By Lilli Ferry Ellis | 23 November, 2022
I have very specific memories of attending certain concerts: One Direction at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota; Harry Styles at the United Center in Chicago; Coldplay and Taylor Swift at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. When there are 20,000 or 25,000 or 65,000 fans under one roof, buzzing with excitement and scream-singing the lyrics to their favorite songs together, something happens in the atmosphere. There is no denying that seeing a show at a large venue is electrifying.
And while I’ll never regret the dollars I’ve shelled out to see Harry or Taylor play some of the largest rooms I’ve ever been in, it’s not necessarily the most rewarding concert experience for me. I am a small venue apologist to my core.
When I say small venue, I’m not talking about the thousand-plus capacity music halls that populate every large-ish city in the U.S. I’m talking about small venues: less than 1,000 person capacity, permanently sticky floor from spilled beer, usually with a low ceiling and very, very dark surfaces.
The Cannery Ballroom in Nashville, Schubas Tavern or The Subterranean in Chicago, or my beloved 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis are tiny spots that hold some of my dearest concert memories.
When you see a show at a small venue, you cannot rely on the audio being the most well-mixed or having the space provide decent resonance. There will probably be at least one moment when the band fully stops playing, staring doe-eyed at front-of-house, waiting for the engineer to get a handle on the feedback.
When I saw the Hail Maries and Vista Kicks at 7th Street Entry (capacity 250) this fall, Vista Kicks lead singer Derek Richards’s microphone seemed like it would never stop ringing. While they waited patiently for the engineer to find the source of the noise, they started chatting off-mic with the crowd. Somebody shouted to Victoria and Makayla Wymer (Hail Maries) that they were an inspiration, and the sisters turned to one another, blushing profusely, before showering their gratitude on the crowd.
The band continued to talk and laugh amongst themselves about the awkwardness of the situation, putting a whole song on pause. The crowd laughed too. It was humanzing to see these artists, living a nomadic life on tour, acknowledge something awkward. It’s not all champagne and roses for anybody.
At a small venue, you probably won’t see much interesting stage design. You might see some kind of creative configuration of lights, but there is nothing else on stage besides the musicians. (Even if you can’t get a good view, you’re not missing much—short concert-goers know the struggle.)
Small venues allow you to focus more on what you hear. The artist isn’t vying for your attention with their creative endeavor into design; they’re breaking down your addiction to social media algorithms with the lasting power of song.
Small venues are also a great place to discover new music. Not only do they often host more shows per year than larger venues, they’re more likely to rely on opening acts or bands who are just starting their career. I can’t count the amount of times that a local artist I’ve never heard of was opening for a band touring the nation at small venues. I am constantly discovering new artists that tour with bands I already love.
Artists that play small venues are waiting for their break in the industry. They have a smaller fanbase, but that facilitates a deeper connection to their fans. At a small venue, you’re not part of a sea of faces, but a pond; there’s more opportunity to interact and connect with the artist. It’s not a family reunion; it’s a family dinner.
My favorite memory from a small venue was from 2016. I was at 7th Street Entry to see English indie-pop band Swim Deep with a few friends, and while the opening band (Vista Kicks) played, there was hardly anybody on the floor. The lead singer crooned and the band backed him with some major late-60s/early-70s guitar tones. One friend and I couldn’t help ourselves from dancing, so we moved down to the floor in front of the stage. As they left the stage, I searched for them on Spotify so I would remember to listen to them again later.
While Swim Deep started to play their 2013 Tumblr hit, “She Changes the Weather,” the lead singer from Vista Kicks walked out to join the crowd—right next to where my friends and I were standing. In a moment of sheer and utter courage, I smiled at him and leaned in to tell him, “You guys were amazing, great show.”
“Thank you so much. I’m Derek, by the way.” He extended his hand. I told him my name, and then he asked if I would dance with him. I obliged. When the show was over, we talked a bit more about the set and life on tour. Maybe I would have stayed a fan of his band forever anyway, but having the opportunity to connect in such a personal, intimate way with the artist was invaluable.
For the price of going to see a movie in theaters, you can experience the beauty of live music. At a small venue, you are part of making that show what it becomes: every show is different, as the band responds to the room, and you respond in turn.
Since I started going to concerts at the ripe, young age of 15, I’ve had the opportunity to see some of my favorite artists go from playing house shows or dinky little bars to headlining tours and selling out First Avenue (Minneapolis, capacity 1550). Investing in seeing a show at a small venue is not just an opportunity for you—it’s an investment in the future of music.