Live music and risk

December 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.

Image credit: RISK AWR WC T7L LosAngeles Graffiti Art, by Flickr user anarchosyn, used here under its Creative Commons license.


  1. Funny, I came into this article thinking the risk would be more about the environment and the crowd. It never crossed my mind that there was risk involved with the music, especially in small venues. So fascinating!

    I think my risk knob is cranked up pretty high. The more different things are, the better the story, the better the experience. I like to talk about how something super special happened when I saw this band play and it only happened that one time, it’s not going to be duplicated at every other show they play. It makes it more personal, intimate, and one of a kind.

    Now my wife on the other hand… polar opposite. I think she’d like to have the style of an arena show in terms of the music sounding almost studio recorded, just in a small venue. As long as the crowd and environment are up to snub, which I’ll talk about on Live Music And Risk Pt. II.

  2. I think it’s pretty safe to say your risk tolerance (and love for the new) is pretty cranked, Justin.

    But yes, I think there are two distinct things: the risk of listening to unfamiliar music, and the risk of unfamiliar settings.

    • I agree with Justin that a lot of the risk involved in seeing live music is environment and crowd. When I’m trying to decide which show to go to, the risk assessment is cumulative: If I don’t know the band, venue, or the crowd at a show, I am less likely to go, even if I’ve heard amazing things from the blogosphere.

      From a promo standpoint, for new artists, it’s hard to get audiences to take the risk to see them. For audiences, it’s hard to discover new artists, especially if you’ve already tapped your friends’ music recommendations. Listeners are weary to take too many risks on live music, especially in a recession, where no one wants to pay to see a band they may potentially hate!

      I want to invite everyone reading this who is interested in seeing live music in a more comfy environment to reach out to The Rock Out Boston Club. I run this club with photographer/blogger Sooz. We host an outing once a month for drinks and live music. The club is free to join (there are no club fees, other than covers at the venues). The point of the club is to have a cool group of people to see a show with once a month, and to hopefully see a band you otherwise may ignore. We try to choose quality local acts, who we think our members will like. But even if you happen to not like one of the bands on the bill, it’s a lot easier to stick it out and wait for the next band, who you may love, when your hanging with the cool kids.

      Please check out http://www.facebook.com/TheRockOutBostonClub.

      Our next outing is tomorrow! Dec. 18. RSVP here: http://sooz.com/go/robc8

  3. I love discussion on this topic (thanks for plugging me and for including Patrick’s tumble). I really think The Motion Sick has thrived on things going “wrong” and just being able to roll with whatever happens. Patrick has taught us to embrace it and it has become such an important part of what we do that when I see other bands, I expect the same. When I go check out live music, which I do frequently, I want bands to push boundaries, take risks, and just have fun exploring their space. If I want to listen to controlled perfection, I’ll put on some music at home. I like watching people take on risky endeavors.

    I also love the idea of a risk knob. I’ve been using Last.FM a lot lately and I think this would be really helpful. I’d love to guide the experience more.

    As for what Annie says, I think she is quite correct in pushing live music as community experience. There are a lot of bands that I would essentially never listen to at home that I love experiencing live because of the group of people that attend their shows, their stage power, and some intangible aspects of the experience of “being there” and being part of what is happening. I really like the idea of rock shows being social events and I appreciate anything that opens up the club to the public rather than limiting it to a clique experience.

  4. Crowd and environment aside, I’d say my risk is turned up quite high. I find that I can be more forgiving on average musicians when I see them play live. I’m not sure why, but it may be because of the way you can instantly sense the passion and/or energy a musician gives their songs in that setting.

    I’ve also found this to be true for people I take to gigs. They may not like the genre beforehand but more often that not, they leave suitably impressed. Though with a decent crowd/community setting I could listen to just about anything. Somewhere there’s a video of me wildy dancing to some Bhangra music played by school kids!

    However you’re right to differentiate the smaller gigs from arena shows and the different set of circumstances they present.

  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    This is a pretty self-selected group – most of us love live music, and we love it precisely because of the possibility of the unexpected, and the energy of live performance. But only a tiny fraction of the population regularly goes out to see live music in small venues, and I think the risk factor is an important element of that.

    On another note, risk-taking is so valorized in our culture that it’s hard for this discussion to not sound like a value judgment. But I’m absolutely not faulting people for saving their money and time for something that they are more sure that they’ll enjoy.

  6. I’d say my risk knob (what a great term) is usually between 6 and 9. (Justin’s goes to 11.) Too bad more people can’t set theirs to 2 sometimes – especially regarding live music.

    After college, when I first left West Podunk, NY for Boston, I’d often to out to random mystery shows – I discovered a ton of great bands that way. My girlfriend at the time thought my behavior was “immature” (I was 22), implying that small, dirty rock clubs were for kids and now only U2/Coldplay/Buffett-type arena shows (and the occasional Bon Jovi cover band at the Burren) were acceptable.

    Sadly, I think a lot of people share her attitude.

  7. I love the risk knob idea. It should stick out the side of ipods and such. In my techno band, we use programmed loops and synths and tons of Auto-tune, and ironically it frees us up tremendously to take musical risks. We know that everything we do is going to be in the groove and in key, so we can stretch out forms, sing like lunatics or whatever, and everybody will still be on board with it.

  8. […] even without any additional cultural issue.) Coupled with the aversion that many people have to the risk inherent in live music, only a tiny demographic slice of fans goes to see shows in small […]

  9. The difference between the arena audience and the club audience might not be what it seems. It strikes me most people (and I mean most, the music mainstream – in fact a minority of the whole population) don’t want risk. That’s what music radio is today, safe but dull. And arena audiences too. It’s not the arena, it’s the mainstream. Risks, serendipity, and creation occur at the edges not in the mainstream. But they want the edges knocked off and the bugs out before they attend because they are, essentially, a different audience entirely to the club crowd. It’s my guess the arena crowd would like a bit of fire if only they saw it in the mainstream, ever.

  10. Absolutely, Rob — that’s what I meant when I wrote that most people have their risk knob turned down low, especially for live music.

    To be fair, though, any arena show costs at least several times as much as a club show (and much more than a CD or buying the MP3s), so it’s kind of understandable that people who’ve shelled out real money are risk-averse.

  11. Indeed, perhaps it’s inevitable. After all, when the kids were packing the Cavern their parents were packing cinemas watching West Side Story… all great music but different ends of the scale.

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