Live music venues and demographics

January 7, 2010

Much has been made of the future of music being in live experiences, rather than in CD sales. But as someone who sees a lot of live shows, I can’t help but ask, ‘Where are the fans?’ It’s pretty clear that the slice of fans who regularly go to indie rock (for lack of a better term) shows is startlingly limited: largely in their 20s, more male than female and, even in a city as diverse as Cambridge, predominantly white.

Leaving aside this last point—although it certainly seems like there’s a pattern—it’s pretty clear that age (and, to a lesser extent, gender) is governed by the venues. I frequent fantastic local bars that support live music but they’re still, well, bars. They make their payroll by selling alcohol, and this has consequences. If you want to see live music in Boston, you pretty much need to be over 21. You need to be okay with staying up late on a work night, because it doesn’t make financial sense for bars to host early shows. You need to have enough flexibility with your home schedule that you can hang out for an evening (although one of the reasons I love my local bars is because they post and stringently adhere to set times). You need to be comfortable in an environment where most people are drinking. And you need to be able to get home late at night, especially in Boston, where the subway unfathomably stops running before bars close. (It’s easy to see how the latter two factors would seriously affect the gender balance, 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 venues.

This was a perfectly fine state of affairs when the purpose of small local shows was to attract the attention of an A&R person: the slender stratum of early adopters was all that was needed to establish the public appeal of a band before they were catapulted into the world of record sales and radio play.

But if none of that’s going to happen, then live shows are it, and fans need to be able to come out. And based on the evidence, I’m not sure that’s happening.

From the perspective of the insider-fan, there’s something to be said for a small, discrete culture of concertgoers: everyone knows the etiquette, for example (something that can’t be counted on at bigger or all-ages shows).  But in the larger sense, I’m not sure that this model is the best one for musicians. While there are certainly artists experimenting with alternatives, like Amanda Palmer’s tweet-ups, for example, I can’t see a straightforward solution to this demographic conundrum.


Image: Whisky a Go-Go by Mike Dillon, reposted here under its Creative Commons license.


  1. I firmly believe that 75% of the problem (in Boston) lies in the MBTA not running late enough. I know SO many people (including myself) who have not gone to a show they really want to go to for the specific reason that they’ll have no way of getting home afterwards. I don’t expect Boston to change it’s entire public transportation schedule just so people can go to more concerts, but it sure would be nice.

  2. I think you raised all very valid points – especially from a female perspective. If Mike is unavailable to go to a show with me, even if it’s something I really want to see, the chances of me going plummets to near zero. The reason is partly the fact that we don’t own a car/not wanting to take a cab, and partly it’s the environment of drunk people you outlined that I just don’t want to contend with on my own. But, it’s the liquor that keeps these clubs open.

  3. I’m in agreement with you on almost every point.

    That being said, how great is it to be in a city with a relatively strong live music scene and be someone in your 20s who drinks and/or does not mind being around alcohol with a flexible schedule and/or the ability to stay out late, and self-sufficient transportation (ie bicycle)? It’s pretty great, I’d say.


    • Hahaha. Yeah, it totally works for me, of course. But I recognize that not everyone is okay with, say, walking home from a bar at 2 in the morning (and it’s not coincidence that I live so close to my favourite venues).

  4. This is a really relevant post, and something I deal with on a daily basis. My artiste’s fan base trends two ways: 1.) generally older, more likely to have a 9-to-5 job and kids and 2.) younger girls who are mostly under 21. And yet most of the venues hosting the type of music she plays are bars just like the ones you describe above. Unless your music is straight-ahead indie/college rock, you’re not going to have much luck on the rock bar circuit.

    We’re trying to build to the point where we’re playing concert series/arts centers/listening rooms all the time, but it’s a catch-22 situation. You need the draw in order to play those rooms, but the bars are the best way to get the draw. Sigh.

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