Long Live The Small Venues (And Artists That Play Them)


Underground shows. Dive bars. Small venues. Whatever the name, the show is the same. You’re literally three people away from the stage and you didn’t have to sell your soul, all of your life belongings, and your first child for tickets. You’re not fighting an obnoxious, sweaty crowd that is pushing from all sides to get even more smashed together or stuck behind the tallest person in the world fighting for a glimpse at the stage that is already dozens of rows ahead of you. You’re not standing in the grass at an amphitheater watching a TV screen trying to ignore the conversations and off-key singing of your neighbors because the music isn’t loud enough to drown them all out.

The Browning at Bada Brew, Crest Hill, IL on Sept 20th, 2015

Instead, you spring for $12 tickets and get a wristband at the door. You walk in and maybe it’s not the cleanest, most well-lit, nicest place you’ve ever been, but it’s cozy and you can already see the stage in plain sight. The bartenders aren’t overloaded with dozens of people in line and they’re serving more than tallboys of Miller or Budweiser and cheaper than $10 each. The bathrooms aren’t a marathon distance away and you can probably snag a seat and maybe even a table. At the really good shows, you might even find the bands wandering about with the general public, letting you take pictures with them and just generally having normal conversations like real people.

Paramore, UIC Pavilion November 24th, 2013
Paramore, UIC Pavilion November 24th, 2013

Now, don’t get me wrong, I will forever buy tickets to see the Dave Matthews Band and occasionally hit up Riotfest or other shows and festivals for big name, big-ticket artists. My love for their live music and performance outweighs having to deal with almost getting crushed to see Rise Against thirty rows back or standing on a lawn and watching DMB on a screen because the stage is too far away to see anything. Still, I’m not about to shell out $300+ for a really close seat or an even more outrageous price for VIP and backstage passes. I don’t love anyone’s music enough to go bankrupt over it.

Another great thing about the smaller venues is that your ticket money usually goes directly to the artists, not some major label that sucks up all the wealth and lets their musicians hang out to dry. You’re also supporting the local promoters who will bring in more artists and help advertise both the venue and the bands. The venue benefits by simply having people in their establishment to buy more drinks and food. Sometimes venues get a portion of the ticket proceeds and that will only further their ability to bring in good artists, improve their sound equipment, get an experienced person to run their sound, and be better hosts for customers and artists alike.

These shows always have multiple artists on the bill as well, so getting exposure to new music is not only super convenient but also not horribly expensive. Even if you only like one band, the $10 you spent to see them was already worth it to you. If you do end up liking another band then your money went even further and you have new material to listen to. There is no losing situation here.

Alex Clare at The Metro in Chicago, December 3rd, 2012
Alex Clare at The Metro in Chicago, December 3rd, 2012

Nothing will compare to listening to Alex Clare’s dulcet tones live, moving the entire audience with every note at The Metro in downtown Chicago, or Amanda Palmer pouring out her heart and soul on stage at the same venue. The pure adrenaline rush from feeling The Browning’s bass drum thump in my chest harder than my heart at Bada Brew in Crest Hill, IL or chatting up the lead singer of ERRA after his set at Mojoes in Joliet, IL and being blown away by how humble and down to Earth he is. These experiences are one of a kind and would not be possible had I been at bigger venues. Those kinds of experiences also solidify fans’ love and appreciation for the artists and all that they do.

Mutemath at First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre on August 24th, 2012

For example, I’ve seen Mutemath three different times in three very different locations. The first time when they were one of the opening acts for Thirty Seconds to Mars at the Aragon Ballroom, the second time headlining the House of Blues in Chicago, and the third opening for Incubus and Linkin Park at Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre in Tinley Park, IL (formerly known as the World Music Theatre, the Tweeter Center, and the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre). The Aragon Ballroom show was pretty fantastic, if you’ve not seen Mutemath live then expect to be amazed if you do. They put on a fantastic stage show with exceptionally high energy and you can tell that they love their music every second they play it. I fell in love with them at first sight. Their House of Blues show sits in my top 5 greatest shows as their lead singer ran through the crowd (right next to me) to get on stage. Then he proceeded to get on a blow up mattress and crowd surf for a whole song. Then the amphitheatre show came around and it was more than disappointing. Their four people barely took up any of the stage and their energy seemed to get lost in the air between the stage and the seats. Maybe things would have been different if they were headlining and had all the same lights and effects as the following bands, but even then it would not have been nearly as special as those smaller shows. (I did get their autographs at that show, which redeemed the night entirely).

Even though I’ve used fairly well known artists in all of these examples, it’s mostly been for the sake of familiarity. Less well known artists offer the same kind of experiences – and I would even argue a better one. Their lack of celebrity status makes local bands and lesser known bands more available to their fans. You can probably buy them a drink after their set and tell them how much you loved their stuff. You can talk to them about their family, what it’s like to have a full time job and be in a band, sportsball stuff, and whatever other small talk topics come up. Maybe you’ll find them dancing to one of the other bands playing that night. They probably have a makeshift merchandise booth with stickers, CD’s and t-shifts with only two different designs but both of them are originals. You’ll find that everything they do has a personal touch instead of some mindlessly mass-produced swag some corporate blowhards thought would sell.

Rise Against, Riotfest Chicago September 12, 2014
Rise Against, Riotfest Chicago September 12, 2014

So cheers to the small venues that host bands so fans can have a more personal and intimate experience while listening to their favorite music. Cheers to the artists who could play bigger venues but choose to stop by your local dive bar; even if they play on a weeknight, the experience far outweighs being wrecked at work the next day. Cheers to the promoters, the sound guys, and everyone else making these shows happen, because nothing compares to the power and adrenaline of great live music. Lastly, cheers to all the fans that show up to support these venues and artists so they can keep doing what they’re doing. Go out and keep supporting your small, local venues and the artists that play them.

Last Updated on November 28, 2018.


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