Live music and riskDecember 17, 2009
Live music, especially in small venues, is about taking risks. And not everyone is comfortable with that.
A couple of months ago, I went with a friend to see The Killers play at the TD Garden in Boston. It was the first arena show I’d been to in many years, and what I was most struck by was how safe and controlled it was. The band transitioned smoothly from song to song, the lightshow was pretty, and all the songs sounded much like their recorded versions.
One of the things I love about seeing live music is the spontaneity and the interactivity. And, of course, that means that sometimes things go wrong. At arena shows, the larger scale means that everything needs to go right, and all of the rough edges need to be smoothed down. Something going wrong in a club show adds to the live experience; something going wrong in an arena show detracts from it. Arena shows are low-risk events.
A few weeks ago at Music Hack Day Boston, Paul Lamere talked about the fanciful idea of a ‘risk knob’ for music recommendation. If you’re having a rough day at work, for example, you can turn down the risk knob and listen to familiar music. Or you can turn it up for wilder suggestions.
Most people, it seems, have their risk knob turned fairly low when it comes to live music. They want to hear something familiar. A tiny minority have their risk knobs turned high enough to go see bands in small venues, prepared to hear something they’ve never heard before. You can play a bit with risk homeostasis: unfamiliar bands can do covers, for example. Or someone might go see a favourite singer front a new band. But, ultimately, you can’t really change people’s tolerance for musical risk. And it seems that this would have implications for bands that are trying to make a living from live gigs.
Note, also, that if you expect people at your shows to take the risk to hear your music, they need to be comfortable in the environment and with the crowd—more on this soon.
Thanks to Michael Epstein for discussions around this topic.