Are Guest Lists Killing Live Music?

Guest_List

Imagine you are about to see one of your favourite bands do a rock concert. You are there to work, technically. You approach the venue, loiter around outside for a bit, shuffling your feet like an awkward idiot trying to decide whether to join the back of the queue or go straight to the door. You join the back of the queue, because, y’know, Britain. When it’s your turn to go in you mumble, “I should be on the list” from deep within a well of internal guilt. You get inside, head straight to the merch table and buy absolutely everything, because you support touring bands! You do! Then the show happens and you return home with a black eye if it went really well and a broken heart if it didn’t, desperately trying to recall all the between-song banter to liven up the review you’re about to write.

Now imagine you are a huge douche. You bowl up to the venue, head straight for the first person you see with a clipboard or a headset so you can burn a hole through their soul with an expression that screams BITCH DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM and then spend the entire show with your arms folded, getting obnoxiously drunk at the bar or, worst of all, “networking”, all so you can say, “yeah, I was there”, afterwards

What I have just described to you is basically the two polar extremes of the kind of person you will find “on the guest list” at any show, aside from the occasional friend or family member. But does the good outweigh the bad? Are guest lists essential to the spirit of live music? Or are they totally killing the vibe?

In essence, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of a guest list. They encourage and create coverage, promotion, cool pictures (!!!) and, of course, they make it so that artists don’t have to charge their own mums to come see them play. However, have we got ourselves into a situation where bands are packing venues wall-to-wall with people but only a handful of them have paid to be there? Putting aside the fact that, along with merch sales, touring is one of the last remaining ways for a band to legitimately make money, lack of turnover is a huge issue for smaller venues. If they don’t get money through the doors, the doors shut forever… or become the doors to a venue with a different name, in which case, rinse and repeat… or become the doors to another Tesco, in which case, ugh.

In a piece published by The Quietus titled ’10 Things That Need To Change To Save Independent Venues’, former gig manager Andy Inglis described guest lists as “a malignant tumour on the lactating breast of live music” and thinks they should be “universally banned”. A fair comment, when you consider that, in six years booking for the independent London-based venue The Luminaire, he gave away “somewhere in the region of £250,000 worth of guest list” – revenue that could have gone back to the bands or towards actually keeping the venue alive (it housed it’s last public show in March 2011). So, perhaps getting a journalist or label representative to a gig for free is a moot priority if there are no independent venues left to hold them in.

Obviously, if the band asks to put a few friends/family on, that’s a different story. As Matthew Fidler, one half of the London-based promotion group Vested Interest says, “They’re doing us a favour by playing for us, rather than the other way around. Although I definitely think there’s a bad culture of industry types (although not just exclusively industry types!) who only come to shows if they’re on the guest list. That’s pretty terrible, especially if they don’t show up!”

Indeed, I’ve been to 500 cap shows where the guest list is literally ten pages long and festivals are a whole other story (Reading and Leeds have five separate queues for the different types of guest), but it’s all relative. “I guess it’s different for people like me and Tommy [Royds, the other half of Vested Interest] though,” Matt says, “Because we’re not in-house promoters, so it’s ultimately up to us if we give people guest list and the consequences are on us, which is fine. But I can see how bands asking for a big guest list can hurt smaller venues who do put on shows in-house, though, because they might be running on very tight margins so having a lot of people not pay in each night on a consistent basis can leave them in shit.”

Of course, for many whose chosen profession is music journalism, free access to shows is one of the few perks of an otherwise financially suicidal career choice. It’s the silver lining that makes it worth living exclusively off beans for two weeks of every month. What sucks is that there is no way of separating the good eggs from the bad; that is to say, those who will legitimately give something back versus those who ask for free entry to everything for no reason, even if it’s a pub show with a £3 cover charge. Then it’s like, how about don’t buy that one beer and put your hand in your pocket, you dick. It would also be worth suggesting that if you are on the guest list to what will obviously be a packed show and you don’t plan on showing up, let somebody know, because otherwise it’s a waste of everybody’s time and effort. Imagine if dentists didn’t charge you for not showing up. Their world would be in (even more) ANARCHY (than it already is)!

Basically, I think the moral here is: keep guest lists to an absolute minimum (there is absolutely no need for 20 members of press at one show), remember that cover charges are what keep the smaller, cooler venues alive, and don’t be a dick.

Originally published on The 405 here.
Photography by Kate Beard.

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