Gigging at the Edge of Reason, Episode 1

Working musicians know that the key to a positive gig experience isn’t just in how prepared we are, but how well we are able to deal with and respond to the things we never thought to prepare for. We know not to flip out over a bad monitor mix or because the Jagermeister is the wrong temperature; we are professionals. We do our best to keep a positive attitude and roll with the punches.

Some nights though, those punches just keep coming and no amount of rolling can save us from the beating it would seem fate intends us to receive. If you’ve been playing live for any length of time it’s probably happened to you already, and if not, you can enjoy (at my expense) the harrowing tales of…

Gigging at the Edge of Reason!

Episode 1: The Kids Don’t Pay

A few years ago, the band I was in at the time took a one-off gig at an all-ages show in Terre Haute, Indiana. Near the border of Indiana and Illinois, Terre Haute is the home of Indiana State University, the Federal Death Row complex, and the intersection of US Hwy 40 and US Hwy 41. It’s kind of a big deal.

The gig was at a venue obviously used commonly for the purpose of all-ages shows; ample room for stage, sound, and crowd, but zero bar and zero tables. It was clear from the start that this was going to be an under-21 scene almost exclusively, which was fine with us. Totally awesome and forward-thinking Indiana state law restricts anyone under 21 from entering a venue that serves alcohol, so if you want to reach those kids, this is the kind of place you have to play.

The ‘Haute was two hours away from our “operational base” in Indianapolis, but we managed to get there with plenty of time to load in and set up, do a quick sound check, and await the opening of the doors while we kicked around with the two other bands and talked with the the junior high- and high school-aged kids who were beginning to collect in the parking lot. This was a smallish bill in a smallish town; one we got added to with short notice so we hadn’t spent much time promoting it, but by the time the music was about to start there were around 75 kids hanging out by the doors. I started thinking that it was winding up to be a pretty good show. This many people in a small room can be a blast to play for, and young people enjoy music with an abandon and enthusiasm that is infectious to a live performer.

Plus, they aren’t buying booze, which leaves that disposable, expense-less pocket cash free for the purchasing of band merch.

Bunch of kids who may have over-accessorized

CHA-CHING! Thank you, come again!

Finally, it was time. The opening band took the stage. The door guy opened up, ready to collect $5 covers from the waiting throng. Cymbals swelled and amps fed back with foreshadowed intensity, and the kids…

Stayed outside.

No, seriously. They just kept sitting around in the parking lot and on benches by the door.

Confused, the opening band started their first song, maybe thinking the crowd’s attention had to be earned before it could be expected; That once the kids heard the rock and the roll, they would decide to come in and get their faces properly melted.

Nope.

After playing their whole set to the walls, the opening band defeatedly tore down, loaded up their van, and broke out faster than you could say “this place doesn’t serve beer.” I normally frown on that kind of behavior, but I couldn’t blame them. No one seemed to care that they played – why should anyone care that they left?

I mean, I’ve played to an empty house before. Some nights there just isn’t the turnout you expect. Sometimes when you’re out on the road, you end up playing where the local acts and venue did absolutely no promoting whatsoever leading up to the show, and you spend the night serenading for the bartender, door guy, and other band’s girlfriends. It sucks, but it’s part of the game.

But this wasn’t that. There was a crowd 20 feet away. On the other side of a wall.

dude shrugging

“I have no coherent explanation for my behavior.”

The second band, already disheartened, played through what must have been only one third of their set, because they too were done and gone within about 20 minutes. It was brutal. They played as though looking through some ghastly trans-dimensional nexus at a crowd of people who came for a show but never noticed one was happening in their midst.

I asked a number of the people outside why they weren’t going in to watch the show, and their answers ranged from “I don’t have enough money,” to “I’m just meeting people here,” to “I have to leave soon.” When I asked them “Why did you come to a show if you had no intention of actually going to the show?,” I received only awkward shrugs in response.

When my band finally played to close things out (you couldn’t really call it “headlining”), we managed to attract around a half dozen stragglers inside to watch, and we gave them the best, most energetic performance we had in us. Brave enough to pay for the experience, they deserved at least that much. Afterward, while packing up our van, some of the “outsiders” said that they could hear us from outside and that we sounded good. I don’t know.

I still don’t know. It was the weirdest thing. Maybe we just hit a pocket of kids who really, really aren’t used to paying for music. (I should probably search bittorrent sites for free downloads of that show.) The only thing I can think of is that this venue had become something of a hangout for young people and they sort of showed up there on weekends whether they had any interest in the music or not.

We did see a modest jump in Facebook likes after that day, though.

…And that is the story of the time one of my bands played a venue next to the coolest parking lot in Terre Haute, Indiana.

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What you’ve just read is the first installment of a series of short gig stories that I hope to share on this blog from time to time. Actual names of people, bands, and venues will be left out to protect the innocent (namely me).

Share your Hell gigs or weigh in on mine in the comments section…

Adam Gotch

About Adam Gotch

Adam Gotch is the guitarist for the instrumental nerd-beer-thrash outfit Devils of Belgrade (listn.to/devilsofbelgrade). He possesses many fine talents and is alarmingly handsome. You should follow his advice to the letter in all things.
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  • http://www.facebook.com/kenneth.makowsky.7 Kenneth Makowsky

    I played a gig in the Target center in Minneapolis in the mid 90′s. “Sell 200 tickets and you can play after a Timberwolves (NBA) game. Well, we ate the tickets, mostly, and rented a P.A. because they wouldn’t offer sound support. Waited the whole game to play to the 14,000 or so who showed up for the game, anxiously waiting our turn. After the game we moved our gear onto the court but they wouldn’t give us power until after the courtside TV interviews were over. They didn’t make any announcement about live music after the game. We sat there, mute, for 30 plus minutes, watching our audience file out. Then we got power, fired up the P.A. and all the gear and sound checked. Then, about an hour after the game ended, we started our first song. We played 45 minutes to about 200 people in a room that held 17,000. VERY inspiring.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steve.strain1 Steve Strain

    Back in the late 90′s we were excited to get a gig in Southern California. We get to the venue and see absolutely nobody there. That’s O.K., somebody is sure to show up before we play…. NOPE. We played in front of 1 person. It was truly a bummer. Not to mention the fact that when the second band played, they nearly had a packed house.

  • jeffpettit

    We played a show set up the drummer in our band with another more established local band(he was a complete fanboy of this other band ). During the show I thought the crowd looked light but thought “all three bands played two weeks ago” (not all at the same gig and we are in a small town in western Arkansas, not a lot of cash for the all age crowd) . I found out during load out that the other better known band had gotten the venue to pay the cover collected DURING THE BANDS SET , instead of splitting the cash in some sort of fair way(60% venue ,common here, 40% bands which would have been 10-15% us) THEN they sat outside and told everyone coming in that ” These guys suck just, wait out here with us until we go on to play”. Then they came in around our last song and kept on us to play more (owning to the fact the middle band cancelled) We had played everything we had. When we played the four or five covers we knew and two made up on the spot songs they made fun of us.Telling us to ” Just quit and go home that we had let them down and embarrassed ourselves “. AND Tried to tell us that we owed what little we made to them “For letting us play on their PA”. When I told our drummer what they had done outside he tried to start a fight with my buddy claiming that he was lying.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lennaert.vanmierlo Lennaert van Mierlo

    Yet those gigs turn out to be memorable… Great writing. Very entertaining! You almost had me looking up torrents for that show… or pics. ;)