Live Concerts at Stadiums and Arenas are Overrated16 Dec 2019
Them: Prince is coming to Madison Square Garden again. Want to go?
Them: But you love Prince.
Me: I do, but I learned my lesson the first time. Live concerts in stadiums and arenas are overrated. It’s an unmet obligation to have the time of your life.
The live music industry earned $8.16 billion in ticket sales last year (2018), and is expected to grow at a rate of $0.5B per year through 2021 (source: Statista.com).
In 2018, indoor venues with 10,000+ seats accounted for 76% of gross ticket sales.
Partly by preying upon people who, clearly, have not invented a way to measure dopamine neurotransmission, installed it beneath their flesh, and collected the data required to prioritize their activities by entertainment utility (pleasure per minute present, pleasure per dollar spent) only to realize that this experience blows.
But, we all have so many great concert memories.
In 1996, aged 11 years, I saw Soundgarden, Metallica, Ramones (or what remained of them), Wu-Tang Clan, and Shaolin monks share a small stage at Lollapalooza in a field in Upstate New York. In 2011, I saw Prince perform and physically remove Kim Kardashian from his stage at Madison Square Garden. Last year, I rode a Kawasaki Ninja 650 to a Jamiroquai concert in Queens, New York.
And the peak-end theory would explain why I tend reflect on some of my concert experiences with exaggerated positivity. I remember the climax and end of the concerts, and forget about all of the griping, waiting, and discomfort that comprises the majority of the rarena experience. That is until I sit down to write a rant-y post like this one.
Live music in an intimate setting is charming, moving, and occasionally magical.
‘Shows’ at arenas and stadiums are disappointing, frustrating, and easily rivaled by watching a music video playlist at home with friends.
Stadiums are burden magnets.
‘…it seems we may best be able to inhabit a place where we are not faced with the additional challenge of having to be there.’ Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel
I hate waiting.
I’m moderately impatient, and stadium concerts are filled with wait.
You will wait for the date to arrive when you’re eligible to buy tickets before they sell out. You will wait for your friends to inform you whether they can join you on such and such date.
Once the awaited concert dates arrives, you may wait in a long line of cars to enter the parking lot, followed by a standing wait in line to enter the venue, then a wait for the bathroom should you have forgotten to go earlier. Then, you have a decision to make: will you wait in another line for food and drink and potentially miss the opening act, or go on slightly parched and a bit too sober?
Later, you may choose to wait for the band to return to the stage to perform a predictable encore. Or, you may choose to leave your seat and find a location that gives you a worse view of the stage but a faster escape.
Once the show concludes, you’ll shuffle among your fellow concert-goers to the parking lot, where you’ll meet the Wait’s companion: stop, start, stop, hurry, and stop again.
When you’re not waiting, you may just enjoy the show.
At your seat, you may stand in physical discomfort, but in support of the artist, or you opt for physical ease, sit, and face the emotional discomfort of remaining calmly seated at Jimi Hendrix’s last performance.
When someone isn’t squeezing past you, spilling beer on your wife’s selfie stick, squeaking and squealing into your ear, or claiming you’re in their seat, you may make out shapes of the band from a distance (“I think he’s wearing a blue shirt;” “No, that’s definitely turquoise”), thanks to the stadium seating. You may hear a few of your favorite songs as you oscillate between a head nod, a 2-step, and a lot of text messaging. Now, you’ve grown a little chilly, masked a few yawns, and could honestly just use a quick nap.
For how much longer will this continue?
You can’t turn back now. You’ve spent good money after all, and you don’t like the idea of the media and your friends discussing the epic finale, the likes of which could only happen after your departure.
Stadiums are for spectating.
“The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel
Stadiums have stages, and stages are elevated for performance, and performances are for watching.
And I hate concert pageantry.
They maximize spectation at the cost of participation.
Many people prefer to spectate to escape their rooms, or their heads. I generally don’t; I want the option to participate.
Further, it’s not just the watching that gets me, it’s the recording.
The downsides of portable smartphones are magnified at shows. A sea of swaying lighters has been replaced with an ocean of OLED displays. Cheering and standing on the shoulders of loved ones begone. Instead, extend your wireless periscope into the sky, record the show, look up, forget that you’re obstructing everyone’s view, and enjoy a nice zoom.
Soon, the people behind you will have a choice: Do I look in the general direction of the blurry performers, or watch through the 5x display of the screen ahead of me?
Fuck, even the artists take selfies on stage.
In the midst of all these qualms, stadiums remind me that I am, in fact, the audience – in the worst of ways. It amplifies the distance between myself, the rest of the crowd, and the artist. It takes me out of the experience, like when you’re watching events unfold right in front of your eyes, not from your eyes.
The music is not inhabiting me, nor am I inhabiting the music, which is a problem for me because I love to dance, I love to feel when I’m at a show, trite as it may be. But now, I’m like a tourist in Times Square huddled safely around acrobatic teens exchanging backflips for fiat.
Finally, spectation isn’t free.
We’re sold to when we’re idle, and we’re idle when we’re spectating. We’re vulnerable when we’re seeking comfort, and we want to be as comfortable as possible when we’re watching, unlike when we’re playing, competing, or doing anything resembling ‘being in the moment.’ Therefore, market demand dictates that your soda will be $14.
So, what of it?
I’ve made some bold claims. I’ve used some hyperbole.
And through it all, I believe that attending an arena concert to completion remains a twisted rite of passage that isn’t to be repeated.
After the first time, you could make better choices for yourself in a few ways.
First, attend concerts at more intimate, promising venues:
- Jazz houses
- Dive bars
- Jazz clubs
- Apartments and small spaces (Sofar Sounds, for example)
- Opera houses
Next, stop giving friends false signal for your enjoyment.
What if when a rather boring story is told, we refrained from the temptation to say, ‘wow, that’s so funny.’ Sure, the reply is polite, but it’s unhelpful. Don’t train people to give you more of what you don’t want.
If a concert sucks, say so.
Last, and related, investigate what you actually enjoy.
Perform less for others, perform more for yourself.