A case against the 60 minute concert

My last two posts have dealt with my experience during the Berlin Seminar 2014 held by the German Fulbright Commission and open to Fulbrighters throughout Europe. These topics should interest the music community because 1) the group involved are the demographic that the populist movement is after-- 22-30, young professional or pre-professional, educated, open to new experiences, and worldly, all while still encasing a huge difference in socio-economic backgrounds, race, nationality, and just about any other background criteria you could add together; and 2) all the posts directly deal with problems proposed by various critics in recent years, from programming to style of concert experience to marketing.

This post is a bit different, as it recounts more recent experiences and thoughts, most notably the idea of the 60 minute concert.

A recent post on Greg Sandow's blog by Julia Villagra discusses how she attracts audiences to her concert/dinner series Tertulia. The series is fairly successful in NYC, filling an interesting niche as far as dinner entertainment. She's also far from the first person I've heard doing this--I have a very good friend, David Whitwell, who has also organized quite a few similar events in NYC, often with free improv groups.

First, I'd like to applaud Julia and Tertulia for running a successful program in NYC. It's not easy, and it's obvious a huge amount of work has been done. However, a few things bothered me in the post, namely when talking about the programming of the evenings.

Tertulia is intentionally cozy and intimate, with no stage to elevate the performers above the audience. Audience members in the front are seated just far enough away from the musicians to prevent a renegade bow from striking someone’s knee. The distance between artist and audience is gone, and a palpable energy fills the room.

Small concert settings are fantastic--the connection with the audience is palpable, something that's difficult to achieve with audience members sitting in nose-bleed seats needing binoculars to see the stage. However, there are a number of practical issues with these set-ups that critics seem to not address.

I've been attending a week long festival run by the Kunglinga Musikhogskolan (Royal College of Music), where I'm visiting on my Fulbright. The series is their annual student composition festival, and thanks to partnerships with a few organizations in town, the concerts don't all happen on campus. I attended a few at a local, and well established, new music organizations site, Fylkingen. The space is fairly small, allowing for around 60-100 chairs to be set-up, depending on the size of the ensemble The room is flat, and chairs get placed as close to the group as possible. Since many performances include electronics, space is reserved for the mixing console, and areas are often taken up by multiple projectors. I only have one major issue with the place:

The lack of a stage.

There's always talk about how a stage removes the performers from the audience, how it places some sort of barrier between everyone. And yet no one complains at pop concerts about the stage. The barrier is often much more physical there, especially for major bands. It's not just a rise and where the seats are, but a series of guards behind bike-rack barricades, purposefully separating the audience from the stars. And yet no critics of popular music strike against the stage.

The reason I dislike experiencing concerts in a flat room is from a purely practical sense--I can't see the band. Unless you're in the first couple rows, no matter how the seating is arranged, there's a head in the way. You turn this way and that, and yet I still can't see everyone. Judging from the picture in attached to the article, I can see the same thing--people at the end of the long table craning their necks more, people in the round tables on the right looking around people. For me as an audience member this is a huge turn-off. It makes for quite an uncomfortable experience (and remember, we hear music with not only our ears, but our eyes).

Beyond the sight-line issue, there are other practical issues about these sorts of space, ranging from acoustics to availability of a piano. These issues do not mean that a concert series cannot be successful. On the contrary, many great series are set-up in this fashion. However, if we're going to report on how these things work, we should put in all considerations, including how the space dictates the programming (no works for extended techniques or prepared piano when there's no grand piano available, for instance).
I recognize that traditionalists may be slower to embrace the Tertulia approach; we present only 60 to 75 minutes of music compared to a more standard 90 to 120 minutes, and have made intermissions a more substantial and deliberate part of the concert experience.

This is such an odd statement to me. First off, the idea of the 90-120 minutes of music concert experience vs. the 60-75 minutes of music. I've been organizing concerts on and off for longer than Tertulia has been around, and the 60-75 minute recital was the norm then for a chamber performance. It was a norm as an undergrad planning performances, it was the norm when planning HS concerts as part of my secondary instrumental methods class (or even shorter, depending on skill and such), the norm when I planned my senior recital (way back in '06!), the norm when I helped plan concerts with our short-lived group in NYC, dfe (though we went past 60 minutes, but split it up with more breaks), and the norm running concerts at UMKC. 60 minutes of music became 90 minutes of program with the changes of personnel, breaks, etc. The only groups going over the 60-75 minute mark were symphonies, and hardly even then! Most symphonies I've attended in the last few years have done the same, usually settling in around the 75 minutes of music. I recently attended Bruckner's 8th Symphony here in Stockholm. Depending on conductor, this piece runs from about 75-85 minutes...and it was the only piece on the entire concert. I left feeling a bit sad--it was an afternoon concert and I could have gone for another few pieces, with a 20-30 minute intermission for drinks in the middle!

I had the same complaints from people at the Berlin Seminar--they wanted more music! The program ran about an hour. And now I'm going to say something that some may find contentious--young people want long concerts.

Have you been to local pop show? How do those evening usually go down? 2-3 bands play. In a 3 band set-up, the opener plays a short set, maybe 25-30 minutes. Then there's a 15-20 minute break for turnover where everyone heads to the bar (first band included). The next band plays a full set, roughly 45 minutes (or the average length of a record). Then there's another break, sometimes longer because the main act has more happening. Finally, the main group comes on. This group plays at least a full set. There are plenty of instances of fans being angry when a band plays less than what is expected. Jack White played a 55 minute set and fans were enraged. I won't go into all the many different expectations different audiences have, but if we're going to talk about engaging a young audience, let's talk about what young audiences want in more concrete terms.

They want an evening out. If they're going to a concert, they want an experience. This has been tossed around by lots of people. But what's that experience? Is it to sit through 60-75 minutes of music with 2 or 3 breaks for food service then a longer, nice dining experience afterwards? For some, most definitely. For others, they want what they actually get at a club: 2-3 groups, each playing sets of music, chances to socialized before, during breaks, and after, and the feeling that everyone involved gave their all in the performances. They don't want Scott Stapp coming onstage drunk and falling over. And they don't want to be babied with a little music that "might be challenging." If they are there for a concert, they are there for a concert! Give it to them! This is something Fylkingen often does very well: several sets in an evening, giving me an entire night's worth of enjoyment. Compare that to my sadness today when Pierrot Lunaire ended, and I realized "that's it for the concert..." I love Pierrot Lunaire, but to have my experience end after 45 minutes on a Saturday afternoon, I felt a little dazed and lost...
For example, clapping is encouraged between movements. Or if a piece is long, lasting 35 minutes or so, I will program only part of it, maybe a movement or two, a choice I sometimes make to keep the evening balanced (and to minimize fidgeting).
Man, I'd sure love to get beyond this clapping between movements talk. It happens. It happened during Bruckner's 8th in Stockholm (along with even longer coughing, to which Alan Gilbert turned around and smiled, giving the audience a nice chuckle). It happened at Les Troyens after a few particularly juicy arias. It happens quite often. And who usually poo-poos the clapping? Not the conductors or the performers, who are usually gracious. No, it's the audience. To take a phrase from libertarian thought: One person's freedom ends where another person's begins. Some people are for clapping, some are not. I don't much care. Neither do most young people. Can we drop this now?

The bigger thing is that last statement "if a piece is long, lasting 35 minutes or so, I will only program part of it...and to minimize fidgeting."

That is the definition of pandering. This approach is saying "Hey, the audience really can't deal with a 35 minute piece. I mean, 35 minutes, that's like, nearly an act of a play. Or maybe the introductory act of a full length film. And, I mean, seriously, it's Beethoven, that's over most people's heads...it makes them uncomfortable. So why put them through that difficulty?"

Taking movements of a longer piece to balance an evening can work. Many multi-movement works are conceived of as wholes, but at the same time have enough separate character to work on their own. Deciding to play a single movement from a larger work because of programming considerations is fine. Deciding to do it because your performers can only handle parts of the piece is also fine, for pedagogical reasons. We went over that pretty extensively when I learned about planning concerts. Younger groups play shorter concerts because their stamina isn't high yet. More advanced groups may be ready for parts of a Beethoven symphony, but the scherzo is a bit too fast and difficult for them. Or the group may be missing a crucial solo instrument (say, an English Horn), and so they cut a movement. These are major programming considerations.

To limit fidgeting should never, ever, be a consideration.

Finally, the idea of cost/benefit. The price of arts concerts is on the rise, as are concert prices everywhere. Major pop tour prices have risen with the cost of transportation, the rising cost of local labor, and tons of other factors. Many tours offer tickets ranging from a few hundred dollars to lawn seats or general admission in the $30-40 range. Ever since I was 14 I've gone to these large concerts--I was at the first OzzFest, tearing up sod and getting contact highs (which for me is dangerous since I'm allergic to pot...so not only did I tear up sod, I also threw up on it). Once inside at, say, the last major tour I hit, Rockstar's Mayhem Tour, you're treated to a day of music. The upcoming Mayhem tour features 19 bands over 4 stages  with seemingly perennial headliner Avenged Sevenfold, Korn, Cannibal Corpse, and a host of other groups. Korn played Kansas City last year, and tickets ran $75 at the small theater--small theater, high demand, high price. Mayhem Tour as it rolls through Indianapolis/Noblesville has lawn tickets at $38.50 up to The Pit tickets (front row center mosh pit) for $250. And, of course, the venue makes a fair bit from drink and food sales, while bands make some extra scratch at merch tents. Festivals also usually have various vendors set-up. I remember a festival that came through Camden, NJ when I lived out East working for Concert Quality Sound--The Download Festival hosted by Seagate Technology. The headliners were The Killers, which I got to hear and see their soundcheck after I set-up a Seagate tent featuring the Frag Dolls. While bands were doing soundchecks, I was setting up a tent with a ton of PS3s, HDMI splitters, several plasma screens, and a basic sound system.

This is one of my favourite memories of working for CQS, because when I got to meet and play against the Frag Dolls. Honestly, I don't know who was on the team at the time, because I had lost track of professional gaming by this point. But staying and playing a few games of Rainbow Six Vegas 2, and getting all the way up to 2nd during one match is quite a highlight. Along with the group saying "Wait, who is that in second?!?", me timidly raising my hand, and then the joint scream of "SOUND GUY!!!" Sound guy had game, once...

But this is what the young crowd expects. They expect that for their price of admission they're going to get more than 60-75 minutes of music. For $100, I better get a nice meal, with a glass of the house red on the house, and the ability to buy more glasses at a reasonable rate (I'd guess $7-10 a glass). And I want more than 60 minutes of music.

Critics and pundits keep talking about drawing in young people, but seem to completely ignore the culture we've been brought up in. The club scene isn't just getting drinks, it's having an entire evening in a club, music for 3-4 hours, drinks flowing all night. It's getting dressed up to hit the club--you don't show up to, say, The Pool After Dark at Harrah's in jeans and a tee-shirt. You'd get turned away immediately (well, unless they're designer fitted jeans). When I discussed Metal or New Music Concert I bring up the fact that almost all these experiences have dress codes, whether written like at Harrah's or unwritten like the metal scene in Stockholm. And people learn these codes quickly if they want to fit in. And just like you'd never catch me at The Pool, you'd probably never catch me at Tertulia--for $100 for dinner and a concert, I expect something pretty spectacular. Blame that on my humble Midwest roots.

This turned into a bit more of an angry rant than I had intended. I am truly happy that Tertulia is doing well, and that Julie et al have found their niche. But if we're going to put up these groups as examples, we have to be willing to be critical. Tertulia would never fly in Indianapolis, Kansas City, any most Midwest towns. I'd guess it'd struggle a bit in Chicago, but could find an audience. It'd probably do well in Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Other Eastern towns like Philly or Baltimore it may work in, but it would depend on getting the right clientele in early--the groups are there, but they're not as abundant as in NYC.

Cost/benefit changes with location. In Indianapolis, for that $100 price tag is incredibly different than in NYC or Stockholm, Sweden. It's incredibly important to remember those local differences--again something that seems glossed over in many conversations.

And it's time we stopped lowering expectations of the concert and give people what they want--more music, a memorable experience, and something worth coming back for. Read Jon Silpayamanant's blog about his series to see what people in Indianapolis/Louisville expect. Man, a show at a restaurant/bar lasting that long...If there's hookah involved, I'm beyond sold. I'd end up dropping $100 on dolma, shisha, wine, and tips for the band.

That's what my friends expect going to a concert--an all day/night affair worth putting on clean clothes, and maybe shining up my boots...

N'ah, I'll wear the Vans.

No comments: