To Blog or not to Blog…

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Introduction and Caveats

My strong instinct was/is not to write this post. I often regret overruling my gut and I suspect this time won’t be different. This is a 100% opinion piece (obviously, every post is just my opinion, but this doesn’t even contain the normal factual parts like posting a set list, etc.). If you’re not interested in my personal rant, please tune out now, otherwise, your blood will just boil. Trust me.

I’ve mentioned many times that this blog is written just for me (and Lois) to help me/us remember what incredibly rich and rewarding lives we lead, knowing (from first-hand experience) how quickly memory can fade. That we also end up helping spread the word about many of the musicians that we love is a bonus, but it’s not the purpose.

While I’ve tried to be more positive than not in my musical posts, finding the good things to say, I’ve taken my shots when appropriate (this is the last time that I’ll repeat in this post: in my opinion). This won’t be one of those posts. I have no interest in being mean for the sake of being mean. I don’t need to rant just to get it off my chest. I want to mark this moment, and our feelings, so that we remember it (especially if it causes adjustments in our future behavior!). I have no illusion that it will change anyone’s behavior (other than possibly ours!).

I don’t believe that I’m a particularly naïve person (although that statement might actually prove how naïve I really am). I will say things below that will make me look extremely naïve, so be it. Rather than naïve, I believe I am ignorant of many things in the world (but aware of my ignorance in most cases). Specifically, I know that I have close to zero knowledge about the Music Industry. In fact, many things that seem obvious/intuitive to me about the music business end up being wrong when someone explains them to me.

I am not a music critic. Aside from knowing nothing about the music business, I know very little about music theory. I only know what I like, and on occasion, can articulate why I like it. People correct me here often enough not just on technical points, but when I misidentify someone on stage. I correct it as quickly as I can. I want to be accurate with facts, but I am not trying to review shows in the classical sense.

My final caveat before jumping in: we love music, live and recorded. We love many of the musicians we’ve come to know personally, both as artists and as people. I understand that some of the people I will mention in this post have equally rabid fans and loved ones, who will feel compelled to jump to their defense and call me an idiot, a hater and likely worse.

I get that there are a wide variety of tastes out there. I get that many people scratch their heads (or laugh) at the music that I think is amazing. This isn’t about specific musical taste (though some of the points will come off that way). My apologies in advance for offending anyone specifically. I’m trying to make some generic points, but I feel compelled to give some recent specific examples in making them.

What started this

Up until recently, I’ve posted about every single show we’ve attended, no exceptions. Even when I railed about a particular show, I tried to present a lot of positive things as well (at least why we chose to go, if I couldn’t find anything else nice to say). Needless to say, it led to a few venomous comments. I was impressed that we were able to engage in a meaningful dialog in most cases and come to a better understanding of each other’s positions. I hope that if this post starts off with hostile comments, that we can use it to better understand each other in the end as well.

In March, a musician wrote to me out of the clear blue to tell me that he read my blog about someone he had performed with at another time. He was letting me know that he had a show scheduled in NYC in April, inviting me to attend if I could. I asked the person he performed with if he thought I would like his music and he said I would. Lois and I made the effort to attend.

After the show, I had a hard time thinking of anything particularly nice to say. I also didn’t have anything negative to say that had a point to it. I just didn’t enjoy the set. It was simple. I wasn’t even annoyed that this artist was bold enough to market to a single person, that part still impressed me. It was the first time I didn’t write a post about a show we attended. If I didn’t mention it here, it’s easy to believe that at some point, we’ll forget we ever even attended…

I felt badly afterward that I edited myself. Other than writing a post to mark the occasion, and saying that I didn’t enjoy the set, I was too conscious of not wanting to hurt that artist’s feelings. Consider my statement above about not being a music critic. I didn’t feel the need to warn people to avoid this person’s shows. Even accounting for the fact that he has a lot of fans, the people that regularly read this blog might have more similar tastes to mine and want me to say who I don’t like, as much as who I do.

Last weekend it happened again. Someone reached out to me in an email, inviting me to her show this past Tuesday. It was one of the best notes I’ve read, completely professional and to the point. She told me why I should come (if I was available) in a very concise way. We bought tickets and attended the show.

Afterward, I had a ton of negative things to say. This time, many even (potentially) had a point. And yet, for only the second time, I decided not to blog. I felt badly again. I was compromising the purpose of this blog for the sake of sparing people’s feelings. That sounds noble, but it’s also a bit of a copout. Given how long-winded I am, the amount of effort that goes into each and every post is overwhelming (at least I have the time to do it). I was somewhat relieved that I had a rationalization for avoiding the effort, especially for a show I didn’t enjoy.

So, why am I writing now and mentioning both of those shows? Last night was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. We walked out of another totally unsatisfying show (that’s being kind) and our first instinct was to skip another blog again. Three times in three weeks? I felt that I at least had to say what it was that was making me not blog. Depending on how I feel after this post is out and see what kind of reactions it gets (if any!), I’ll decide how to deal with these types of shows in the future (they will happen, it’s inevitable given how often we attend live music).

Let’s start with the first post I skipped. The show wasn’t awful, it was just a waste of our time. But, it struck me deeply. This person drove from out of state to play this show. He had another band member with him. He had a small entourage (photographer friend, merch seller, etc.). Where did they play? A place we had never been to before: The National Underground. I think there are two rooms there. This show took place in the bar area, on the street level.

It was a small crowd. The room couldn’t handle a large crowd anyway, so my point isn’t that it wasn’t well attended. They didn’t pass around a tip jar either. So, it seemed to me that this person drove to NYC for the chance to pick up a handful of fans (whatever that means), and to possibly sell a little merch. There’s no way it could have covered the gas and tolls under the best of circumstances. If it was an extra stop along a tour, it’s a little easier to understand. Otherwise, I found myself wondering why does he bother?

But, perhaps the more burning question (which only became clearer to me after last night’s show), why did the venue book him? Is it so hard to find acts that can do a better job? In particular local acts who have at least a modest following who could bring business to the bar? Something felt broken to me about how these places get their lineups.

On to this past Tuesday. I have no need to try to hurt this specific artist’s feelings, so I won’t mention her by name. I also won’t mention the venue, because then it would be trivial to figure out which show we attended.

One of the things that she promoted to me in her email was interesting. She wanted to do something different in the indie scene. She intended to have all of her backup singers from her set perform individually in the round, as the opening set. I liked the idea. It’s not the only reason we attended, but it was a selling point. We love when artists highlight their band (including backup vocalists, etc.). This seemed a particularly good way to do it.

Guess what, that’s not what happened. There was no in the round at all. There were three opening acts (very traditional), each performing exactly five songs. Two of the acts were indeed part of her backup singers. The third wasn’t. One of her backup vocalists was ill. This person filled in for the ill person’s opening act, but a different person filled in for the ill person in the backup singers, even though the fill-in for the backups is quite a performer in her own right (we know, we’ve seen her multiple times).

OK, not the end of the world, just not as billed. But, while the large-ish room was reasonably empty for the openers, the people that were there did a helluva job sounding like 1,000 people screaming at the top of their lungs. My heart cried out for the people on stage who could barely be heard even though they were amplified. I know, it happens (you’re saying). Yes, but this was supposed to be different.

If the headliner had meant what she wrote to me, she would have come out before the openers, explained what she was trying to accomplish (presumably, to highlight the amazing people she had chosen to back her up vocally), and asked her friends and fans to join her in enjoying some talent that they otherwise might not discover.

Nope, she just threw them to the wolves. Wolves that were there presumably because they have some connection (musically or personally) to her.

OK, so we’ve seen rude crowds before (perhaps not this bad), we knew we’d survive. Surely, the headliner was going to floor us. Bzzzt, nope again. There were highlights, to be sure, but they did not include the headliner.

Her band was really good. The drummer is amazing (we’ve seen him before), the lead guitarist was terrific on a number of leads (in particular the closing number). It turns out we’ve seen him once before supporting a solo artist and we were both blown away by him then as well! Then there’s the bass player. We saw him once before too, in one of the best sets we’ve ever experienced (OK, more me than Lois, as the style of music is more to my taste). At least, after the show, I got to tell the drummer and bassist about that magical set (they were both part of it). I can’t name them here, because again, I don’t want to make it too easy to figure out the name of the headliner.

All of the backup singers (five in total) had excellent voices. There was a string quintet on stage as well. They were all good too. While I wouldn’t tell you their names either, we were both annoyed that the headliner introduced her band by their full names, but the backup singers and quintet were introduced by first names only (so I don’t even know the names of the quintet players even if I wanted to promote them).

So what, we didn’t care for her music. So what, we didn’t care for the fact that she slighted 10 of the people on stage with her assuming people could try and figure out their last names on their own. So what that she didn’t do anything to help out the openers with her crowd. Is there anything else that annoyed us? Yes.

Her crowd was just as rude to her as they were to the openers, only in a different way. First, while it filled in more for her set, it was still not a well attended show (by any measure). She booked too large a room for her following. Her friends (I feel safe in calling them that, rather than her fans, as you’ll hopefully agree) came a bit closer to the stage (most were hanging near the bar when the openers were playing).

Between songs, they cat-called to her, yelling her name every few seconds, whistling, basically calling attention to themselves in as loud a manner as they could. The minute she started playing a song, most turned their backs to her and started talking to each other at the top of their lungs. I would have been more annoyed if the songs were better, but instead, it provided a whole different level of entertainment watching them outdo each other in currying favor between songs, while ignoring each song as judiciously as they could. See why I call them friends rather than fans?

So, on to last night. Here, I’m going to name names, at least some of them, because I have enough good things to say about them in general (not necessarily regarding last night) and because they have real fans (many of them) so there’s nothing I can say to really hurt their careers (which is the last thing I want to do to any aspiring artist).

I’ve heard about The Click Five many times, but had never seen them, nor really heard any of their music. I’ve seen the lead singer Kyle Patrick a couple of times, and was impressed each time. I’ve seen the bass player Ethan Mentzer as well and he’s terrific too. We are friendly with many of their musician friends, all of whom respect The Click Five tremendously.

For icing on the cake, one of the openers was Jesse Ruben. I’ve seen a full set of Jesse’s at Rockwood and really enjoyed it. Lois missed that show, so I was particularly interested in last night’s show because I thought she’d really like Jesse. There were three other opening acts in addition to Jesse and the venue was new to us: Rebel NYC.

The doors opened later than announced, and the line moved like molasses once they were opened. When we finally got inside we saw that the main room wasn’t going to be a pleasant experience for watching the show (to our taste). A long, narrow room with the stage at one end of the long side. Speakers all over the room (it was going to be loud) and flashing/strobing lights everywhere, with disco balls hanging from the ceiling (yes, multiple ones). There were a few benches/booths along the sides, most already taken.

At the far end of the room (opposite the stage) was a lounge area with leather couches. Since we knew we had at least a three-hour wait until The Click Five would come out, we decided to forego standing the entire time and we sat on a couch along the back wall, facing the stage. The most positive thing I can say about the evening is that the couch was incredibly comfortable (though even that got tiresome in hour three…).

While it’s easy to look up the three openers from last night that I am not going to mention by name, I really mean it when I say that I’m trying to make some generic points, but using specific examples to make them. In other words, I am not trying to put them down, as I’m sure that they too have some very rabid fans.

First point, not enough fans of headliners make the effort to honestly check out openers. There are many openers I don’t like either (last night qualifies), but I give them every single chance to win me over, until their set is over. I don’t use it as an excuse to make their job harder, just because I’m not enjoying it. Ultimately, my point is that most of the rude people don’t even give the opener’s 10-seconds of listening, so it’s not that they don’t like it, they don’t care enough to find out. In other words, not music lovers at all, just people who want to be part of the scene.

When the first band hit the stage, there were very few people in the audience. Part of that was due to how slowly the line was moving to be let in to begin with, coupled with the doors opening late. Still, that small crowd managed to be so loud, in the face of a blaringingly loud rock band, that it was an incredible thing to witness. Granted, we were as far away from the stage as you could be (and still be in sight of it), so we were closer to the noise-making than people standing next to the stage. Unfortunately, there were very few people next to the stage.

The next band had more members in it. While I didn’t enjoy their set either, their lead guitarist was excellent and the drummer was incredible. Here’s what amazed me though. Somehow, the crowd settled down for them. There was noise, to be sure, but there were enough fans of this band to have entire pockets of people actually paying attention. I was getting hopeful.

Then the next act came on (acoustic). I was particularly interested to see if the settling down would continue further given that this would be harder to hear with any noise. It also seemed that this person was better known. Not only did it get noisy again, it was way worse than before. It felt like there wasn’t a single quiet person in the place (of course that isn’t true, as Lois and I tried to listen as intently as we could).

To be fair (to the crowd, and to be honest with myself), I thought this person (solo for a few songs, then accompanied by one then two people at the end) was awful. The person who sang harmony with him didn’t hit a single note (really!). I am a sucker for harmony and this wasn’t it.

OK, I’ll circle back to my real problem with the openers in my summary. At least, the two acts I really came for were about to hit the stage, Jesse Ruben followed by The Click Five!

So, three bands performed without any technical glitches. Jesse hits the stage solo, with just an acoustic guitar, and they can’t get him set up. He was on the stage for over five minutes, then he left. He didn’t return for nearly fifteen minutes and when he did, they still couldn’t get his sound out (to his satisfaction). It took another 10 minutes. In other words, it took over 30 minutes for him to start his set after the intermission from the set before. A long night just got way longer than it needed to be. I have no idea why, I’m just complaining anyway…

Here’s where it gets weird (really Hadar?). The only place where people weren’t making noise consistently throughout the night was in the lounge area where we were sitting (15-20 people in total). I found it strange because it’s the most natural place to ignore the show. You’re sitting as far from the stage as possible, in a square of couches, with a wall between you and the standing audience. You could almost pretend you were somewhere else and there was some background music being piped in (albeit deafeningly loud).

Why is that weird? Because the people in the lounge were clearly there for Jesse and/or The Click Five. They hooted every time The Click Five were mentioned by an opening act. They hooted when Jesse came on the stage. The couple next to us were friends of Jesse (the guy was, and he introduced Jesse to his girlfriend during an earlier intermission).

When Jesse started playing, our lounge got loud. The group of eight girls that had chatted quietly started passing around phones (presumably sharing text’s or FB updates) and screaming at the top of their lungs in response. The two women immediately in front of us who spent the entire night texting (quietly), started doing the same thing (well, not screaming, but talking much more loudly). They were so not into the show, they picked this moment to ask the staff to take their pictures!

His friend and girlfriend chatted throughout his set. Quietly, but they didn’t pay attention to a single song, even though the girlfriend obviously hadn’t heard him before. I was quite surprised that they didn’t bother to get off the couch and move closer to the stage, for at least Jesse’s set. Hey, at least they supported him by buying tickets, right? Right, unless they were on the list

When Jesse started his last number, one of the eight girls screamed “I love this song!”. She then proceeded to scream to her friends throughout the rest of the song, not listening, nor allowing them to either.

So, from my perspective, how was Jesse’s set? Musically, excellent. He played five good songs, sang well, accompanied himself on the guitar well. I can only hope that enough people recognized the vast difference in talent that Jesse displayed compared with the earlier acts (in particular the other acoustic one).

However, at his Rockwood show, I was also impressed with Jesse’s ease on stage (his banter and connection with the crowd). Last night, he totally misread the nature of the crowd and the venue/room. He tried to take control with similar banter, and I honestly believe that he lost more people every time he opened his mouth.

As a general point, that I’ve mentioned once or twice before, performers, please, stop saying “How are you all doing tonight?”. It’s ridiculous on every level. In particular when you’re the fourth act on stage and the first three asked the same question, with effectively zero reaction from the crowd. It makes you lazy and appear to have not paid any attention to what went on before you.

The one impressive thing was that when Jesse was done, it took significantly less time to get The Click Five going (all five playing more sophisticated instruments than Jesse did) than it took to get Jesse going. Whew.

We stayed for three songs and left when they started playing a cover as the fourth. We liked their sound (so our leaving was not a knock on The Click Five). We were wiped out and in no mood to enjoy music. It was crazy loud (we often feel that the sound guy cranks the headliner just to ensure that they are the loudest act of the show). It wasn’t enjoyable, even though they are clearly wildly talented guys.

The noise level subsided a bit, which only made it all the more strange that the volume of the band got cranked to unreasonable levels. And their fans? Well, the eight girls who hooted every time their name was mentioned walked out during the second song. Huh? I know why we left, but them?

OK, I realize how crazy long the above is. I also realize it’s specific, not only to our tastes, but to a very limited number of shows. Lois would argue that the points I’m about to make now should have been made first, with the specifics supporting them. Because I felt badly not covering those shows, I wanted/needed to get the specifics off my chest, so they came first, even if that meant losing a lot of people before the generic points were even made…

Generic Points

Who decides on the opening acts? I’ve been told by bands that it varies. Sometimes the band is asked/allowed/required to choose the opener. Sometimes the venue dictates (or the promoter). Last night (and a number of times) the decisions made, make little sense.

Either the acts are mismatched to the headliner (then people like me wonder why the audience doesn’t pay attention) or they simply stink (I know how subjective that is). In my heart of hearts, I can’t imagine that top acts think highly of the acts that I think are horrible. Yet, they appear with them, names on the same marquee.

This industry is full of talent. Yet it’s still hard to discover good music in the swamp of bad. I feel it’s incumbent on both the venues (specifically the bookers) and the acts that have sway, to ensure that the openers at least have some reasonable talent. I know it’s not going to happen, but there’s so much good music that doesn’t get heard, that it’s a crime that awful groups get to play every night, at thousands of venues across the country.

Next, these shows aren’t festivals. Why did we need four openers last night? Is it to make people feel that they’re getting their money’s worth? If so, pick better acts. Even if that’s true, most are coming for the headliner. One of the reasons this happens (on Tuesday and Thursday this week for the shows we attended), is that the headliner either can’t, or isn’t interested in being on stage for over an hour. The “can’t” part would be true if they have a very small catalog.

Venues need to decide if they are a disco or a concert hall (even if it’s standing, with the intention of dancing/swaying to the music). One of the single most ridiculous things we encounter (worst of all at Rebel NYC!) is lights that flash at the audience. Rebel is the worst, because in addition to normal floodlights of all colors flashing in our eyes (during the performance), they had strobe lights (so bright they could land planes in fog with them) that could easily set off seizures. It’s crazy. We’re trying to watch the band on stage, and we’re blinded in the process. I simply can’t imagine the purpose, other than to enhance a drug high!

There are many more bars/clubs/discos in the country than music venues. This is even more true of paid music shows (meaning, where you have to buy a ticket in advance to get in). I simply can’t wrap my head around people who knowingly pay for a ticket to a music show, and then not only proceed to ignore every act (presumably including their reason for buying the ticket) but knowingly disturb everyone else’s ability to enjoy the show. I say “knowingly”, because even when they are forcefully shushed, they give a dirty look and continue to talk as loud as they can.

Why don’t those people who want to drink and socialize go to a bar/club/disco? I have a good friend who is a full-time musician. When I rant to him about this, he says: “Any musician who can’t deal with a rude audience better quit today. It’s simply a part of the job.” In other words, he’s excusing it (in my mind). Of course, he’s not, he’s accepting it. I wish we didn’t have to settle for that kind of behavior as the norm.

I’m going to stop now, or I’ll miss the show we are attending tonight. Hopefully, I’ll be back to my normal blog style tomorrow, having loved tonight’s show. Smile


7 responses to “To Blog or not to Blog…”

  1. Alandb Avatar

    This is your blog. You write it for yourself. I don’t understand why your negative reviews can’t be written the same way as your positive reviews. Don’t write for your audience. I read this to know your opinion, positive or negative. People see musicians differently. Last summer, we both had seen the Sierra Hull show in Madison Square Park. I commented that I wasn’t that impressed. It may not be the purpose of your blog but it might start a dialogue.

  2. Clint Smith Avatar

     H- I agree with Alandb! Your blog, your rules. And you’ve never had ANY problem sticking up for yourself when people have criticized your opinion, because those opinions are highly-considered and deep-rooted. Maybe one day I’ll take the time to review the number of shows I see (ahem, saw… we will resume this eventually I’m sure, when life steadies). It’s always fun and enlightening to read your take on musical experiences, and hopefully artists and venue-owners read them and consider what might make their own offering more enjoyable.

    tl;dr… Blog your heart out, you’re an inspiration, people care.

  3. Clint Smith Avatar

    H- I agree with Alandb! Your blog, your rules. And you’ve never had ANY problem sticking up for yourself when people have criticized your opinion, because those opinions are highly-considered and deep-rooted. Maybe one day I’ll take the time to review the number of shows I see (ahem, saw… we will resume this eventually I’m sure, when life steadies). It’s always fun and enlightening to read your take on musical experiences, and hopefully artists and venue-owners read them and consider what might make their own offering more enjoyable.

    tl;dr… Blog your heart out, you’re an inspiration, people care.

  4.  Avatar

    Thanks Alan! As you know, I respond to practically every “real” comment, so I am always happy to have a dialog. I don’t mind disagreements, it’s the fastest way for me to learn from my mistakes.

    One of the reasons I try to avoid too many negative comments is that I know how different people’s musical tastes are. So, simply saying “I didn’t like it” is enough (my more typical statement is “not my cup of tea”. 🙂

    Sometimes, criticizing something specific (a guitar player’s ability, for example) just feels mean. That’s just not a matter of taste (meaning others might like that style), but rather somehow I’m elevating myself to “expert” status, which I am most definitely not!

    Either way, this rant was more about the structural aspects of some of these shows, which I don’t think too many people would disagree with, even if they disagree with my specific critique of the acts I used as examples.

    In any event, I always appreciate your comments!

  5.  Avatar

    Thanks Clint! You always blow me away with the depth and breadth of the music you know and listen to. I enjoy looking at your log to see that you listen to stuff I love, as well as much that I have never even heard of. 🙂

  6. Shannon Wagner Avatar

    Thanks for posting this. I also went back and read the earlier post about the YMSB show (along with the long comment stream). I was surprised to see how angry some of the comments on that post were. To me, it’s important to discuss what causes and allows people to disturb and be inconsiderate of each other. Because, to be honest, I believe that that lack of public etiquette is what causes nearly every problem we see in and across groups, communities, cultures, and countries. I am probably naïve for saying that…

    But basic courtesy is important. I’d even go so far as to call it an inalienable right. (Or at least a good target to shoot for!)

    I think it’s important to find a way to make a blog as honest as possible, over the long run. But it’s hard to write an honest post about a touchy subject – the fact that a blog is self-published with no editorial oversight I think makes it even harder – i.e., How can you be sure that you are getting out useful ideas instead of just being overly introspective and unintentionally self-serving?

    This post gives some really useful insight into your thoughts and feelings and (even though the blog is mainly written as a personal memory) I think the background and context that this post provides help to give the rest of your posts even greater relevance. Revealing the conflict in an author can stir a lot of feelings in readers and create an even stronger connection – or, in the case of some of the more mean-spirited comments on the YMSB post – create a fascinating level of new alienation which might cause some people to stop and think about the roots of hate.

    Sorry that you’ve had a tough time with some of these posts, and had to put so much effort into lengthy “administrative” discussion, but I am glad to have benefited from hearing your thoughts since they help me to look at my own (very opinionated) blogging in a new light!

    Anyway, that’s what I think.

  7.  Avatar

    Thanks Shannon. You know how much I enjoy reading your blogs (yes, the various flavors), so I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts here as well.

    This is an extremely thoughtful response. I received another (longer) one from a friend in VA, but he chose to write it privately. Both of your responses make me happy that I decided to rant, because each led to insights (very different) that I hadn’t considered before.

    Hope to see you soon! 🙂

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