Robbed by the VIP section
Queens Of The Stone Age's recent stop in Madison illustrates that higher-priced pit tickets lead to weird concert vibes. (Image: The view from the plebe zone at Queens Of The Stone Age's May 22 show at Breese Stevens Field.)
Editor's note: This piece is adapted from the author's May 22 Medium post, "QOTSA NIGHTMARE SEQUENCE vis-a-vis the VIP Section."
One of my favorite bands played my town. And didn't seem to enjoy themselves that much. Just walked off of the stage after a song, no real acknowledgement or sign off.
During Queens Of The Stone Age's May 22 show at Breese Stevens Field, frontman Josh Homme told a tall tale about tending bar at legendary Madison club O'Cayz Corral when he was 18, during which time he penned the next song. Then the band launched into "No One Knows."
Our city's brush with QOTSA was indeed sweet while it lasted, actually an awesome 90 minutes or so. They opened with the first two tracks from the 2017 album Villains, "Feet Don't Fail Me" and the swing dance-y "Like You Used to Do." A romp through their discography included crowd pleasers like "Smooth Sailing," "Burn The Witch," "You Can't Quit Me Baby," "…Millionaire," "In The Fade," "Domesticated Animals," and the ever-sexy "Make It Wit Chu." It was my first show at Breese Stevens and the cushy astro-turf was a pleasant surprise for this stander/dancer.
Though Breese Stevens Field is owned by the City of Madison, the venue is operated by a private company. Big Top Baseball, which specializes in, you guessed it, summer collegiate baseball, also operates Warner Park and owns the Madison Mallards, and since 2015 has presented the Shake the Lake Festival. The Madison City Council just approved a 10-year lease at Breese Stevens with Big Top that includes city funding for $1.3 million in capital improvements, and Big Top has announced plans to bring a pro soccer team to the field in 2019. FPC Live, Madison's newly minted Live Nation subsidiary, works with Big Top to book concerts at the venue.
The sports company, working with the world's largest concert promoter, is fumbling the concert dynamic. In an atmosphere similar to, but markedly different from, that of sporting events, fans and rock bands have an energetic interaction that can make or break the quality of the experience for both parties.
The late-spring evening of the QOTSA concert was beautiful for an outdoor event. Then "Go With The Flow" ended the night—as several noted on social media—abruptly and without a noticeable goodbye. The band exited the stage, presumably for the customary break before an encore, and never came back. The crowd called for more for a good five minutes before roadies started hauling equipment from the stage. Some, crestfallen, departed. Others stayed on and demanded "One! More! Song!" Many wondered aloud and suggested reasons for the show's early ending. Some suggestions were noise ordinance violations on a school night and Homme's injured meniscus, as he was seen limping towards a tour bus afterwards.
But throughout the show, while standing behind the fenced-in, bigger-ticket "Chalmers Jewelers Diamond Ring" area (known in previous seasons as the Gold Circle), I noticed the crowd response was noticeably disjointed. It seems that Breese Stevens' bigger-ticket VIP section, a profit-motivated half-moon around the front of the stage that reaches back to the soundboard, drained off much of the energy between band and crowd. Oftentimes, there was a good 10 feet between the back of the Diamond Ring group and the barricades that held the GA ticket holders back.
At rock concerts, the people who want to be in the front enough to stand in line for hours and push their way toward the stage will generally dance, headbang, and yell along to lyrics, in effect mirroring the band's energy. The band in turn feels the love, as they say, and rocks out harder. The energy bounces through the crowd and reaches more people, who can't help but get into it (booze and such aid this reaction as well). This feedback loop continues for as long as the band wants to play, which is longer when the energy is stronger. So energy exchange = good. Rock music helps loosen up those work-a-day bodies and minds. The pit area directly in front of the stage is where people dance and scream out their demons—at a good show, anyway. As last week's show demonstrated, messing with the natural order by upcharging for a spot in that sacred concert territory is detrimental.
Now, the ongoing reciprocity between sports fans and athletes is different from concerts. No matter what, players are going to play the game by the regulations in the time allotted. Charging more for courtside seats at a rock show—which are traditionally general admission for outdoor venues—negatively affects the outcome of the experience. That's a shame in a publicly-owned space. Especially when bands, unlike sports teams, can opt to skip a city the next time around.
My take? QOTSA was not into what might — or might not — have been laid down by folks in the pricier zone up front. Video shows that there was at least a mild ruckus for "No One Knows." Meanwhile, general admission fans were relegated to the cheap seats. Concert responses were muted by the vast space between them and the stage.
I looked forward to this show for months. I paid to be at this show—though not as much as some others. I was so thrilled to ride a bike to see QOTSA in my city. And I had my fun. My neck and throat were sore the next day from headbanging and woo-ing. I was just a few yards too far back to contribute much to that vital band-audience connection. I only wanted my favorite-ish band to enjoy their time in my city. I feel robbed. And I blame the rock concert VIP section.
Perhaps Big Top Baseball can take this as a lesson about providing a quality experience for rock audiences versus sports fans. Respecting the time-honored first-come, first-served, most-into-it tradition tradition is key. These music fans are in it for the love of the game. Sure, there's always money to be made. But Madison concertgoers deserve better at a city-owned venue. Quality events help build our local scene.
If there's one place where there should still be a little democracy left in the market place, it's front and center at rock concert. A little area off to the side with food, craft cocktails and exclusive porta-johns is one thing. But putting a fence and a bougie happy-hour zone between die-hard fans and the bands they love is a disservice to the spirit of rock and/or roll. In Madison's shifting live music culture, the gap is widening between bigger venues with pricier shows and smaller, more affordable DIY venues. Rock concerts are about art and passion. Providing quality experiences for the entire community is a value that all venues, publicly or privately owned, should take to heart.