I attended my first concert in 2011, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
It was a Big Sean show at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco during his “I Am Finally Famous” tour. “Finally Famous” was my favorite album at the time, and hearing Sean make the songs come to life was amazing. It sounded as if he was recording them in a studio setting –– the words were that clear and his energy was tangible.
Although that was Big Sean’s first nationwide tour as a headliner, he had opened for Wiz Khalifa earlier that year. Wiz was already a superstar at that point, so Sean went into it with a lot more exposure and notoriety than many artists would have on their first big tour. Most new artists trekking the country for the first time perform at far smaller venues.
2017 has been the first year that I’ve gotten to see a lot of concerts, covering artists at varying stages of their careers. I realized that, for me, bigger isn’t always better.
This year I’ve seen Kehlani, Bryson Tiller and the aforementioned Big Sean. All three are superstars who are past the initial phase of their respective careers. Kehlani and Tiller filled the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and Big Sean packed The Masonic, both with capacities in the several thousands.
On the other hand, I got to see three budding artists embark on their first big headlining tours – Saba, Smino and Cousin Stizz.
Saba performed at the tiny Social Hall, Smino at Complex Oakland, and Stizz at Brick And Mortar. The three venues hold a few hundred people. Nothing to scoff at, but simply not as big the previously mentioned venues.
However, I realized something once I sat back and reminisced on all the concerts I’d attended this year. The energy from the Saba, Smino and Cousin Stizz shows was different. The smaller crowds had an enhanced, almost more “authentic” passion.
Since the small venues inherently host “smaller” artists, the crowds are typically made up of die-hard, devoted fans. The fans who know the obscure releases and rap along to every word as if they wrote them. They’re not as conducive to the people who show up to get attention on Snapchat and Instagram.
“The most rewarding part was becoming familiar with all of these fans around the nation,” said Cristela Rodriguez, Saba’s manager and a 2016 graduate of UC Santa Cruz. “It’s the absolute craziest feeling to put so much into a project and it’s rollout and to see the impact that it has.”
The familiarity is something that comes much easier when a show has a small attendance. The intimacy allows an artist to literally see more of their fans, and in Saba’s case, to have an unannounced free meet-and-greet afterward. “We definitely planned those meetings with the intent of fans feeling how much we appreciate them, and having to buy an additional $50 ticket on top of the show ticket isn’t something we wanted you all to deal with,” Rodriguez said.
As a huge fan of every artist whose concert I attend, I come in rapping and singing along with as much energy as possible. I’m not worried about the props, lighting or special effects. As long as the artist performs their songs with clarity and passion, I’ll go home happy.
However, Rodriguez made some great points as to why future shows may actually be better. “You learn as you go. Budgets for production and things like that also grow, so long as you’re doing everything correctly,” Rodriguez said.
She stated that growth is something artists work for, and bigger shows mean the artist is improving and appealing to a larger fanbase. Working at The Catalyst for four years, Rodriguez explained that the venue has a 350-person room and a 1,000-person room. “I was able to witness people try that first room and have 100 or less people come out, and then be able to turn that around within one or two years to the point where they’re selling out the big room.”
The intimacy is an unmatched aspect of an artist’s first headline tour. Seeing a room full of 200 other people who love that artist just as much as you do is special. It’s like you’re around a couple hundred friends for that three or four hours.
On the other hand, witnessing an artist get better at their craft is also important. Watching a crowd balloon from a few hundred to a few thousand should be a point of pride as well. And although it’s inevitable that ticket prices will increase and their availability will decrease, it’s not fair to demand a fixed cost for an improving product.
If you really love someone for what they do, you should want to see them flourish, not stay stagnant. Just take advantage of those early days while you can.