Concert Survival Guide

Doing Advance Research Online

* Pollstar.com is your friend. They're not always up to the minute, but they provide a good second source to go to after the home pages of the artists themselves. Lately they've revised their database so now an artist turns back a "sorry, not touring at the moment" response instead of the "we don't show that artist in our database of things currently happening so therefore that artist doesn't exist" response that was so poignantly Zenlike. [The sound of one hand clapping is the non-existence of an artist who isn't on stage and therefore hearing no applause.]

* Things have become considerably easier in recent years with the predictable proliferation of web pages for anything and everything. A venue is much likelier to have its own web site than a few years ago, when you were lucky to find an address that Mapquest could track at all. Now seating charts and online directions are commonplace. Do a Google or Yahoo search for the name of the venue, and if it's tied to a University, do a search for the school's home page if the venue turns back nothing. You should be able to find some sort of info from a school's main page on driving directions or a venue's phone number, even if there's no specific page for the venue itself. Remember too that many concerts take place in sporting arenas with folding chairs on the basketball court; don't search only for performance halls. A zip code is sometimes all you need for online driving directions. They'll get you off of the interstate and in the neighborhood, if nothing else.

* While you're scanning a University page for venue information, take a peek at the Entertainment section of the online version of their newspaper, if they have one. There will sometimes be interviews with the artists in addition to concert announcements, and every once in a while there's a barely-publicized event solely for the campus community in addition to the concert itself like a radio station stopover or a record signing.

* As always, a Usenet News search on Google.com will do wonders in determining the latest state of a tour, as there will usually be some discussions going on somewhere. You may also want to keep an eye out for BBS message boards for an artist on an official or unofficial home page -- the price of subscribing (invariably free, and you can usually forge the personal info if you feel like remaining anonymous) can often be a wealth of data like setlists and meet and greet information. The Dent's message boards available off of thedent.com are *the* place to go for Tori tour info, and the same system which powers their boards are showing up elsewhere (I've seen at least one Poe board run the same way).

Getting There

* Don't underestimate the difference between trying to find a strange venue before sunset compared with trying to find street names after dark. If you can arrive early and scope out the venue, the parking, where the buses are, etc., you'll significantly reduce the hassle factor.

* On the way into town, keep an eye out for the perfect gas station rest stop. What you want is the place which will give you fuel, caffeine, a clean bathroom, and no hassles on the way out of town, as well as giving you a landmark to reach on your way to the interstate. Go ahead and stop in ahead of time if you need to hydrate or get money for tickets; assume nothing on the part of the facilities.

* I tend to shy away from announcing my status as a tour junkie; I don't soap my windows with messages or cover my car with bumper stickers. If you're following an artist into places you don't know, I'm a big believer in the idea of keeping a low profile. Both big cities and small towns have people who look for outsiders to prey upon; why make yourself a target?

Getting In The Door

* THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A SOLD OUT CONCERT.
I've been turned away from concerts maybe twice in my life, and both times I showed up after the event had already started when the scalpers had gone home. I've also only been scalped a handful of times and I've never, ever seen a counterfeit ticket or been hassled by police. The simple fact is that 90% of the tickets available on the street are from people who bought in bulk and had a friend cancel at the last minute. They're not looking to screw you or the venue, and the cops have better things to do than give either of you a hard time about it.

* I've gotten in to two "completely and totally sold out" shows, which should have been impossible to get tickets for, on the strength of a sign I was holding that politely announced my interest in tickets. Grubbing for tickets is grungy work which plays on every street-people defense that people in an urban environment have developed. Comparably, if they know you're looking, they'll approach you.

* It sometimes pays off to canvass the van of the radio station sponsoring the event: they frequently have comp tickets they'll give away for those who answer trivia questions or other stupid antics. Try to find the station on the drive to the venue (this is not as challenging as it might seem, demographics being what they are: I found the station sponsoring the Tori Amos concert I was driving up to Kansas City to see on the third scan, even though I'd never heard of it before driving into the city) and listen carefully: I've gotten tickets by knowing the answer to trivia questions that were answered on the air on my way to the concert.

* Don't forget to check the box office. Seats do get opened at the last minute; sound boards never take up as much space as a venue allocates and they never let a seat go empty that they could be selling.

* Similarly, don't forget to look especially desperateto the venue staff and security. They've possibly got comp tickets they're not going to use, and they can occasionally be persuaded to barter. I've even been let in to venues by security guards who took twenty dollars in cash from me and walked me to an empty seat. No ticket ever changed hands.

* Pairs do better on the street (prying a single ticket out of a guy who's got two to sell can be tough indeed) and singles do better at the box office. You can get amazingly good seats at the last minute if you're solo; the tax of having a date is frequently an entire section's distance further from the stage.

Dealing with scalpers

* Most people who sell tickets on the street, as I said, are looking for face value. Occasionally you do find venues with no tickets available at cost, but a few available on the street at a (sometimes steep) markup. Welcome to the cutting edge of capitalism. The ticket no longer has any value to the venue -- they don't give refunds. The ticket has no value to the scalper -- he's not going to the show. The value of the ticket is determined by a rawer equation: the ticket is worth what you'll pay for it, and that's all that it's worth.

* Get prices from everyone as you go, but walk all the way to the box office before doubling back. You want to check the box office anyway to make sure there are really none left at the door, and you also want to scan the crowd for face value sales. Typically the tickets which are available at the edge of the parking lot are the ones that are the priciest, and prices get more reasonable the closer to the gate (and the closer to the cops standing around outside) that you get.

* Have the power to walk away, and your negotiating position becomes much stronger. Take the time before you get there to have exactly the bills that you want to spend in your hand. Don't expect to find an ATM outside of the venue and don't expect to make change. What you want is for the seller to see the twenty and the ten in your hand. He may expect fifty. He may be holding out for forty. What you've got is thirty, and that's all you've got. Your wallet should not come out during this transaction, ever. If you've got a pocket of loose singles that can be added to the transaction in a final flourish before walking away with a sigh, so much the better: "Okay, look, thirty, and here, four ones, that's what I've got. No? All right. Anyone else have a ticket for $34?" You should have your ticket within a few footsteps -- take your time getting out of earshot.

* Patience is everything. You have to present the face of someone who is going to have a wonderful evening whether you get in or not, but they've got rapidly devaluing pieces of paper which will soon be worth nothing. Don't look anxious and don't look desperate. You've got all the time in the world -- they're the ones with the deadline.

* Caveat frickin' emptor, Mr. Bigglesworth. Take a close look at the ticket, especially if you paid out the nose for it. This is another example of why comparison shopping is helpful -- if you can't lay your hands on a ticket before approaching a scalper, at least try to get a glimpse of the tickets of those walking in so you know what one is supposed to look like. Is the date right? Is the colored ink reflective and translucent and shiny? Are there watermarks on the paper? Tickets printed by Ticketmaster (and those of other services, more often than not) should have watermarks on the back -- reflect light off of it to make sure.

* Similarly, a little market research may be in order to satisfy your own curiosity of just how rare the event you're trying to get in to see is, all things considered. George Clinton and ani difranco are not once in a lifetime opportunities -- hang out for only a handful of months and they'll be back in town: these cats never stop touring. Peter Gabriel, on the other hand, after a hiatus of more than a decade, toured in 1993 and 1994 and then disappeared for seven solid years (going on eight). Is it worth throwing more money than you think you can afford at an event? Probably not. But will you regret it if you miss it and it doesn't come around again?

* When Jerry Garcia died in August 1995 I suddenly found myself really, really wishing I'd gone to the Grateful Dead show that had graced RFK stadium that summer. I'd never gone to see them because they were always there, every summer, like clockwork. Then, suddenly, they weren't, and wouldn't be any more. I tend to take "farewell tours" with a grain of salt but I know from experience that some allegedly endless things can sometimes end unexpectedly.

Merchandise

* While doing your pre-concert research, see if there's a spot on the artist's site with the tour merchandise for sale. When standing at the counter in the venue, it's helpful to know whether you'll truly never see that t-shirt again or whether you can mail order it later. A catalog in the hand is much, much better than a poster being crumpled and soiled with beer under your seat.

* Tori Amos has sold necklaces at each of her concerts, a different one for each tour, and I've kicked myself for not buying them because even though jewelry's not my thing, I've assumed I'd never see them again. Tori Amos Direct, the online outlet for official Tori gear, now sells every single one of the necklaces (and all of the programs) from the various tours. The lesson? Not every once-in-a-lifetime trinket is truly going to vanish from the earth once you leave the venue. And in a world with eBay, is there really such a thing as "impossible to find" any more?

* On the other hand, go ahead and take the time while the stuff's live and in front of you to inspect the merchandise. Are the shirts 100% cotton heavy weight? Are the printings with heavy dye that looks like it will last several washes? Beware photorealistic t-shirt designs; they look great until the seventh or eighth wash or so and then take on the consistency of a Seurat painting. Similarly, read through the program. Are you getting a worthwhile quantity of content, or is it an oversized cd booklet with the tour dates stamped on the back?

* You're either already inclined to buy bootleg t-shirts or you're not, so I don't need to say much about it. You get what you pay for, and you're paying for crap. Besides which, you could probably print up your own design on the cheap at Kinko's for about what you're paying for the shirt on the street.

Audience Etiquette

* On some level I'm in favor of those who have reached the trance level of ecstasy as a result of their communion with the artist. On another level, watching the doughy ass of the fan in front of me and listening to the off-key wailings of the fans behind me is not what I paid to see and hear. So pretty please, with sugar on top, sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up.

* On just about every audience bootleg, you can hear some loud drunk guy snickering at everything, repeating every joke told by an artist, having a pointless conversation with his buddy about nothing in particular during the quiet songs, and hollering "Whoooo-hooo!" during the really cool bits. Don't be that guy.

Meet And Greets

* Meet and greets are rare, but they do happen. I keep thinking with every Tori tour that there's no way it's going to happen, she's grown too big, but every tour so far she's surprised me by continuing to show up early and stay late for her fans. I've met Weird Al, Poe, Luscious Jackson, the Indigo Girls, and Dar Williams by hanging out after their concerts. Sarah McLachlan and ani difranco are recluses in comparison (but given that they've seen the restraining-order side of their fans, it's easy to see why). Liz Phair was out at the Tower Records tent for unannounced signings at Lilith Fair (which I missed, damnit, because they were unannounced and because I didn't do enough Usenet research before the concert) but she didn't come out after any of her solo concerts later that year. While the club-sized venue gives a much higher chance of this sort of encounter compared to the arena (simply because the distance from the stage door to the bus is on the street rather than behind several fences) I frequently miss out on waiting for 9:30 Club artists because of needing to run to the Metro after the concert.

* If it's an artist you don't know much about, now's the time, before you walk away from the computer, to find out the answers to the stupider questions. They've already archived virtually everything there is to know on the artists (search for "artists's name" and "FAQ" or "F.A.Q." online) and there's absolutely no reason to ask a question an artist has heard, and answered, dozens of times before. Now's your chance to look clever. I took Poe by surprise asking her about the role of the artist in "10 Things I Hate About You" (which was supposed to be her but ended up being the lead singer of Letters For Cleo) precisely because I'd searched everywhere I could for the answer to the question before asking it. Sure enough, I was the first person to ask her about it. In comparison, I ended up looking like a junior cadet in the ranks of FanBoy when I asked Steve Caton if he'd auditioned for the chance to play guitar with Tori on her Dew Drop Inn tour. [Answer: He'd been playing guitar with Tori since the very beginning and appeared on every one of her albums, including "Y Kant Tori Read." Which I'd have known, if I'd done the slightest bit of research ahead of time. Oops.]

* If you've managed to find out via your web browser that a favorite artist is likely to do a meet and greet, do all the research you can about the protocols ahead of time, and let them set the pace of what they feel like doing. Are they signing things? Are they posing for pictures? Don't get greedy and don't be obnoxious.

* You can't impress the bodyguards and you can't become their buddies. What you can do is listen to what they say and let them know, by following their instructions, that you're not going to be a problem they need to deal with.

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© 2001 Kevin M. Hollenbeck. All rights reserved.