The other night, I went to the Music Farm to see some bands that I had never seen before. Members of two of the bands on the bill are Facebook friends of mine, and I had seen them promoting the heck out of it. The headliner was a band I had not heard anything about before, but I was intrigued because they were booked every Wednesday for two straight months at the Music Farm.
A local band could get booked there once a week for eight weeks? They can draw a crowd on Wednesday nights week after week? How did I not know that band?
This sounded promising. The Music Farm has to hold, what, a thousand people? Since moving to Charleston, I’ve seen great shows at the Farm—Corey Smith, Flogging Molly and The Hold Steady to name a few. I missed Public Enemy’s show. They get good acts there.
The stage is theatre-big, rising four feet above a floor area that can easily cram in 200 screaming fans. The lights are top notch. The sound system must have been a huge investment; the sound booth is in the center of the room, caged off, run with the assistance of two computers, and requires two guys working it.
I was late getting to the show, because, well I do have other things in my life. A couple kids, a wife over nine months pregnant, another band I’m working with… the usual. When I kissed my wife to leave, she said, “Have fun. Hope it’s a good gig.” Yeah, me too. As I left, I saw her standing by the door, her arms wrapped around her beautifully pregnant belly, while my older kids ran in to the play on the Wii. I’m leaving this idyllic tranquility to see a gig? Yeah, she knows I’m addicted to live music.
As I walked up to the Farm, I could hear the sounds of Loners Society. I’ve liked them because their sound is Midwestern Power Pop in the vein of the Producers or Butch Walker, which is unique in a town of country-tinged jam bands, or relaxed-as-a-surfer Dave Matthews-style singer/songwriters. The band sounded solid and lead singer Matt Megrue was belting out his lyrics with passion. Between songs, he was doing all he could to be a showman, to bring entertainment to a set of well-written songs.
I had paid my $5 at the door and there was nobody between me and a spot at the bar. The bartender and I chatted a bit about the bands, the night, the specials. He didn’t have to serve anyone else right then and could talk a little more than normal. I was the only one on that side of the bar. “It’s early,” I said, “shall I assume the headliner’s fans come in droves later?” He smiled, shook his head like we were sharing an inside joke, took my tip, and went on his way to see if someone else needed a beer.
After six or seven songs, the band went into a cover of Wilco’s “Via Chicago”, which is why I moved down to the pit. I love that song and wanted to see if the band was up to the challenge. “Via Chicago” devolves a couple of times into noise before emerging back in to a moody pop gem, so this would be a test of how tight the band can play. From my spot on the floor, I could catch every note, and they nailed those changes. The reason I could enjoy it so well is that, of course, the sound was better than perfect. And nobody blocked my view. I was the only one in the pit, except for the two guys who walked by on the way to the restroom.
I got back to the bar and the bartender came right over to me. He had nothing else to do. I waved him off because I didn’t need anything. And I had some e-mails to attend to. On the front side of the bar, nobody was there to interrupt my privacy while I typed away.
Set change was pretty quick and the Tyler Boone Band came on. The four-piece band grooved through a good set of originals and covers, featuring some great examples of guitar riffing and tight progressions. Not unlike the guys in the Loners Society, the guys in Tyler’s band spent a lot of time looking at their instruments, looking at the floor, and just looking uninterested. It’s hard to blame them. If they looked out, and could see anything past the bright lights, they’d see a lot of space in between the people 75 feet away from them.
Though both bands looked like they might rather be somewhere else, I have to say neither one let their playing suffer. Each band leader seemed to want to make something special happen, yet both seemed to realize that for something special to happen, there has to be someone on the other side of that invisible screen at the lip of the stage. There were maybe 50 people in the room? I could be off. 65? More coming later? In a room the size of the Music Farm, that is the same as being empty. A couple of times I caught the door guy signal to the bartender across the room. They made gestures to each other like “where are all the people?” and in unison. “Look at all this emptiness,” they were saying to each other.
As I looked around the audience, I saw a few clusters of people who had run out of things to say to each other. Or it was too loud to talk. I saw people at the bar who didn’t care what was happening on stage. I saw groups of friends hanging out and joking, just as if they were in one of their kitchens at a house party. When the music stopped, like Pavlov’s dog, they reacted, and clapped appropriately before returning to their thoughts and conversations.
I didn’t stick around for the headliners. I wanted to get back to my family and get a decent night's sleep. Also, I made the assumption that if the headliner did not have many in attendance, then really, how good could they be? Maybe I was wrong. But the bar already had $20 from me and parking was going to take another $7. I figured that was enough for the night.
I’m not dissing anyone here with this story. I am excited to see how Loners’ Society grows. I think Tyler Boone is a very young talent with lots of potential. I absolutely love the Music Farm as a venue—clean bathroom, fantastic stage with personality, the size to host the type of touring bands I like, and the sound and lights to make them enjoyable. Yes, it’s true I want to play that stage some day.
But nobody really enjoys what went on last night. The bands want a crowded room. The crowd wants to be part of something special. The bartender wants to be busy. The doorman wants to see a line out the door. The soundman wants to be forced to be at the top of his game (okay, that’s a stretch for another blog).
And bands would not mind getting paid. Let’s say 75 people came through the door. At $5 a head, they collected $375. Let’s be modest and say on average, each person spent three times their door fee at the bar ($15 a head). so $1,125 at the bar. That means the three bands brought in $1,500 on a Wednesday night. BUT the bar has to pay for sound, staff, and a promoter booked the gig, so he has to get paid. Advertising, beer, liquor, lights, etc. The bands probably made nothing. It would not shock me if the Farm lost money on the gig.
I talked with Matt Megrue from Loners Society the day after the show about the lack of crowd and playing to an empty house. He said that they took the gig in part so they could get in front of some new fans. When I asked what he felt those potential new fans thought about Loners’ Society, after seeing next to nobody in the room, and therefore nobody else reacting positively to the music he said, “Oh, yeah. I see your point. We expected more people from the other bands, too. I guess we’re still working out the entertainment aspect of our show.”
And I guess the point is this: your shows have to be events. And your fans should nearly exceed the capacity of the venue. Your best fans are going to be excited for your show. The most excited fans have to be shoulder to shoulder with those who are on the fence. Your best salespeople are the people who love your music. Put them pressed up against people who have never seen you before, or aren’t sure yet how they feel about you, and like a virus the excitement will spread.
Then as they all get pushed together, and get closer to the stage, all you will see are faces looking to you: people having a good time and reacting to your music. You’ll play better and with more energy. The people you are playing to will feel that energy and carry the emotions higher. You will enjoy that night.
It’s hard for a guy like Megrue or Boone to see if their act is connecting with the audience, when he can’t see the audience. Everyone will tell the guys, “Sounded great,” or “Nice set” after the show. For an artist, that’s all right. Yet, it’s nothing compared to the feeling a band member gets when he sees someone mouthing his words back to him, or the guitarist knowing a dozen eyes are staring down his guitar solo. We all want a packed room. And if the room is your friend’s living room, it is still a packed room.
I know how cool it is to have The Music Farm on your band resume. It is seductive to think about being on that stage. If you get a chance to open for a national act and get in front of their audience, I can see that. In that case, you have to hope the venue is your partner. That they are working to build your audience so you might draw enough people to their venue on your own someday.
But if you get a chance to play there in a situation where you are the primary—or one of the primary—draws that night, ask yourself if you deserve it yet.
Would you be better off playing the Tin Roof and knowing those 30 people who showed up felt like they were at an event and told their friends about it? Maybe the next time, word of mouth will spread and 50 people show up. Then, what if you kept improving your act and growing the audience until you are forced to move up. To the Pour House. To the Windjammer. What if Eddie White told you your band could not play Awendaw Green anymore because your fans cause a parking problem. That would be incredible. And finally, to the Music Farm. For your CD release party where the booking agent is so impressed by your sizeable crowd that he gives you a guarantee for your next show.
That’s down the line. If you’ve proven to yourself and everyone else that you’ve earned it.
I don’t know about you, but starting out, I’d rather play a house party to 20 people who brought their own chips and beer, instead of a big empty cavern where the band can’t see a soul and the bass player is counting down the songs left on the set list.
With the amount of bands I want to check out, and the other events in my life, this might be the only chance I get to see Tyler Boone and Loners’ Society this year. It would be a shame if the only memory I have of the bands for the next six months involves an empty room and a smattering of polite applause. They deserve better. The Music Farm, or any other venue, might be down the street from where you live. Or a short drive across a bridge. But the real route to earning a spot on that stage is long. And if it is long, challenging, and takes work, it will be more than worth it.