In the summer of 2016 my friends and I went to go see Panic! at the Disco at Summerfest; unfortunately, I was unfamiliar with the venue and when I booked my seats, I ended up in the nosebleed section. I spent most of my time watching the big screen because I could barely see the lead singer, and the distance from the stage made me feel awkward when I sang along. Six years earlier, I went to Lifest with some members of my church. At the beginning of the Skillet concert, I was immediately separated from my friends and thrown into the mosh pit. For a fourteen-year-old who had never been to a concert before, it was a little overwhelming.
These two instances, while also being attributed to poor-planning and bad luck, highlight some problems that come with visiting big concert venues. And while some people like the chaos of the larger venues, for others, it’s not their cup of tea. Whether you’ve had experiences like mine or just prefer a more intimate setting, here’s ten reasons to visit a smaller performing arts center.
- Intimate Setting – There are no nose bleed seats in venues of 400 people or less. The smell of popcorn and the buzz of excitement are the same as bigger venues, but smaller venues feel more like being invited to a house party instead of being one of sea of thousands. This ensures you can actually see the performers and know they are genuinely performing. As unfortunate as it is, there are performers who choose to lip sync at larger venues because visibility is limited.
- Closer Connection to Performers – Meet them after the performance and get to know them. Connecting with performers on a more personal level connects you to the rest of their work while also revealing their passions and ideas. Instead of hiding behind flashing lights and special effects, conversing with the artist expands the experience of the performance while also humanizing them.
- Volunteer Staff – Volunteer staff work very well for small venues because they enjoy and support the venue. Larger venues usually have security and scanners who may not even look up from your ticket; you’re just another face in the crowd. Workers at smaller venues genuinely care about the patron’s experience at the show. Additionally, they are usually willing to help you out or give advice in case of confusion or uncertainty. In the Midwest, people are friendly, engaging and willing to give out tips about where to go in the area. You can attend a performance by yourself and not feel uncomfortable because there is always someone to talk to.
- Visual Arts Galleries – Many smaller venues are multi-use venues that promote a wide variety of arts including displaying the artwork of local artists. Come a bit early, get a drink and browse through the galleries and see some amazing local artwork too. Instead of being glued to your seat for fear of someone taking it, small venues ensure a more casual atmosphere, giving you more mobility and room to explore without wondering whether you’ll get your seat back or not.
- “I Knew Them When” – Nearly all “overnight successes” have actually spent years—decades—paying their dues and perfecting their craft by performing in smaller venues throughout the US before their big break. And even after their big break, some artists will return to those smaller venues to give back the support that was given to them when they were just starting out. The next performance you see at a small venue may be the next big thing.
- Beautiful Architecture – A number of smaller venues are housed in old or unique buildings that are being repurposed and saved from the wrecking ball. These venues have a special character and feel that is not found at larger and newer venues.
- Fantastic Customer Service – Ticket purchases are not “do or die” commitments. You buy a pair of pants and they don’t fit, you can take them back. You buy a ticket for an event that hasn’t sold out, but you learn that you can’t attend – big venues tell you are stuck with them. After that, you’re struggling to pawn them off on friends and relatives, trying anything to get rid of the tickets or get some money back. Smaller venues are willing to work with you because they realize that life happens.
- Mentoring for Artists and Performers – Small venues promote and mentor local and upcoming performers. Large venues are usually for performers who have had their big break. But small venues have the potential to introduce you to a genre or a style you may not have known you would like. Small venues support local artists because they are making a positive contribution to the community that deserves to be seen by others.
- Audience Participation – During my freshman year of college, the Blugold Marching Band—which I play saxophone for—took a cruise around western Italy. On the ship there was a small piano bar. My friends and I would go to these four-hour shows and sing along, song after song. Unlike my experience at Summerfest, comfort of this small piano bar made audience participation easier and much more fun. Artists understand that audience members are people who sing laugh, and tell jokes. This is another level of intimate interaction with the performer that you normally wouldn’t get at a larger venue.
- Economic Development Driver – Audiences coming to performances or exhibits at small venues are not only spending at the art center, they are eating out at restaurants, buying gas at local stations, doing a little shopping, and afterwards checking out the nightlife. These audiences have a direct impact on local businesses, plus they put more tax money into local government budgets. YES, although many small arts venues are non-profit organizations, they still pay sales taxes on the tickets and the concessions they sell.
Small venues also provide the community with an extremely valuable resource that is sometimes overlooked: access to the arts. Making it as an artist is not easy; it requires perseverance, growth, and persistence. Additionally, art programs in public schools seem to be shrinking more and more each year, despite the benefits children can reap from exposure to the arts. Places like the Heyde Center for the Arts in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin do the community a tremendous service in using art to connect members of the Chippewa Valley to the creative world.
Written by Courtney Pagel and Deb Johnson