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Late in the evening: Stage times and the star system – Adam Behr


Back in the news of late (pardon the pun) has been the arrival time on stage of star performers, with both Justin Bieber and Rihanna hours late for shows, in contested circumstances.

In Bieber’s case the furore was part of a bad week, including a fracas with photographers, that seems to be part of larger narrative of him outgrowing his ‘teen’ persona but not quite fitting into a ‘grown up’ rock star template either. A good proportion of the complaints stemmed from the fact that audience members had to leave early – on a school night.

It was noticeable, too, that whereas a couple of decades ago Guns N’ Roses rebarbative behavior on stage, lateness- or flat out no shows- led to riots, the Beliebers left a stream of angry tweets in their wake rather than burning cars. That might be a matter of a different demographic- and if the person who’s dragging you home because it’s past your bedtime is the one who paid for the ticket that’s a different set of circumstances to a boozed up audience in its late teens and beyond.

There are, nevertheless, a few matters that cut across popular genres, and demographics. One of which is that when audiences might be travelling a good distance across cities, or between them, to see the gig a late starting- and finishing show- can mean they have to leave early, or put themselves out of pocket, to get home. Either that, or the show runs short to meet a curfew. One of the factors in Bruce Springsteen’s jam with Paul McCartney getting cut short in Hyde Park last year was that he had been twenty minutes late getting on stage.

Where Rhianna’s recent lateness for a school appearance was blamed on traffic in Chicago, although there have been other incidences of similar tardiness, Beiber’s team blamed “technical issues” for the delay, a commonly cited reason.

This was met with some skepticism by angry fans and a tabloid press that preferred the ‘spoilt brat’ narrative but is potentially borne out in Richard Witts’ examination of what he calls the “Expectant Void” (2005: 147), the gap between the end of the technicians on stage setting up and the act arriving on stage. It’s prolonging this too far, as was the case with the boos for Bieber, that turns a crowd from an eagerly expectant audience into a potentially hostile one, or in extreme circumstances, an angry mob.

As Witts points out, it’s only at top end gigs that this sort of protraction is tolerated, with classical concerts more regulated, and the musicians unionized (2005: 147-8). There’s also the matter of the ‘star persona’ in rock and pop gigs at which the perceived value of the act resides in a system of authenticity predicated on  ‘stars’. This puts more pressure on the person or people at the centre of it (Toynbee: 31-32), but also allows a particular type of power to accrue around them, which can distort the relationship between the performers and all the other stakeholders in the gig. The status and popularity of the act also has an effect on run-times in relation to encores – how long they can make an audience wait before reappearing, for instance. (See Webster 2012 for a thorough discussion of the ‘encore ritual’ and the logisitics and traditions surrounding it).

But tantrums, inebriation, drug deals and sundry other ‘star’ tropes aside, Witts’ interviews with prominent promoters and tour managers suggest that “forty per cent of the occasions where delays take place are due to technical problems not resolved, or new ones occurring” (2005: 148). His account is revealing, entertaining and convincing. I don’t wish to contradict it, but rather add an observation about delays to gigs more widely. Whilst the focus in his essay is on more prominent rock acts I think it’s worth pointing out that several of the factors he describes can be scaled up or down along the spectrum of economic activity and at some of the difference but also the similarities between ‘star’ and ‘unknown’ performers.

Certainly tantrums and arguments aren’t the sole province of the rich and famous, although much more likely to be tolerated from them. It’s just that arguments about a twenty pound bar tab don’t make headlines in the same way as a headline delay at the O2. In this respect, then, there are some key differences between delays at the higher and lower ends of the spectrum. For a start, an audience is simply less likely to wait around for a lesser-known band. There’s a big difference between hanging around in a stadium, entry to which you’ve paid for handsomely, and choosing to just go to another pub. It’s not that there won’t be a whole set of disputes between act, venue and (where applicable) promoter for the late running of smaller, or even free, shows. But audiences are less likely to have made the significant financial investment that will cause them to hang around long enough to worry about missing the last train home. Emotional investment in the artist might also be less significant, or at least there will be fewer people present with the kind of emotional investment that leads to disruption.

But this aside, a technical issue is a technical issue whether it’s at a pub gig or a stadium. Witts notes that “the most common reason for a delay is still that the left or right channel has… ‘gone down’” (2005: 148). The main difference is that in a large venue there will be specialist technicians to deal with the matter. In a pub, it’s more likely to be a jack-of-all-trades, the bar manager, or the artists themselves who have to work on it. But the root of the problem is the same.

Witts also notes that promoters “emphasised how the anxiety of the artist causes egotistic protraction” (2005: 151). Demands like the need for a particular type of fruit in the rider, or a refusal to go until they’re ‘ready’, can stem from a need for artists to distinguish themselves as such- the ‘creative’ element of the show, rather than a functional part, like promoter or venue. But although artists on the lower rungs of the ladder won’t be able to get away with as much as their stadium striding contemporaries – they nevertheless still engage in the kind of preparatory rituals to “focus their energies” that Witts describes (2005: 148). It’s just more likely to involve a vocal warm up, or sharing a joint in the van, than an oxygen tent or full scale religious ceremony. This invocation of a distinction between ‘onstage’ and ‘offstage’ reality, and marking the moment when the shift between them is to happen, was present in the musicians I observed for my doctoral research, and also in H. Stith-Bennett’s (1980: 76-78) case studies of bar band musicians in the US, all of whom were at some distance from levels of notoriety in Witts’ account.

Further up the ladder, of course, more people become involved, managers and agents for instance,  and there is more likely to be a contract, or at least a written one. But the reasons for lateness – technical, unforeseen circumstances or stemming from the artist – apply across the board, in kind if not in consequence.

Perhaps this is where the sometimes vaguely ascribed notion of ‘professionalism’ comes in. Regardless of the number of workers and financial stakeholders attached to a gig, the artist’s primary responsibility onstage is to the audience. And this is where the difference lies between a delay caused by genuine preparations – conscious or otherwise- in order to deliver the best possible show (with the audience in mind), and those caused by a need to assert status. This can, however, be difficult to ascertain. As a footnote to high-end demands made by artists, David Lee-Roth justified Van Halen’s legendary rider demand for M&Ms backstage with the brown ones taken out in terms of technical professionalism.

“Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. We’d pull up with nine eighteen-wheeler trucks, full of gear… And there were many, many technical errors – whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through. The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function. So just as a little test, in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say ‘Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, evenly, providing nineteen amperes….’ This kind of thing. And article number 126, in the middle of nowhere, was: ‘There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation’.

So when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl… well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem.” (1997: 97-98)

Onstage arrival times are, then, a matrix of blunt logistical details, and the less easily ascribable – but very real – need to create an appropriate psychological space for the artist. The specific logistics, and acceptable behavior to achieve the right mindset, will vary greatly across the range of popular music activity. But like hierarchies within orchestras from schools to international touring ensembles, the conventions underlying them are similar, even if the financial stakes are different. A ‘star system’ is still a ‘system’, whether you’re at the pinnacle of it or the bottom.

Adam Behr


Behr, A. (2010), Group Identity: Bands, Rock and Popular Music, PhD thesis, University of Stirling

Bennett, H.Stith (1980), On Becoming A Rock Musician, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press

Lee-Roth, D. (1997) Crazy From the Heat, New York: Hyperion

Toynbee, J. (2000), Making Popular Music: Musicians, Creativity and InstitutionsLondon: Arnold

Webster, E. (2012), ‘ “One more tune!” The encore ritual in live music events’, Popular Music and Society, 35:1, pp.93-111

Witts, R. (2005),  ‘I’m waiting for the band: protraction and provocation at rock concerts’, Popular Music, 24:1, pp.147-152

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