My midlife crisis is going to see bands. And I’ve gotten pretty good at it, especially when the venues are small, like the Fillmore in SF, where you’re often forced to stand for the entire show. So grab some sensible shoes and read my guide to how to concert.
Finding New Bands: I’ll keep this simple. Every major music site including Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music is wildly missing the mark here. Algorithms aren’t going to find your new band; at least not in a meaningful way. Technology never wins against music. The re-emergence of vinyl shows that we’ve spent the last two decades trying to figure out a way to make music sound as good as it did before we started messing with it. Traditional radio with its human narrators was much better at creating community, sharing insights about new bands, offering up new music, and yes, repeating that music enough so that you had a chance to get into it. DJs were never the problem with traditional radio. The problem was and is the endless commercials. But streaming music providers got rid of both the ads and the personalities.
So who gets it right? Believe it or not, the answer is SiriusXM: All the benefits of traditional radio, with none of its downsides. I consistently listen to three or four of their stations, and I find myself getting introduced to several bands a year that I not only like … but that I actually go see. That’s a remarkable return on my time invested. Bonus: Howard Stern. He’s at the top of his game. And he’s best interviewer in all of media.
I Must Be in the Front Row: It’s usually pretty easy to make your way to the area in front of the stage on an average night in an average small to medium-sized venue. But if it’s not easy, here’s a trick: Bring a small flashlight with you. Hold the flashlight in your fist, just above your shoulder, and shine it down towards the floor a few steps in front of you. And then, very authoritatively, say, “excuse me, excuse me” over and over as you work your way through the crowd. Because you have the flashlight, everyone around you will assume you work at the venue. Bingo, you’re right near the stage. If you’re not the flashlight type, you could also wear a denim vest over a tie-dye shirt and carry 50 feet of amp cable. It won’t be as convenient, but people will move.
Find the Sweet Spot: The view from the front is good for getting the vibe of a band and experiencing the visuals you can only enjoy in a smaller venue. That said, don’t stay there. You have the best view, but you’re missing out on the best sound. Most of these concert halls have PA systems with giant speakers that are suspended from the ceiling. Where you are, the sound is muddy because the highs are going right over your head (and trust me, no one knows more about concert highs than me). Meanwhile the lows are thumping their way from one internal organ to another — and at my age, I already have to pee like three times a show. I want to feel the beat. I don’t want to feel like I’m being defibrillated by a metal paddle the size of a bathroom stall door.
Full bodied may be how I like my women and wine, but it’s not how I like my bass drum. In short, it’s time to move back. So where should you move?
The great Sam Kinison advised starving people to just “move to where the food is!” Well, if you want good sound, move to where the sound guy is. You’ll see him standing in front of a large, slightly-inclined panel towards the back of the room. That guy decides when the sound is just right. And he decides it from right there.
I’ll spare you the PhD level sound and engineering details. Just go stand near that guy. The sound will be infinitely better than it was towards the front. And as a bonus, the thumping that enveloped your whole body when you stood near the front will be more finely tuned to land on its intended target: your genitals. (Another sure way to know you’re in the right spot is if the sound guy keeps tapping your shoulder and asking you to move over a little.)
Can You Hear Me Now? With any luck, the show will be loud. There are now some very cool options if you want to bring your own earplugs to the concert. I never wear them. But I do have one strategy for ear safety. I plug my ears after every song, when the crowd is cheering. It’s my theory that the people screaming people right next to my ears are doing more damage than the band. I’m also convinced that a very similar strategy has made me a more patient parent over the years.
Hopefully these tips are useful — if for nothing else than to urge you to go see some live music. Rock on.