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Evolution of Live Events

Posted by Phil Ostermann on 7/25/2017

As someone who has been to over 700 live shows over the past 30 years for reasons both professional and personal, I can say things have certainly evolved. Events and concerts today are more dynamic than ever. For better or worse technology, security concerns and society have changed the face of the event biz.

The Notion of Promotion
Promoting an event years ago involved lots of hand-to-hand flyers, mailers and word-of-mouth. To stay on top of upcoming bands you had to be in-the-know within the music scene. “Fanzines” detailed local bands that were killing it and specifics on when they’d be performing, as well as when more well-known bands were coming to town. Local record stores would play up-and-coming artists — I spent a lot of time at Wax Trax and The Turntable, local record stores in Chicago. Those record stores were more or less meeting houses where punks, metal and hip-hop heads would gather to not just find out what new records came in that week, but to download on what was happening within any of the specific scenes.

The great thing about heading out on my bi-weekly voyage to the record stores was the connectivity of talking face-to-face with people and really experiencing different personalities. There were kids (modern-day brand ambassadors) there promoting art shows, warehouse and loft parties, and even off the wall fashion shows.  I’d run home and tell my friends ”You’re not going to believe who I met today, they’re out of their mind, they do (insert band affiliation or event), and are having a show at so and so location, let’s go check it out!” That’s how it was and there was a great appreciation for it.

Today all things digital rule the world of event promotion. E-blasts highlight key performers, artists and speakers, while promoted tweets and paid ads help to get the word out on social media. Event websites serve as virtual hubs to drive potential attendees back to artist and sponsor sites. Event details are so accessible and at your fingertips, they are almost hard to miss. A digitally promoted festival that hits the web can sell-out at a much more rapid rate than back in the day.

Heightened Security
In the time before 9/11, the security focus at live events was confiscating drug and alcohol paraphernalia. I remember standing in line for many a show in the late 80’s and 90’s in Chicago when the punk/grunge scene was at the height of popularity. I’d wait while security guards casually patted down anyone with a studded belt or metal-chained wallet. The vibe was reasonably carefree. The world we live in today is not so.

For bigger festivals and shows today, there’s still that casual pat down…but for what reason? On the surface it may seem like they’re still patting us down for weed and my mini-bottle of Jim Beam. But really, police dogs patrol live events for bombs (not weed), and with the most recent terrorist attacks at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England in May and the Eagles of Death Metal show at the Bataclan in Paris before that, there is a glaring awareness and concern for safety at just about every event. And while it seems that the general consensus among artists and celebrities as well as the general public is not to give in, not to let terrorists win, it’s hard not to think twice about putting yourself in a large crowd these days.

Events Must Touch All the Senses
We’ve come a long way from dark clubs with a DJ you could barely see scratching 2 turntables and spinning tracks, or a packed punk show with two amps and a cheap P/A. Events are multi-faceted and need to touch all the senses to really keep people engaged. Especially the younger, and more overstimulated crowds. A simple fellow — I grew up enjoying the likes of Iron Maiden, The Misfits, Naked Raygun, and Metallica. I do remember Iron Maiden, pioneers in entertainment in my opinion, rocking out with just an amp rig and one of their roadies coming out in rubber mask as their iconic mascot “Eddie” with a rather simple light display.

Today Iron Maiden shows feature multi-million dollar productions that involve a monstrous animatronic “Eddie” hanging over the stage along with a nine foot robotic version that parades around the stage with elaborate lasers, lights and pyrotechnics. And this is nothing compared to the more dynamic experiences with concerts headlining pop singers that are so immersive they bring people into another world entirely. Moving stages, countless costume changes, over-the-top video production and props are standard in today’s event landscape.

It Didn’t Happen Unless it Social Media Happened
It used to be that only those who had the opportunity to attend an event could visualize and catalogue the memories (unless you were lucky to sneak in a Kodak Pocket Instamatic 10 that is). With live-streaming, and live-tweeting, and real-time posts to fans and friends, even those not at an event get real-time visuals of the experience. Long gone are the days of exclusivity, underground, and (some would argue) authenticity. Things are shared and liked at such an alarming rate that it feels like nothing is sacred anymore. Hardly anything is untouched by the social channels that rule our society.

Things in the event business have evolved so much in the last 30 years it’s hard to speculate where it could go from here. Will it eventually come full circle? Shoot over to Wax Trax and you may just find out.

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