Great Expectations: The Challenge of New Music In New Spaces

Context can have a powerful impact on perception. A few years ago, my good friend Stuart Sims blogged about hearing Frank Zappa’s music performed on Baroque instruments by Ensemble Ambrosius. Stuart had always been ambivalent about Zappa’s music but the Ambrosius album, with its completely new textures and timbres, allowed him to hear the music in a new way.

It was interesting on a lot of levels, but for me, it really laid bare Zappa’s writing. By translating his music into a completely different sound world, a new idiom, it was actually revealed more clearly to me. I was able to pay attention to the composition itself without all of the idiosyncrasies of style and performance that Zappa and his musicians brought to the original recordings—and I loved it. So I’ve since gone back and re-listened to several of those Zappa albums that used to grate, and now I really like them. Go figure—hearing his music on 17th century instruments helped me hear it on 20th century instruments better.

Like a change of instrumentation, a change in venue can also be an effective tool for recontextualization. Beethoven is inspiring in the concert hall but a potent teenage repellant in public spaces, for example. Many preconceptions associated with a performance in a traditional venue (concert or recital hall, etc.), such as concert etiquette, the separation of performer from audience, or passivity on the part of the listener, can be subverted by performing the same music in a different context because the preconceptions are in part attached to the setting itself. And because performing in a venue that normally features a non-classical genre imparts expectations for that concert experience, those expectations—informality, more interaction, beer—also come into play, possibly leading to a new experience for the listener. Just as the same music on different instruments made all the difference for my good friend, the same music in a different space can open ears as well.

When new music groups perform in rock clubs and other similar venues they are counting on these spaces to recontextualize what they do. By placing themselves in the environment of more popular genres, they are declaring that the music they play is as much a part of their city’s musical culture as any other. Playing in a club or bar for a new audience is exhilarating—the communal atmosphere, the closeness to the crowd—but it’s also about an evolving tradition grappling with change, and participating in a broader musical culture and feeling connected and relevant. But what about the venues that make this recontextualization possible? How do their priorities differ from those of more traditional venues? They are an essential part of this trend, but do they know it?

There are many for-profit venues that host new music performances in the Bay Area, though very, very few do so with any kind of regularity. Non-profit spaces tend to host more concerts, and some of the Bay Area’s longest-running new music series take place in galleries and other multi-use spaces. One musician who has experience playing in both these types of venues, as well as house shows and other impromptu spaces, is composer and guitarist Brendon Randall-Myers. His guitar-drums duo Grains plays both improvised and original compositions, as well as arrangements of works by other composers like Glass and Reich. For Grains, getting gigs at different venues can sometimes be a matter of framing. “Booking Grains as essentially a weird hardcore band has had the most success, and most of our shows have been in punk-friendly venues. Operating within the rock club scene, it seems like style is maybe less important than draw, since at this point there’s precedent for basically anything.” Draw, of course, is the ability to draw a crowd, and is extremely important to clubs and other for-profit venues. Unlike large concert halls that charge rental fees, clubs rely on a combination of ticket sales and concessions—food and beverages—to cover fixed costs like bouncers, sound techs, and bartenders. These people get paid the same amount whether the night’s show draws one hundred people or only one, so a group’s proven ability to market themselves and draw a thirsty crowd can, for many clubs and even non-profit venues, have a big impact on whether or not they get booked or invited back.

A group’s ability to draw a crowd is a central concern for Nicole Rodriguez, one of the founders of Subterranean Art House in Berkeley, and she sees a general lack of marketing savvy in many new music groups. “I believe that the bands haven’t learned how to promote themselves well enough to bring people out,” she says. She enjoys having new music shows at Subterranean, a non-profit teaching and performance space near the UC Berkeley campus, and feels that there is an audience for new music programs. In order to be booked, though, Rodriquez says groups need to demonstrate that they can reach out to their fan base and reliably fill the house. “What would help booking these shows is having the confidence that bands can bring people out to see them. Bands in general can always learn more ways to promote and begin to build a strong network of people interested in hearing this music.” She suggests developing ways to connect with fans directly—basic DIY tools like email and social networking sites—but also emphasizes the importance of marketing each show as a unique musical experience. “The main point is that everyone in the band needs to do this promotion for it to work. If they don’t, then places like ours will suffer from and remember low attendance, making it challenging to rebook a group.” She notes that shows involving new and experimental music are poorly attended and generate less revenue through concessions.

A basic understanding of how venues operate is important, says Jason Perkins, managing partner of the Parish Entertainment Group, which operates Brick and Mortar Music Hall in San Francisco. When asked what groups could do to make themselves more bookable, Perkins replied simply, “be knowledgeable about the business side.” This includes being flexible about when you’re looking to perform. A new group without an established fan base is not going to be booked in prime Friday or Saturday night spots, but probably during the week (when, incidentally, it’s more difficult to draw a good crowd). Additionally, bookers usually want a range of possible performance dates, and don’t appreciate it if you schedule gigs at other venues in the same time frame as it can affect draw. Being knowledgeable about the business side also includes realistic expectations for pay. Most clubs split the door (i.e. ticket sales) with performers, and percentages can vary. Musicians expecting a fixed fee regardless of the show’s turnout will be disappointed.

Brick and Mortar books new music shows only sporadically. Classical Revolution hosts concerts there from time to time, and Redshift performed their Arctic Sounds program there last year. It’s a dark, inviting space with a small stage in the corner, an open space in the center, and a few tables and a bar on the perimeter. Large windows look out onto Mission Street and offer glimpses of local color for which the neighborhood is famous. According to Perkins, Brick and Mortar’s mission is to serve the community by presenting acts that reflect the neighborhood’s diversity, even if not all of them are profitable. He says that while events put on by Classical Revolution have been successful—”We’re proud to have the show,” he said of a recent Musical Art Quintet concert—he agreed with Rodriguez that, on the whole, new music shows have smaller turnouts and slower bar service. An even trickier issue, he says, is audience expectation. The seating in Brick and Mortar is limited to stools at the bar and a few tables; at the Redshift show most of the audience ended up sitting on the floor. Background noise from the bar, from conversations, and from outside is unavoidable, too. “People are expecting a classical music hall experience,” he says, “but we’re not that.”

Jamie Freedman, a writer, booker, and vocalist based in the Bay Area, says that matching music to venue can factor into a show’s success. “You know what to expect,” she says of the standard classical concert. “No matter where you are in the world it’s going to be a similar experience, so if you take people out of that context I think it freaks them out a little bit.” In other words, groups branching out into clubs should keep their audience in mind when considering venues, and know just how far out of their comfort zone they can lead them. Freedman suggests that musicians consider options like seating or ambient noise before booking a venue. Audiences generally don’t like to mill around during mellow or contemplative shows and will often sit on the floor, so the punk rock club with the sticky floors might not be the best choice for an all-Feldman show.

Freedman, who has a master’s degree in musicology from the University of Texas, is the San Francisco Field Representative for hearitlocal.com, a user-generated site that allows Bay Area artists and venues to connect directly and book shows. (The site also has a nifty crowdsourcing feature that enables someone booking a group for a private event or house party to raise money in advance, ensuring that artists get paid.) She is aware of only a few “classical” groups—used as a catchall term here—using the site, though she is reaching out to the community in an effort to change this. She also doesn’t see much interest from venues or bookers either, which she attributes the to the lingering perception that classical music is somehow “out of their reach.”

Taking a chance on a new music group is a tough decision for venues that mainly present popular genres, for both financial and “comfort zone” reasons. An array of confusing terms—classical, new music, alt-classical, indie-classical—doesn’t help. For example, if a new music group, perhaps looking to simplify things in an effort to get a gig, approaches a venue as a “classical” group, what will that venue’s booker expect? Maybe the Three B’s, maybe Yanni, or maybe no confusion at all. If this same new music group decides instead to get specific—”dedicated to the performance of post-minimalist and totalist American composers”—will that be any clearer? For example, Grains regularly collaborates with the chamber ensemble Nonsemble 6, and Randall-Myers says that booking these more classically oriented shows can be difficult. “It’s not so much the fact that it’s ‘new music’ that seems to be the problem, but rather that it’s an unorthodox combination of styles, instruments, and volumes,” he says. “I think we’re all excited about the idea of playing this music in clubs, but it’s a tough sell because we’re not ‘established’ and we’re playing music that’s hard to pin down on the rock-to-chamber-music continuum.” Most bookers and venue operators are extremely musically literate and familiar with a wide variety of musical styles ranging from folk to scream, so familiarizing them with as much music as possible—available streaming on a groups website, for example—is key.

In March Grains performed on the weekly New Music Series at the Luggage Store Gallery, a non-profit gallery located on a gritty stretch of Market Street that perpetually smells of weed. The series is curated by Outsound Presents, a non-profit, volunteer group of musicians that supports and promotes the Bay Area’s diverse community of experimental musicians performing “avant-garde jazz, found sound, noise art, musique concrète, minimalism, and the unnamable.” The Luggage Store Gallery is a wonderfully gritty, well-worn, no-frills space and Outsound’s website informs potential performers of the basics: “There is no guaranteed payment, no guest passes, hotel accommodations, transportation, no acoustic piano, no sound person.” You arrive via a narrow stairway whose walls and ceiling are completely covered with graffiti. On most nights you’re greeted at the top of the stairs by Rent Romus, one of the founders of Outsound Presents, and a regular curator of the series. “Welcome to the new music underground,” he says.

Luggage Store Gallery: Stairway

Romus has been active in the Bay Area new music scene for over 20 years, and has been booking new music shows and curating regular series for nearly as long. As a saxophonist and bandleader he explores the outer limits of experimental jazz and improvisation, and as a curator he books musicians with a similar aesthetic. “Our purpose is to support those bands and artists which have either a harder time getting bookings at mainstream or “indie” clubs because they are too outward bound, or don’t fit the bar scene and are playing either all original or fully improvised music.”

The Grains show certainly feels like an underground scene. Folding chairs are set up as the gallery gradually fills up with young people, many of whom seem to know each other. Several gents, employing varying levels of surreptitiousness, sip beers they purchased elsewhere, while Romus enjoys takeout. The Grains set this night includes both composed works and improvisation. Much of the improvisation has an arid feel, where plaintive guitar tones are juxtaposed with frenetic drum riffs, as if drummer Marc Deriso transcribed an epic drum solo then played it back in random, ametric fragments. Long stretches were captivating. One of the composed pieces, Goat Teeth, had a powerful, propulsive energy and riffs that would be at home in any prog rock song. Another, Face, was originally composed by Deriso for chamber ensemble then arranged by Randall-Myers for the duo. “I distilled all the melodic and harmonic material into a single guitar part,” he said, and the result was a jet engine blast of low, regular guitar notes beneath shifting, irregular drum rhythms and an ever-changing perceived downbeat. Tapping your foot along with Face is like playing musical Whack-a-Mole, although a young man a few rows up had no problem simply headbanging to his own steady pulse.

Today, this music would be as fitting in a film or TV score—see Michael Giacchino’s music for Lost, for example—as it is here in this experimental setting. The composed pieces sound wildly exuberant and free, yet are rigorously structured and notated as any avant-garde new music. As Randall-Myers suggests, framing the same music differently for different contexts is more important to booking a gig than the music itself. Grains’ music is of a post-genre world, but many venues still identify, both in the minds of their operators and their patrons, with the same familiar—perhaps broader, but still easily identifiable—musical styles.

Concert flyer

The LSG series is popular with musicians and is booked up to three months in advance. Keeping such a regular concert series up and running is difficult work, and promotion is an always an issue. “Most of the time local mainstream press and radio will not cover new music shows even though such modern exploration has been going on for many decades in the U.S.,” Romus says. Outsound also lacks permanent office space, which makes establishing a regular presence difficult, though Romus feels fortunate to have found a regular performance space at the gallery. “The owners of the Luggage Store Gallery, Laurie [Lazer] and Darryl [Smith], are both avid supporters of new forms of art,” he notes, “and they have given our community a regular, safe location to present for over twenty years.” Admission is a sliding scale depending on what you can afford, though no one will be turned away for lack of funds. The proceeds from the door are split 70/30 between the performers and the gallery. Romus says the take at the door varies widely, but that no one makes much money. Outsound Presents doesn’t take a cut and all its members, including Romus, volunteer their time.

Luggage Store Gallery

Luggage Store Gallery

As far as the nuts and bolts of booking groups, Romus says it’s important for him to know a bit about a group before inviting them to perform, and that having music available on sites like Soundcloud or Bandcamp is a big help. “What I like to see is an introduction of their music and some information about the artists, web links, and/or links to hear music samples,” he says.  He also says that that groups looking to play the New Music Series should do a bit of research before requesting a booking. “It’s always nice to know when they are available and/or looking for a gig, and that they know a little about the series they are asking a gig for.” The website for Amnesia, a San Francisco bar known for its regular jazz and bluegrass jam sessions, offers prospective performers similar advice and stresses the need for promotion.

In your booking request please include vital information about your project including links to your music, websites, bios (when informative), usual band draw and prospective date ranges you are interested in for a show. If we book a show with you, help us help you by helping us promote it. The more people you bring down the better it will be. Get us a poster and we’ll put it up, get us some flyers and we’ll pass ‘em out, send out an email but don’t wait until the day before to promote your great show!

In a way it seems that this whole discussion of venues is already moot. Classically trained musicians have moved on, branched out, and are equally comfortable in the club or in the concert hall (coming to a bio near you). Local music scenes will continue to become more integrated as new music groups simply learn the language of the for-profit venue. While this may seem like a foregone conclusion we should remember that this is a two way street and a whole lot of other people, necessary people, have to share this view. Many bookers pay lip service to the idea of hosting new music, but a glance at their calendars will reveal weeks or months between new music shows. Meanwhile, old standbys like churches and college campuses continue to be the more popular options.

It will be interesting to see how this trend plays out, not only in the Bay Area, but across the country. Will it grow to alter the musical landscape, remain a persistent, if infrequent occurrence, or devolve into cliché? The outcome depends in part on the ability of new music groups to dependably draw crowds, to become “established,” and also on a critical mass of listeners who consistently turn out and support new music. More regular performances can lead to a larger audience, but before that can happen clubs and bookers need to feel more confident about what exactly it is they’re booking, and that audiences will show up to hear it. It’s like the old adage about finding a job: a job is needed to gain experience, but experience is necessary to get a job. New music groups won’t be welcomed simply because they’re willing.

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Dustin Soiseth is a conductor and co-founder of the Loose Filter Project. He lives in Oakland.

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  1. Pingback: Getting Music Out of the Concert Hall | Classical 101 - WOSU Public Media

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