Why can’t Milwaukee club shows ever start on time?
Steven: All things considered, times are good for Milwaukee music. We’re coming off a pretty incredible 2010, in terms of the quantity and quality of music being made locally, and the amount of attention that music is getting. There are a decent number of good music venues regularly hosting Milwaukee bands, and an unprecedented amount of media sources covering the scene. If you have any interest in exploring the sounds being made by your neighbors in Milwaukee, it’s never been easier to get started, and what you’ll find arguably is as good as it’s ever been.
Of course, there’s always room for improvement. As a music fan, I have two gripes with club shows: They never start on time, and there often are way too many bands on the bill. As a music writer, these are probably the two most common complaints I hear from other music fans. I’ve come to accept these things as part of the music-going experience, and can set them aside. But for some people, they’re off-putting signs of self-indulgence, reiterating the misconception that local club shows are often more about the bands and their circles of friends than the audience.
Look, I know why shows start late. A lot of times, it’s because the audience shows up late, and nobody wants to play for the sound guy and dudes from the other bands. But one reason people come late is that they expect the show to start late, which only makes the show start even later, creating this vicious circle of inefficiency.
Another reason people come late to local shows is that sometimes there are as many as four or five bands playing that night. I love music, DJ, but that’s a long time to be standing around and drinking, especially if you have to be at work early the next morning or—double especially—if two or three of the acts are sort of shitty, which they inevitably are.
Here’s my modest proposal for improving the club show experience: Make every gig start at 9 p.m. sharp Sunday through Thursday, and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The “sharp” part will be advertised, and patrons will be encouraged to show up early to get a drink and a decent spot on the floor. Also, no bill will have more than three bands, and occasionally (dare to dream!) there might even be a two-band bill where both groups are worth seeing.
DJ, you play in bands and you’ve booked shows. Is my proposal a pipe dream?
DJ: “Pipe dream” may be a little extreme, Steve, but the thought of doing something to fix this problem inspires a feeling of hopelessness akin to that of the matador who left his cape at home. And I agree, it’s a problem—not just in Milwaukee, but also all over the country. (You have no idea how many times a bar owner or sound guy in Indiana or Seattle has answered my start time inquiry with, “Well, we have a late crowd here …”) But there are reasons why some bills end up with four or more bands, which I’ll get to.
But first, let’s discuss that start time issue, which is so chicken-and-egg at this point that assigning blame on either the clubs or the crowd is pointless. I actually think that advertising a strict start time and sticking to it would work after an adjustment period of a month or so. Turner Hall’s hard-and-fast 8 p.m. start time has conditioned people to understand that they’ll miss the opening act if they’re not through the door. And as a concertgoer, I like knowing that I’ll be home early enough to get a decent night’s sleep before work. (Yes, some of us band folk have 9-to-5 jobs too, so it’s not like late bar times are making us happy either.) The trick, however, is finding those bands that will be willing to eat shit for a month or so and play to that sound guy and the other bands while the general public adjusts to the idea of shows that start on time … if they even do adjust.
The other problem is that if we immediately adopt our new proposed mandate of three bands max. on every bill, the band that gets the shaft in that play-to-no-one opening slot will very often be a touring band. Putting a bill together is a delicate art—especially when the bands you want to bring to town are the bands that no one else is championing. If a band’s not getting the college radio or local blog love, it’s not necessarily because the band sucks (although there are plenty of those, to be sure). But it does guarantee that the band won’t be drawing anyone to the club. Milwaukee music fans, like music fans everywhere, are loath to give unknown commodities a chance. That’s why any bar worth playing will insist that a local band play the bill—often two, since I can count on one hand the number of locals that can fill a room by themselves.
In our idyllic utopia, every bar show would open and close with a local and sandwich a touring band in the prime middle slot. But what if two bands are on tour together, or happen to cross paths on the same night? How about that last-second add-on who had their show across town cancel at the last minute? These things happen more often than you’d think, and to just tell those bands they’re out of luck isn’t exactly going to broadcast the message that Milwaukee is a happenin’ music town that treats touring bands well. (And speaking selfishly, turning them away one too many times is sure to handicap our efforts to get shows in their towns, so to a small degree, I guess sometimes it is about the bands as much as the audience.)
And I haven’t even touched on the pressure of making sure that the draw can cover what the sound guy charges!
It’s not that bands like four- or five-band bills, Steve; it’s that sometimes it’s the best option for everyone involved in the process. And it’s a process that is focused on making Milwaukee an awesome town for awesome out-of-town bands to come play—which is something every music fan should get behind, right? So, where can bands and promoters meet the fans halfway?
Steven: Well, let’s start with where we agree, which is starting shows on time. Even taking into account your “period of adjustment,” it seems like this is something that could be implemented fairly quickly. Sure, opening bands might play for small crowds, but that happens under the current system, too, because people will either ignore a band they don’t know or leave the room until the set is finished. No disrespect to opening acts—I can’t tell you how many great bands I’ve discovered just because I showed up early to somebody else’s concert—but why should an entire show be moved back an hour or two just to ensure that every band plays in front of a good crowd? Larger venues never do that, because it only punishes the people who were nice enough to show up early, and discourages them from ever doing it again. Believe me—people will adjust. Showing up to a show at the time it’s advertised to begin is a pretty easy concept to grasp.
It’s not like it’s unprecedented in Milwaukee to insist that shows start promptly. Ryan Matteson is one of the busiest club bookers in town, regularly doing shows at places like the Cactus Club and Club Garibaldi. One thing Ryan always insists on is starting his show at the time that they’re advertised. Sometimes that means that the first band plays in front of only a few people. But Ryan realizes a simple truth of live music presenting: You can lead an audience to worthwhile artists, but you can’t make them pay attention. Delaying the start time doesn’t change this.
As for the issue of overstuffed bills … I guess I’m not really following your explanation. I understand that circumstances arise where touring bands have shows fall through, so they get added to bills at the last minute. But scanning the local music listings, I see many shows already have at least three bands—and frequently four or five—on the bill weeks in advance. That tells me that these bills aren’t exactly accidents. If bands don’t like bills that big, and audiences often tire of them as well, then why do they happen so often? I understand your point about quality touring acts getting ignored by local fans unwilling to take a chance on the unknown. But how does packing several unknown groups on the same bill—or making people wait around into the wee hours of the morning for the one local band they want to see—solve this problem? Doesn’t it just make the club-going experience less appealing for the live music fan?
The key to making Milwaukee a “happenin’” town for touring acts boils down to the audience. Can local shows pack them in or not? If the people are there, the bands will come. Part of attracting people is assuring them that going to a bar show won’t consist of two hours of music and two hours of waiting around.
DJ, I’m a reasonable man. You want compromise? How’s this: If you’re going to have more than three bands on a bill, you must move the start time up an hour earlier. That means four-band bills start at 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday (8 p.m. every other day), five-band bills at 8 p.m. on weekends, and so on. It will be understood that headliner will go on no later than midnight on a weekend night. Deal?
DJ: I’m all for that idea! I can’t speak to why other promoters are clogging bills with up to five bands; I know that I’m often guilty of assembling four-band bills, but it’s all in the interest of maximizing draw (and most of the bands I book don’t play longer than half-hour sets anyway). I have seen all-ages shows in basements and at The Borg Ward that have as many as seven bands, sometimes simply because the promoter wanted to help out as many touring bands as possible, but I think anyone this side of sane would agree that that’s ridiculous. Trying to please everyone results in pleasing no one—I’m well aware of that, but maybe I and other band members and promoters need to be reminded of that sometimes too.
I will make this solemn vow: For the next few shows I set up, I’ll use your guidelines as an experiment and see how it goes. To sweeten the pot, I’ll get the cover charge sorted out with the club well in advance, and bombard the potential audience with so many URLs that audience apathy will be the only thing preventing anyone from hearing the unknown bands ahead of time. All I ask from the average concertgoer is that the bands I bust my ass to bring to town get at least a cursory listen before they are dismissed out of hand (he said, with tongue in cheek). I’ll let you know if we can actually make the concert experience better for everyone (except maybe the opening band), or if it is, as you asked, an unfortunate pipe dream.
Steven: That sounds fair. It goes without saying that a local music scene is a delicate ecosystem, and music fans need to do more than complain to make it work. The least us local music fans can do is show up and enjoy all the great music folks like you bring to town.