How to Review a Live Concert
So there you’ve found yourself, deep in the trenches, under the stage and beyond the lights, with those demi-Gods singing their siren songs above your head. You are in it now, and there’s no turning back.
Being in the field is probably one of the most rewarding experiences that a journalist can have. Leaving behind the control of the keyboard and the comforting hug of your writing desk is a liberating experience, for now you have the chance to put your finger on the intangible, and breathe in the air that before was mere speculation on a white page.
Tasting the reality of your journalistic medium is the ultimate step to bringing it to life - both literally and creatively. This is gonzo reportage that your hero Hunter S. Thompson spoke of, this is the wet, grimy, sand-dusted reality of your wonderland. As you take those steps into the imagery that populated your work for eternities, you are crossing a magical line that brings it to life. All you have to do is enjoy it and not loose your grip.
One of the things that I came to truly enjoy in my days as a writer for an online music magazine was going out and doing live reviews. Of course I never looked at them as “reviews” per se, because for me it was always something more - a true journalistic experience if you may. It was a chance to get closer to the source of the energy that coursed so viciously and vividly through the printed lines of this medium - and it was also a lot of fun.
Having covered shows by such bands as Norma Jean, Memphis May Fire, Life of Agony, and even some independent acoustic artists, I’ve certainly had my share of experience on the other side of the barrier. Yet whilst having that press band around your wrist is a pivotal moment for any budding journalist, it’s not as simple as it looks; for even something as straightforward as covering a live gig requires plenty of preparation and industry know-how. Therefore I decided to let you in on some nuances regarding what you should keep in mind when taking that dive into your first press pit.
Make It Happen
In the majority of the cases it will be up to you to seek out gigs to cover; and unless you have very helpful team leader with a lot of time on their hands, you’re going to have to handle the ‘press pass’ arrangements yourself. Try to pick bands and genres that you are familiar with, so that you know what to expect from their shows, but also don’t shy away from trying something knew - within reason of course.
This also means that it will be your responsibility to research (very important) the details of a given band’s press associate and contact them regarding your presence at the show; and if such a contact is by any means not available, then try contacting the venue instead. Granted you won’t always get a positive response - or any response at all - but don’t despair, for that is part part of the process. However, if you don’t get a reply after two e-mails, then consider calling it a day, for the sake of professional courtesy. It is important that when you contact a band’s management you do so gracefully and professionally, otherwise you’re going to be spending a lot of those Friday nights at home.
Bring Your Credentials
One of the first advices that I received before my maiden voyage into the world of live music journalism was to bring along a print-out of my correspondence with press liaisons. Of course, in the age of digital saturation you can can always just access the said e-mail on your phone, but the sentiment remains the same: bring the proof of your arrangement with you. That is not to say that the press contact shall be out to screw you over and intentionally leave your name off the guest list, but that usually nice cashier at the ticket booth may just be having a bad day and refuse you an ostensibly free entry. Anything can happen. So it’s nice to have an ace in the hole in the form of evidence.
Things May Not Always Go According to Plan
This point is very much a sibling of the previous one. People will fuck-up and miscommunications shall happen, so be prepared to be turned away at the door; it happens to the best of us. I’ve been turned away from a gig once because my first name was slightly misspelled on the guest list; and even proof of my correspondence with the PR couldn’t help. In addition to that, I’ve had instances where the ticket holder had to call my PR contact to corroborate the validity of my presence there.
So all in all, it happens. Don’t let it get you down though, for there will always be new gigs and new opportunities to pursue you journalistic prowess.
Get on a PR agency’s mailing list, as it will help immensely when it comes to securing press accreditation and interview opportunities. If you’re working for a publication, the said magazine should already have such contacts in their rolodex. Of course these agencies may not handle juggernauts like the Rolling Stones, but covering lesser known acts will earn you experience and put you on good terms with industry contacts, who in turn will be more willing to oblige when it comes to getting you behind that barrier - especially if your work is good.
In this business like in many others, it’s not always what you know, but who you know.
Regardless of your publication, photographic content is going to be a must, and if you don’t have that friend who is constantly stuck in the dark room, you shall have to handle those duties yourself. Now, I understand that in the age of juiced up smartphones with overpowered photographic capabilities, people no longer consider a DSRL as a necessary piece of kit. However, capturing a live show is a very different ordeal from snapping a gym selfie for your ‘instagram’ profile.
Music shows are dynamic to cosmic boot. Just as animals in the wild, the beasts of sound are hard to capture when they’re in the proverbial zone. Thus, if all you have to hold onto is a 6x3 inch piece of glass with a logo of a fruit, you may get lost in the raucous milieu that is the press pit.
Having a proper piece of photographic equipment not only adds to your individual professionalism and the stability of your images, but it becomes your weapon in the fight to discover music at its rawest form - and all the catharsis that comes with it. Thus having a proper tool will no doubt help you in getting the job done.
Things Might Get Messy
I’ve been whipped by microphone chords, sprayed with sweat and water (and maybe even spit), smothered against the stage by an overzealous crowd, and bounced around by ever enveloping circle pits. And that’s the gig.
Of course, the concerts you choose to cover may be ones of a more, shall we say, tame nature, but you should always be prepared for the surprises that a room full of lubricated individuals may bring. Mind your equipment - and yourself of course - but also embrace it, for it is in the grit that you find the purest of nature’s forces.
Soak It Up
Feel the room, drink it, smell the sour stench of spilled beer. You have a rare opportunity to live exactly what you are going to be putting on the page, so don’t waste it. Experience the atmosphere in all its musky glory and transcend the norms of such an outing in favour of seeking out the more furtive of the elements that populate a given gig. Look around whilst everyone is looking forward and invite emotion into your perception. Let that Rock ‘n’ Roll essence burn into your senses so that you can easily recall it when it comes to writing it down. Make it leave a mark.
Find a Narrative
Make a story out of it; after all, you’re living it. Be imaginative with your reportage, be passionate - be wild. This is your chance to experience gonzo journalism, and you have free reign to do with it as you please. Take your experience and put it through the folds of your warped mind. Make the reader feel the vibrations that ripped through you as you faced off with those amplifiers. Make that night a journey to the centre of the underground.
Do Not Overindulge
Yes, it is a night out, but don’t forget that you’re also working. Libations can indeed be part of the experience, but if you have one too many, it may lead to a smudge on your portfolio.
Nonetheless, if you feel thirsty in between sets, then grab a pint or two. However, be mindful of the fact that at a lot of shows, security will only let you behind the barrier for the first three songs before booting you back into the general population, and thus you must be as punctual as possible when it comes to getting under that stage - plus holding a full glass of beer while trying to photograph a high-tempo jam requires an feat of pure acrobatic fiction.
By all means, if you can handle your drink, have at it, but remember that the story comes first. So if you’re planning on making that trip to the bar, make it a brief one.
And last but not least...
This one is self-explanatory - I hope. So go on grab that camera and make you mark on the scene. Give it your all and take it all in.
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© 2019 Anton Sanatov