for the gig and £1 for the club, perhaps, or vice versa?) could, at least subconsciously, mean that people are invested a little more in the gig and may perhaps pay more attention. Finally, and this is tricky, is the layout of the room. If the bar can be screened off in some way, all well and good – The Boardwalk in Sheffield used to use a curtain to separate the bar area from the stage area, for example – but the location of the bar area is something that should be taken into account when designing the venue layout in the first place. On the one hand, people don’t want to miss anything while they go to buy drinks, but I do not think that it is coincidence that so many musicians love playing Glasgow’s Barrowlands, as one example, where the ‘social zone’ is located outside of the actual gig space and therefore noise from the bar area is kept to a minimum.
If anyone has any similar experiences or wants to analyse a gig that they have been to, please comment below or get in touch via email.