Why small, intimate venues keep thriving

It is an unfortunate trend in our industry, and one which appears to be nearly impossible to reverse. The quantity of concerts has grown exponentially over the last decade, but at the same time, the selection of venues has never been so fragmented.

Today, there are more than 20,000 places hosting concerts in the United States, but this has led to subpar experiences for attendees. Poor ticket sales and mediocre sound quality are a far cry from the theatrics of The Who and Skrillex. While live concert ticket prices have steadily increased over the last decade, we are left with a watered-down experience. This has created an out-of-touch fringe of small bands who cannot compete with the major tours. The next generation of bands are only aspiring to perform at the kind of venues on the surface, like those at the White House and All Points West.

To its credit, Live Nation, the largest concert promoter in the world, has taken steps to identify and eliminate the problems that plague the Canadian and United States concert spaces. In the United States, Live Nation is on track to divest itself of the relatively small venues in and around the New York City music scene, giving way to more intimate places like Brooklyn Bowl, Irving Plaza and Fillmore. This in turn should create a stronger, more diverse music scene here in the States.

Some of the smaller venues in North America have hired special “room managers” to set up the sound and accommodate the needs of each artist. These dedicated employees earn a smaller salary than what the opening act would normally make, but they work extra hours and most importantly are dedicated to making each show a perfect opportunity for the artist. The sacrifice that these workers must make to play all those nights is considerable, but in the long run, it may ultimately benefit the artists.

What about smaller venues in Canada? The Big Apple may be making strides, but in the rest of the country, venues are forced to do everything to accommodate the limited demand for their services. In some of the key cities, like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, these establishments do not have enough space for their maximum capacity. The few places that manage to hold on to their primary gigs report poor ticket sales, losing money and eventually shuttering their doors. This is a direct result of the constraints placed on the venue industry.

The proliferation of smaller and more diverse venues in the United States and Canada has created a business model that distorts the need to provide such a wide variety of products. We no longer have a system that has the sole objective of delivering only memorable experiences for the artist and fans.

Many of the small venues that exist in North America do such a good job of offering a uniquely structured experience for their artists, that much of the work is already done before the show. Over the years, we have seen four major headliners show up and have to adapt to a much different vibe, from a warm and romantic atmosphere to a loud rock gig. If the artist can not deal with the discord, they will depart rather quickly. The smaller venues tend to have more flexibility in accommodating the artists so that the experience is more personal. It is a commitment to the artist, they put themselves on the line to promote their music, and the public trusts them to deliver. There is nothing wrong with being booked in more intimate venues.

There may be parallels to the Broadway play industry, where the classical musicians often prefer smaller theaters. The intimate nature of those spaces enables the performers to have a great experience. Just like the acts who make their living in Broadway shows, smaller venues are important places in the craft. Musicians and performers deserve to be treated like musicians and performers.

Finally, it is important to recognize that the biggest problem facing the live music industry is not a lack of venues — it is an unqualified need for people. As the majority of concertgoers today are over 30 years old, the majority of venues do not reflect the demographics of the audience they are expecting to see. What work is done in the smaller venues is usually of the hard-working musicians who make their living playing the most difficult music.

We need to work toward a business model that will more accurately reflect the diversity of our population in the field of music. We cannot count on the same old buildings with the same old policies. The places that reflect our society and our priorities will keep thriving, no matter how many times they are asked to sell out.

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