Sit down gigs: Keeping live music venues standing

Who would’ve thought? Staying seated is letting live music find its feet again. However, it may actually be a better alternative than we once thought…

When Juliet said “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” she must have been referring to live gigs. Remember those? A place where people would gather to spend an evening staring into the back of a stranger’s head. Drinks weren’t included in ticket cost but, by the end of the night, you surely would have tried every beer on tap. Or even the house wine poured on you by the people “looking for their friends” as they trudge on your toes. If only we could have told people to please keep 1.5-metres apart back then.

However, in the last year, we’ve had to watch on helplessly as gigs came to a grinding halt. From artists, to venue owners, to patrons, 2020 would see the entire face of live music change dramatically, forcing everyone involved to adapt and overcome. Enter the sit-down gig: live music’s much more restricted but surprising, pandemic-friendly alternative. While it’s certainly not an ideal situation, we investigate the humble event and why it may actually be a blessing in disguise for live music.

the vanguard, sit down gigs, lola scott

When lockdown struck, live music was the first thing to go: at least, that’s what people will tell you. From my own experience in the industry, I can safely say that community live music and small venues were in a tough spot even before the pandemic.

“To understand what’s good about sit down gigs, one has to know what was wrong with gigs in small venues before public health restrictions took effect.” That’s Arash Nabavi, the owner of The Vanguard: a purpose-built live music venue in Newtown.

While bands and burlesque certainly attracted people to the Sydney fixture, it wasn’t always enough to get them to stay for booze. Since 2014, a total of 176 venues have closed in Sydney and, although others were opening at the time, Nabavi tells me that hosting gigs was no longer commercially viable for any venue owner.

It’s easy for people to stand on the outside and think that live music was all a big success ruined by the pandemic, but hop on over to the other side of the bar and the reality will look quite different.

sit down gigs live music the vanugard

“A typical gig would announce a support at 8pm with a 30-minute break, followed by the headliner,” Nabavi says. “As it is customary in Sydney, the headliner would then announce their set time. This would usually be 9.30 or 10 pm.”

“The venue doors open at 7pm and, because of the announcement of set time, no patrons would arrive until just before the headliner. As a result, the support band would play to an empty venue, with the exception of the bar staff and the soundy. Those who have experienced this would know how awkward and jarring the experience can be. I have encountered this in every music room in Sydney.”

“The ticket holders would arrive 15 min before the main set and purchase a single drink at the bar before the music kicked off and leave the venue soon after the music concluded. You don’t have to be a mathematician to know that the venue would have made a loss for the night.”

Surprisingly enough, the seated gig provides the perfect antidote to this problem. Your standard ticket will include a dinner and access to the capacity-restricted show, allowing the venue to squeeze in two timed-sessions per night.

live music the vanguard sit down gig

In addition to this, the absence of an opening act provides the perfect opportunity for patrons to stock up on drinks and nibbles. If there was anything that I took away from my chat with Nabavi, it was that the restricted gig alternative has actually done more for business than live music was providing before.

While we all adored the chaotic buzz of the mosh, sit down gigs have proven it to be an antisocial experience, one that distracted from the essence of live music. Rather, Nabavi describes the atmosphere of The Vanugard’s seated arena as; “warm and jovial and conducive to the appreciation of music”.

We know Sydney’s Polish Club can turn a rock gig into stand up comedy, but what about the ability of our favourite pop artists to strip back their entire sets, melting every person in the room to their chairs? Lola Scott’s Vanguard gig was as soothing as lavender, while E^ST‘s vibrant performances were refined for the intimate space, trading energy for glimmering piano. These are masterpieces that we may have never experienced without the seated gig.

While the change has not been received well by everybody, the ability to enjoy your favourite band in comfort, and with a delicious dinner in front of you, is an experience like no other. As well as the benefits it is bringing to the venues, the seated gig seems like a promising alternative moving forward, or until live music can completely return to normal at least.

Find The Vanguard here.