Sunday, April 22, 2007

In The Dock: Arena gigs

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: Arena gigs

The case for the prosecution (James)

I hate it when bands become big. Part of it, I’ll admit, is because of my innate music snob tendency. I like when bands are little and that there is some sweet cult charm about them. But there is a more profound reason, and this is the type of issue that we are talking about today. The bands, by necessity, become distant from their fans. I understand this, and I do not REALLY hold it against the musicians / artists themselves. After all, there is an economy of scale going on. However, the by-product of this process that is most depressing is the drive to play big gigs, really big gigs, arena gigs.

The principle problem is a clear one for the music lover. I want to see an artist perform. I want to see them. I want to see the look in their eyes when they first nervously, or brashly, scan the room. I want to see whether they are earnest or casual. I want to see the look on their face when they talk between songs. Performance, to me, implies a direct interaction with the audience. Arena gigs completely fail to deliver on this. Unless you happen to be in the first 20 metres – in which case you are liable to be crushed – you are totally reliant upon huge over-hanging visual screens. Failing this, of course, I get to see a trained ant run back and forth on a make-believe stage. But this is not what I have paid my money for. I have paid my money for a performance. I desire a sense that the artist is responding to me. The artist is no more responding to me that if I were watching it on TV.

Secondly, they are prohibitively expensive. Now, as it is, there is no artist that I would willingly go to see again in such a venue. (I recently rejected the opportunity to see one of my favourite artists in a medium sized venue, because, by the time I found out about it, the only available seats were at the rear.) But it is difficult to imagine that shelling out £50+ is a decent spend. Will the experience outweigh the benefits of say, £50+ worth of CDs, or five local small venue gigs? I sincerely doubt it.

The venues themselves are impersonal and generally unpleasant to attend. The audience is herded in and out like cattle and the facilities are appropriate for the same. The seats are functional at best and tightly packed. Given that I might be in these seats for some time, I want to feel comfortable. The nature of the arena further treats me like an economic commodity, as the ridiculous ticket cost isn’t enough. Hawkers and sellers want to strip me bare with shoddy merchandise and over-priced lukewarm refreshments.

Some might say that these factors are offset by the unique selling point of such gigs; namely, the intense collective adoration of such a vast number of fans. I must concede that such a large number of singularly devoted enthusiasts can create a heady and intoxicating experience – a level of euphoria. This is hardly news: Plato criticised it, Rome glorified it, and Hitler utilised it. But it is dependent upon two things. Firstly, that the crowd is so uniformly devoted. This is not so consistently the case – too often I have been to gigs and many people appear to have judged it as simply a thing to do, rather than a religious pilgrimage to a sacred icon. Secondly, it is dependent upon wanting to be sucked blindly into such a herd. I quite like to retain my critical faculties – such things have helped me out over the years.

To conclude, while I do not NECESSARILY hold any malice towards the artist, arena gigs fail to deliver in any worthwhile fashion. They seem to be an abandoning of artistic importance, and an acknowledgement of the economies of the music businesses. Finally, it is hard not to see this as a snub to the music lover, who wants to see nothing more than a personal musical performance, something that reveals something intimate. Such gigs might be shows, but the possibility of an artist baring his / her soul before a hushed crowd has long passed.

The case for the defence (Damo)

What’s wrong with arena gigs?

1. The band are dots in the distance unless you got there early enough on the night (standing gigs) / were incredibly fortunate and / or very quick to get a ticket (seated gigs).

2. Arenas are owned by big corporations who only sell rubbish beers and inedible food at high prices. When you went out to see a show, you wanted to enjoy yourself and the whole "experience" contributes to that (or not, as the case may be).

3. The sound is frequently echo-laden / too bassy / too trebly and you wish you’d stayed in and just put the record on.

4. Wherever you stand, you struggle to get a decent view.

5. They’re too damned expensive, by and large.

Yes, this is the defence case. And the defence would like to point out that points 2-5 apply to a very high percentage of non-arena gigs too (point 5 in particular – almost all gigs are getting too expensive now). So if we’re going to look at the distinction between enormodomes and your local brewery venue, we’re going to have to start elsewhere.

I love gigs in little venues. I like being able to see the band close up, possibly even exchanging a bit of inter-song banter (NOT heckling) that they can actually hear. But I also love shows. You know – big lighting rigs. Flames shooting into the air. Things going BANG! The singer flying above the audience on a wire. People that say they dislike arena gigs are saying they’re only open to the "up close and personal" experience and not the concept of a big "show", whereas I’m contending there’s room for both.

So it follows that I haven’t got much time for bands doing arena gigs purely because their audience base means they can, who then just stand on the stage and knock the hits out in their sleep. Why would anyone actually bother going to an Oasis gig these days? Even Emily Eavis ran down their last Pyramid Stage headline show. You’ve got the space – use it. Peter Gabriel brought down a circular stage from the ceiling halfway through the show on his last tour... but not all the way to the ground to start with. Instead the road crew tethered his feet to the underside of the stage and he pedalled around it upside down, still singing. Before riding a bike round the crowd for 'Solsbury Hill'. Rammstein shoot jets of flame into the air and the crowd, and row a boat over it. And flame their keyboardist alive in a bloody great big cauldron. Muse hide the drummer inside in a big spaceship made of video screens when they don’t need him. THIS is what we want!

Sadly though, we also have to look briefly at the boring logistical side of things. There’s a lot of debate right now about how touts are ruining live music. Your favourite band puts tickets on sale, they sell out almost immediately, then a large proportion of the tickets end up on eBay. And part of the reason for this is that people are so worried that they’ll sell out quickly due to the touts that they get in first. It follows that the larger the venue you put a band in, the more people that can see them. Even putting all this aside, if Arctic Monkeys played a tour of small pubs tomorrow, you wouldn’t get a ticket. You might not WANT to, but you take my point. You get some great shows in arenas, but sometimes they’re also a necessary evil if you regard any facet of your music taste as remotely "populist".

But that’s a digression, and admittedly a rather prosaic one. The main thrust of my argument is that variety is the spice of life. You wouldn’t want every show to take place in an enormous featureless building. But sometimes you want a spectacle – the musical equivalent of a fireworks display – and guess what? You’re going to need a big room for that.

* * * * *

Thanks to James and Damo for their contributions. Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide. The comments box is open and awaiting your comments - you've got until Friday to make up your mind...


Blogger mike said...

10 years ago, I'd have sided with the prosecution. Having witnessed some stunning, unforgettable arena gigs since then (White Stripes, David Bowie, Duran Duran, Take That, Robbie Williams, Kylie, Rolling Stones, Neil Diamond, Pink), I'm siding with the defence. Some acts actually come into their own in arenas, and the above all qualify for that distinction. There's a particular kind of skill involved, which involves transcending the impersonality to form a direct emotional connection, whilst making the most of the enormity of the space and the spectacle - and it can be thrilling to witness that.

It's just a good job you said "arena" rather than "stadium".

10:49 pm  
Blogger Ian said...

Damo almost has me convinced... but ultimately, I'd only agree with him about big versus small shows if the only determing factor was which kind of experience the band wanted to provide. But the vast majority of the time, if you're playing a small gig you _can't_ play a big (or even big-"style") gig, and vice versa.

So, guilty.

2:46 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like small intimate gigs, and I like big bulbous epic shows in arenas.

I'm shortish, I'm more likely to be able to see in an arena gig than in a smaller one because any arena gig I've been too has worked out that if you have amny people then you need sloped seating, or curved ground a la MK Bowl. Unless I am at the front (which I usually was in my younger years when I didn't mind being covered in other people's sweat in the throng) at a smaller gig I haven't got a hope.

I like theatrics! I like massive projections, light shows, big sound, and visuals to umph the music. Now I can mention Depeche Mode - both in 93 and 06 they made the most fantastic superb shows with intelligent and inventive backdrops. They've never been a chatty band but they connect with every one of the masses in the crowd. It doesn't work for eveyone tho - I saw Radiohead in Manchester a good few years ago and they were overwhelmed by the scale...but it was still better than not seeing them!

And, if it weren't for arena gigs I basically wouldn't see any live music where I live, and I hardly see any as it is. Arena size gigs make it economical to tour to out of the way places. This even makes it that bit more of a special treat and event. And, the prosecutions 'Hitler' comment lost me, so it's a bit not guilty from me!

6:51 am  
Blogger swisslet said...

The mention of Hitler in the prosecution case makes it very tempting to invoke Godwin's Law.... but I won't.

I'm with the defence on this one. I have no great love of arena gigs and would far rather watch a band in more intimate surroundings. I've seen many shit arena gigs and both the prosecution and the defence mention the prices, the crappy view, the warm beer and the inedible food. Many bands are also just lost in arenas and give the audience absolutely nothing (I'm looking at you, Travis. And you, Radiohead).

The thing is though that I've also seen lots of good gigs in arenas (and I'm with Mike here, the White Stripes were brilliant when they played Nottingham Arena, as was Morrissey), and I've also seen plenty of shit gigs in smaller venues.

Sometimes I just want to see a band play. It's basic economics, innit. Bands that can sell out arenas do so because there are large numbers of people willing to see them in arenas. These bands will play arenas - and I'd be pissed off it they didn't. It's all very well for the killers and the arctic monkeys to play Rock City, but it's great if you get a ticket, but how often will you get a ticket?

I'd far rather see a band in a smaller venue, but if it's a choice between an arena and not seeing them at all, I'll take the arena.

Mind you. I'm a tall man. I always buy standing tickets when I can and I am pretty much guaranteed to be able to see the stage. I think this may make a difference to my view... both of the band and of arena gigs in general.


7:34 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a general rule I avoid arena gigs and I agree with lots of the prosecution's argument about the lack of intimacy and interaction. I've been in Brum for 9 years and haven't ever been to the NEC for example. However, I can’t dispute the argument that certain gigs are about the ‘event’ and work best in large venues (Flaming Lips with their lasers, mega balloons, animal costumes, confetti guns and life-sized hamster ball were perfect in the NIA) so it’s a vote with the defence for me.

I think it’s more that different bands suit different venues and it’s a shame (but unavoidable) that venue choice is dictated by popularity (similar to festival line-ups, some bands are made for the sunshine). If a band I really like are doing an arena tour but I’d rather enjoy their music in a smaller venue I’ll typically give it a miss. I’ll probably be pissed off that I didn’t get my act together earlier and take the chance to see them at an earlier stage in their career (where in addition to the intimacy you get to see them working their arses off).

11:38 am  
Blogger JonnyB said...

Can't really add anything. Not guilty.

2:29 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

My instincts are to vote for the prosecution - though Damo makes the very fair point that many of the gripes people typically have about arena gigs apply equally to non-arena gigs (exhibit A: Birmingham Academy - crap beer, flat / watery / syrupy Coke, massive bar queues and useless staff, all in a big soulless box).

But, having never been to an arena gig myself, it would be wrong to come down on either side of the fence. I suspect that were I to break my duck I'd sympathise more with James than Damo, but an abstention it is.

5:29 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Blimey that's a difficult one but has to be not guilty. For the bands that know they are going to be playing to people who are about half a mile away and consequently make up for the loss of direct contact with lasers, lights, big screens and the like. And for the "bands" who you don't necessarily want to see. At a Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, or Orbital gig, if you have any sense you don't want to actually see what's going on on stage, you just wants to dance your pants off. For those of us old enough to have been in our early twenties in 1991 it is one approximation of those enormous raves which were so amazing. Several thousand ecstatic happy people dancing together in a field. Or arena. But don't get me started, I will end up sounding like my grandad.

8:23 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw Pink Floyd at Earls Court many years ago and it was great. Pulp at Wembley Arena a few years later didn't work so well.

I'd rather see a big band play an open air concert than go to see them in a barn, but I wouldn't rule it out.

Not guilty, mainly due to the lack of strength of my opinion on this subject.

3:49 pm  
Blogger Kwok said...

Been to many small gigs. Some were good. Some were bad.

Been to ONE arena gig. It was shite. It was in the old London Arena, where they used to play ice hockey and basketball. It was like listening to a band play through Walkman headphones in a Coke can. Pillars blocked my view and my seat was perpendicular to the stage.

And the people who say about a great show, I say: Isn't it all about the music (man)? Since when were you impressed by lights and shiny bits of metal?

Maybe I'm just bitter because I've never seen a decent arena gig. Maybe you know at the bottom of your heart, I'm right.


9:04 pm  
Blogger Stevious said...

I go with the prosecution on this one.

I've seen some impressive showmanship and whatnot in big venues, and even had a thoroughly good time. However, even if the chap from Muse carved a giant swan out of an iceberg with his guitar whilst Bono piloted a giant robotic turtle through the crowd it wouldn't make up for the fact that for the most part of the gig what you will be getting is a sub-standard experience. And you know in your heart of hearts that you'd be having more fun if the gig was in a nice wee poky place instead of a soul-raping mega dome.

And whoever says you need a big room for a big spectacular show clearly hasn't been to see the Flaming Lips play.

9:43 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh but shiney things can be so exciting!

10:00 pm  

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