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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2014/03/30
by David Steinberg

Pop Up Concerts

This story starts with a rainy day, an album call, and a down website. On a dreary weeknight, I fired up Anna and the Underbelly’s [1] 2012 CD “Brimstone Lullaby.” I was intrigued by a lyric and went to her webpage to look it up. Unfortunately the page was down. Even a few years ago, I’d have no recourse but to shake my fist and then do something else, but now it’s not enough to be a performer. Being available on social media is part of the gig. While conversing about that, she mentioned she would be playing in Seattle in a few weeks, which is how I heard about Seattle Living Room Shows.

Despite not having heard about them before, this series has been going on since 2008. It was started by a pair of sisters – Carrie and Kristen Watt – who threw a show in their own living room. Since then, it has evolved into a couple shows a month. Unlike normal concerts that happen in a fixed location, these concerts happen in random private spaces. The address is only given after you buy the ticket – in the past, they wouldn’t even tell you that until day of show – which adds a sense of mystery and excitement to the endeavor. Secrecy is half the fun. There’s a companion series called Seattle Secret Shows where you don’t even know the lineup until they start performing; the only rule is that the higher the admission price, the more well known the artists are likely to be.

The concert I saw was not in a living room at all. The “Belltown location” turned out to be the lobby of the company HasOffers. The Watts decorated the space to make it more concert friendly, but the corporate space provided a distinctive charm. Too often we go to the same venues to see the same bands and while that’s usually for reasons (location, security policies, they’re just the place that books good bands), it’s great to shake things up.

It’s not just the location that was different. There was an informality about the event that affected the music itself. Anna brought out Thomas Deakin to play trumpet in her set despite the fact that he didn’t know any of her songs beforehand. Sarah Gerritsen moved her band from the stage to the middle of the room to play a song there. It worked just fine because the crowd wasn’t there to see any artist per se as much as there seemed to be people who instinctively go to their concerts.

What inspires people to give this trust? The answer might come from the back of the room. Like any good host of s party, Seattle Living Room Shows provided some snacks and some soft drinks. People were encouraged to bring snacks of their own, especially if there was enough to share. This wasn’t an exercise designed to maximize the flow of green paper from our wallets into their cash register, but rather was an experience to get us to enjoy some music.

There’s an extreme fascination over the music industry. Most of what I read about music is really about how to monetize it. How can artists get paid in the era of file sharing? Can another band ever rise to the levels of the classic rock acts? Those are interesting questions, ones that are far from unimportant for those who are trying to earn a living this way and the people who want them to be successful in that endeavor in order to give them more time to perfect their craft. However, in the same way that sports reporting is too frequently about contracts and cash flow, we have lost the thread here.

As fascinating as these issues are, there’s no money in music at all unless we care about the songs being created. What the Watts have done is to create an environment where the focus is strictly returned to the artists and the sounds they are creating. They book interesting acts and specifically ask that people limit their conversations to between sets, explaining, “This is a listening space.” No one was milling around during sets or looking for cool Seattle Living Room Shows shirts to buy. It was a completely attentive crowd, willing to let artists take risks.

You want to know how to have a career in music? Create a scene, one that has people who actively want to hear the artists’ output. Once that happens, money will find a way to get there. The easy path for wealth for the for chosen few bands might be getting blocked, but was the point ever to play only for the people who can afford $250 tickets, to spend your time at meet and greets with the Gold Circle purchasers and to make the experience as unpleasant as possible in order to maximize profits? For most people, it was simply having some songs that they wanted to perform and a hope that people would like them. More than just an enjoyable night out, the Watts reminded me why I’ve seen so many shows over the years. The secret isn’t the venue or the lineup; it’s the reminder that music really can be the most important thing in the world.

[1] Note: Anna Tivel has recently decided to remove the “and the Underbelly” from her performing name and now just books under Anna Tivel. People were looking around for Underbellies and were confused when it was just her. Still, that’s a great band name that is now going unused. Someone needs to snatch it up before it’s too late.

*****

David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the Phish.net blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page

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