Music Journalism 101c. Ethnography at Gigs

Hopefully, if you’re diving into this next part of Music Journalism 101, that you’ve already read and made sense of 101 B – Ethnography. If not, and you only have a vague sense of what exactly ethnography is, I strongly suggest you go back and read it.

This section of the course does not cover how to write a review of bands performing on a stage in front of you. What it does cover is everything surrounding that: the show itself (people, sound, lights, vibe etc.). 

Also, with a bit of luck, you will have been practicing your observation skills, and learning the nuances of every situation you find yourself in. If you have been serious about learning how to hone your observational skills, you will also be finding yourself able to fairly sharply recreate those situations in writing. I am going to reiterate here that writers need to do ethnography – so if you don’t write, and you’re attempting ethnography, it’s possible that you won’t gain skills to the same extent as someone who writes often.


Ethnography at gigs

The crunch point, though, is actually finding yourself in a gig situation and being faced with the notion of doing ethnography through the entire show. If shows you head out to are anything like the ones I get to see, then you’ll find you’re faced with two, sometimes three or four, support acts, plus one or two headlining acts. The entire night can go from 7 pm until 2 am, all (or at least some) of your mates are there, everyone’s drinking and having a good time. If you’re a smoker, it’s very possible that, like here in Australia, you’re faced with the fact that you have to go outside to have a cigarette – so you have to factor that in as well.

There is a lot to take account of, but you can’t necessarily afford to be selective in what you take notice of. You need to be like a never-ending sponge, and absorb absolutely everything you can. If you have to take some notes when you head to the toilet, that’s perfectly ok: if it helps you to recreate a show faithfully, and if it helps you to retain the textures of the night (especially if you’re drinking too!) then by all means do it. If you are reporting for the media, make sure that if you’re drinking you don’t have so much that everything gets fuzzy – because then you’ll be in strife when you confront your notes the next day. Trust me, I’ve been there and it’s not a good feeling.


Observations that you will need to be conscious of

So, what particularly do you notice when you head out to a show?


1. How you feel about the show, before you get there

One of the first things, especially if you’re seeing a band you particularly like, or haven’t seen before, or thought you would never get to see (which happens a lot in Australia!), is how you feel about it. Writing ethnography is not about writing yourself out of the picture and concentrating on what’s happening around you; remember, you are a participant in the event, so what your thoughts and feelings are count enormously towards what is going on.


2. Mistakes that you make

If you are late to the show, if you miss a band, if you fuck up and get the wrong venue or the wrong time: write it all in! There is nothing more refreshing than someone who writes honestly about their participation.


3. When you first get to the venue: inside and out

The second thing is actually getting to the venue. What’s the weather like (important if there are going to be people congregating outside!) Is there a line at the door? How many people are there? What are the staff like? And so on.

When you get inside the venue, you are confronted with a million things at once: the state of the bar and how busy it is; where the merch table is and what sort of merchandise is available, and how popular it is; what the beer’s like; what the crowd’s like; and so on. There are so many things here that you can take notice of – and to some extent you need to cover them all.

Things like, what’s the male-female ratio like? For some genres, like grindcore, there is likely to be more males than females; for metalcore it might be balanced; for black metal it might be just slightly more blokes. Things like this make a difference because it often affects the ways in which crowds behave. A full-on circle pit that takes up a good proportion of front-of-stage is less likely to happen if there are more females than males, for example.


4. Remember that you’re participating and that what you see/hear does count!

While you’re taking notice of all of these things, you are hearing what people are saying; you are participating in conversations; you are drinking and/or smoking; you are getting a sense of the vibe of the show. Which brings me to the next point: trust your instincts. If you get a bad feeling from the crowd, trust it! It’s likely you’ll be right, or at least that it will impact on some other element of the show.


5. Crowd reactions

When you actually get to seeing the bands take to the stage, you’ll notice how the crowd reacts – and this is vital. If the crowd are bored, if they talk over the band, if they watch two songs and go back to the bar; if they swear at the band or heckle them (and if the band doesn’t respond to the heckling); and so on. Watching the crowd can give you a very strong sense of the band’s performance.

Crowd reactions can be vital, especially if you find yourself at a show that you don’t like. It’s happened to me that I had to cover a show (there’s been more than one) of a genre I intensely dislike, of bands I’d prefer to burn than see live. Yet, watching the crowd can give you more material than just the music, and if you can write it fairly – and focus on the crowd and the ways in which the band(s) play – then you have something that even a fan would be proud to read.


6. Properties of the venue

While you’re watching the band/crowd reaction (and hopefully enjoying the set too!) try to move around inside the band room of the venue and get a sense of the sound and the mix. There are some venues in which the sound is only good at the mixing desk. There are some where the sound is not affected by movement; some can’t take low-end at all; some you can’t hear the percussion; some are plagued by problems (broken or ineffective mics, blown-out or crap speakers, etc.); some are great until whoever’s behind the desk decides to ‘fix’ things – usually resulting in making things worse.

Also, if it’s a huge show (like Carcass, for example), take note of the lighting, any video that may be running, any special effects, or anything like that.


7. Remember why everything is important

While all of these elements are properly outside the review of the bands they all contribute to the way in which the show runs, and to punter satisfaction with it. As a music journo that heads out to review gigs, you are not just someone absorbing the performance of the band. That is a big part of it, of course, but there is so much more going on than just the bands playing. 

A metal gig is a gathering of a small community – so covering a show is way more than just watching a band play. There are bigger interactions at stake, not least the fact that a band’s performance can be correlated with an audience’s response. It’s a two-way street.


Activities between now and the next instalment

See if you can get out to a few shows and take notice of what’s going on around you, on all levels. Make notes if you have to (sometimes it’s essential), and when you get home try to sit down straight away and write it all up creatively. Try to recreate the experience from what you noticed at the show.

When you’ve done that, put it away for a few days, and don’t think about it. After that time, pull it out and re-read it – what sort of reaction to you get to your own work?


The next instalment: Reviewing a band’s performance

The next part of this course will talk in a little bit of detail about some of the ways in which you can review a band’s performance. Stay tuned.

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