A Word on Venues

How much does the space in which you’re watching a show, change the way you actually see that show? The sound, the stage, the lights and crowd. It can go a long way. We had Jesse ponder this a bit, and with the help of a few friends, this is what he came up with!

By Jesse McLean


Photo: Commonwealth

Photo: Commonwealth

The house lights come up; the band leaves the stage. You walk out into the night with nothing on your mind but a few key lyrics and the desire to do it all over again.

Live music is an experience. The anticipation, the crowd as the lights go out; the songs that follow as you dance the night away. These nights shape us.

I’ve been to a lot of shows, and I have no intention of stopping any time soon. I’ve been finding though, that as I get older, venue has been playing a significantly larger part in how excited I get when a show is announced. I feel I’m really coming to better appreciate the way a room can affect the way I experience a show. That, and a few recent closures have also forced me to realize just how easy it is to take your favourite spot for granted. I guess you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.

So what is it that makes a venue a favourite? Is it the spray paint and Slayer stickers in the bathroom? Maybe you’ve got a perfect spot to stash your jacket and save the two bucks on coat check. Or hey, maybe you know a bartender or two and land yourself the odd free drink. I started thinking about it and wanted to put this piece together, but I’ve also a tendency to think too much - so I asked a few friends for their thoughts as well.

I should say that most of this is with respect to smaller venues. Those old haunts and favourite watering holes. Stadiums are a beast of their own, and there comes a time when a band reaches “stadium status,” at which point, fact of the matter is you’re unlikely to see them in many smaller venues moving forward. So, here’s to it.

What makes these places special?

Or perhaps a better question is, how does a venue play into the way the other components of a show come together? Are those key components that improve the experience for the audience, the same key components for the performer?

It’s no secret that the behaviour of a crowd will shape a show. A band will thrive on the energy of a room singing and dancing; when the mood of the crowd syncs perfectly to the sounds and message of each song. Although of course it helps, the band doesn’t need to be known by every member of the crowd for this to happen. The energy needs to be right. The crowd needs to be comfortable.

“You need to feel the personality and warmth – whatever that means to you – of the place you decide to spend your night, because that’s half the beauty.” (1)  

“I want to be in a place with like-minded people; I really don’t like being at a venue where I’m uncomfortable.” (2)

I couldn’t agree more.

Although bands will have their followings, and genres of music will draw similar crowds, I think a venue with the right charm can build a following of its own. I think it’s pretty special when a venue can provide a space where we as show goers genuinely want to spend our time. It’s special when they invest in their sound, and when they hire staff akin to their patrons. There was a time when it took little more than a band’s name “sounding familiar” for me to attend a show at Republik.

If you build it, they will come.

“I hate when it feels like I’ve been hit by a wall of guitars and can’t hear anything else.” (2)

Amen, brother.

Sound is critical. We all want to sing along to our favourite songs, new or old, and it’s tragic when vocals are drowned out by other instruments. Feedback can be a beast of its own, but nothing is completely unmanageable.

“A venue with great sound, stage lighting, and engaging performers is my favourite kind of show to stumble in to.” (3)

It’s the best when a band can really engage with their audience. A venue doesn’t provide a band stage presence - that falls to the charisma of a band. A venue can however, provide space for the band – as best they can and within reason – to do their thing. There will almost always be spatial limitations, especially in smaller venues, but a band moving and dancing on stage (ideally with the space to do so) goes a long way to getting the crowd moving.

Please don’t force the stage into a corner. The best interactions happen when the band can really see the audience. When it feels like they’re singing just to you. There need to be sightlines.

“If you’re in a venue with a lot of blind spots, there’s bound to be a lot of unhappy people mixed into the crowd, and you really feel that hurting the vibe of the room.” (4)

I think we all appreciate our space. To me, having space near the stage to stand is huge. It’s really deterring when there are (unnecessary) physical barriers that reduce the space of a room and I believe that in most cases, venues would do well to remove half walls or tables from an area where they intend to host large crowds of people.

Maybe that’s just me.

Anyways, enough about the audience. How do bands choose their venues when looking to book shows? Surely everyone has their favourite local spots to play, but what if your favourite spot isn’t the best for a particular show, and does the best venue change on a show to show basis?

“If we haven’t played in four months, sure we can fill a bigger room. But if we’re playing shows once a month it just isn’t going to happen.” (2)

So size definitely does matter.

It’s all about filling the house. “The energy of a packed room is magic.” (3)

For younger bands, that fact is going to be magnified when getting outside your home town. Admittedly it’s nothing I’ve lived, but I can imagine that finding a balance between a humble ego when choosing a venue and what you want to show the crowd would be quite difficult.

“You need to pick those smaller venues when you’re just getting going and on the road. Booking a major venue that you’ll never fill is almost suicide.” (2)

For the venues: please treat the bands well. For the venues that have been around a while: put on your teacher’s hat and educate. Help these bands grow and share your knowledge. This scene is made up of multiple players and your role is pretty darn significant.

Photo: Republik

Photo: Republik

So, you’ve my two cents. If we’re lucky, our favourite spots will be around as long as we are. Show ‘em a little love the next time you’re around, I bet it’ll go further than you think. Let’s celebrate these musical hosts, because inside or out, quirky to polished, train station or laundromat (3), they’re as much a part of the experience as anything else.

Here’s to the nights.

Cheers.

With super cool help from:

1. Cullen Colville – The Naturals/Tako Man/Long time show pal
2. Arron Crook – The Northern Coast/Has a cool haircut
3. Tammy Paget – All Hands on Jane/PBR Enthusiast + willing to put up with me
4. Jesse Young – Big music fan/My host in Toronto

Willis Hoff

HAWK Design & Creative, 425 18 Street Northwest, Calgary, AB, T2N 2G6, CANADA