Live Free or Cheap: KNRK and the 94 Cent Phenomena

Going to a concert (or a “show”, as we say in the business) is a lot like going to the movies – both require a decent outlay of casheesh. Where moviegoers have to contend with high ticket prices, expensive concessions and sodas the size of a small child, concertgoers have to deal with equally high ticket prices, over-priced band merch, and beers the size of a small child’s… thumb.

More importantly, though, in either genre, attending concerts and movies is a ritual that separates more casual fans from serious (or at least more socially-minded) aficionados – they require commitment. Not everyone is willing to spend twenty bucks and their Friday night to hear music that they could just as easily download on iTunes. (If you find yourself nodding your head in agreement to this statement, do us both a favor and just stop reading now.) So why do it? Because concerts are flippin’ great, that’s why! There’s a visceral thrill to seeing your favorite band (or your favorite band of the moment) fifty feet away from you while standing in a crowd with a couple hundred other people who love said band as much as you do. And, if you’re a hipster, there’s an even greater pretentious thrill to being able to say that you saw said band “before they sold out.”

That said, those ticket prices are kind of a bitch. Or at least, they used to be. Here in Portland, one local radio station has adopted a pretty bold philosophy about making live music available to the masses. I’m talking, of course, about KNRK (94.7 FM) and their “I Saw Them When” concert series.

Not long after KNRK’s re-tooled station format debuted back in 2004, they started promoting a series of reasonably priced concerts that they dubbed “I Saw Them When” shows, which featured up-and-coming artists and low-priced tickets, which sold for the rather novel price of $9.47 a piece. (It would’ve been more in keeping with their namesake if the tickets cost $94.70, but they probably wouldn’t have sold very well.) Back in the day, ten bones could get you in to see bands like Interpol or The Bravery before they were household names (or, sadly, before they faded back into obscurity) – even as recently as a year and a half ago, I remember throwing down a sawbuck to see The Naked and Famous at The Roseland. However, as venues like Doug Fir and Mississippi Studios grew in popularity, the concept of a $9.47 ticket started to seem less exciting when you could go to a $12 show every night of the week.

KNRK’s next innovation came in the form of the 94/7 Sessions, where touring acts would agree to do stripped-down three or four song sets at places like Mississippi Studios or Music Millennium the same afternoon or the day before their big (paying) show. The deets on these sets were usually semi-secret, often going out via text message just a few hours before the show was scheduled to start – and since most big acts come through Portland midweek (often as a stopover in-between San Francisco and Seattle), these texts invariably caused untold angst amongst the ranks of working nine-to-fivers (or anyone who couldn’t drop what they were doing to do go see a free show). But for Portland’s hordes of under-employed hipster-types, this was a great boon. Lately, as more weekend acts have joined the fray, it’s become commonplace to see lines circling the block at these venues – and often times you have to arrive well over an hour early to get into these shows. What can I say, people in this town love free shit.

Portland’s “Modern Rock Alternative” took things to the next level last February, though, when they introduced their penultimate game-changer by offering tickets to see Little Hurricane for a paltry 94 cents – and not a three song set in the middle of the afternoon commute, either – they were offering a full concert for less than a buck. After Portlanders got over their shock and realised that this wasn’t some intern’s typo, the show quickly sold out and Little Hurricane played to a packed house at the McMenamin’s Crystal Ballroom. Over the next year, eight more dollar shows would follow, with Walk The Moon, Husky, The Royal Concept, Atlas Genius and Youngblood Hawke all passing through the doors of the Crystal in 2012, followed earlier this year with the three shows I mentioned in one of my earlier posts: The Mowgli’s, The Neighbourhood, and Gold Fields. And now, this past Wednesday, they’ve announced yet another show: Portland will have another chance to get their 94 cents on when MS MR comes to the CB on August 12.

I asked Program Director/Station Manager Mark Hamilton what inspired KNRK and their venue partner to make the change in ticket prices, and he responded simply: “We figured with a lower ticket price… we would sell out the room and still just have enough to pay the bills and help our listeners be able to afford to go and see a show in this tough economy… when we can we will keep doing it!”

“We figured with a lower ticket price… we would sell out the room and still just have enough to pay the bills and help our listeners be able to afford to go and see a show” – Mark Hamilton, 94/7FM

Pretty egalitarian stuff, considering that KNRK is owned by one of the largest radio conglomerates (Entercom) in the nation! And also, as it turns out, a pretty popular decision – almost every show has sold out in short order, and February’s The Neighbourhood gig was one of the biggest of shows of 2013, thus far. Having been to almost all of these shows, I think I can say with some certainty that the 94 cent phenomena has definitely been a game-changer, and it promises to have some long-lasting ramifications for the Portland music scene – mostly good in my estimation, but some bad as well. To paraphrase Orson Welles, while the Renaissance may have given us Michelangelo and DaVinci, but it also gave us the Medicis and the Borgias. So too in Portland, KNRK’s continuing Alternative Music Renaissance may be threatening to give rise to a Renaissance of Assholes, too. Read on as we weigh the Pros and Cons.

We paid a buck for this!

“We paid a buck for this!”

PRO: New Bands Are Getting Exposure
“I Saw Them When” shows (and whatever their equivalents are in other markets) are a huge boon for small bands that are struggling to get recognition on the national scene. Some of these bands may already be starting to generate buzz because they were recently in an iPhone ad or an episode of The Vampire Diaries, but for most of these bands, this is the first time they’ve ever sold out a venue, and a lot of them seemed genuinely stoked about it. (Only The Neighbourhood feigned nonchalance: “Yeah, uh… *yawn* thanks for coming to our second out of five sold-out shows, guys.”)

Aside from the obvious ego-boost, the increased exposure that these shows promise carry with them an implicit guarantee of a larger fan base. Bands like Little Hurricane and Atlas Genius were relatively unknown prior to making their Crystal Ballroom debuts, and now they fill comparably-sized venues on the regular.

CON: “Who are these guys, again?”
Just because a popular radio station asks you to headline a bargain-basement show does not guarantee that you’re going to become famous, however – or even that the people coming to your shows are going to know who in the hell you are. I have frequently encountered people at these shows who have never heard a single song by the headliner – and while you have to give those folks props for trying an act sight unseen (or sound unheard, in this case), it can definitely limit one’s enjoyment of the show… or the enjoyment of those people around you. The most egregious example of this that I’ve seen in my travels was outside of Mississippi Studios in line for the 94/7 Session with The xx, where I listened to a young man talking about how he was waiting to see “some band called ‘The Exes’ or some shit like that.”

There’s an equally obnoxious section of the population that goes to shows like this (and all shows, I suppose), only to hear the one or two songs they’ve heard on the radio – and then zone out during the rest of the show. Despite the fact that their rather short set was face-meltingly good, about half of the people at The Neighbourhood acted like they were in a catatonic stupor until they played “Sweater Weather.”

Even worse, when I was at the Youngblood Hawke show, I struck up a conversation with a very nice – but obviously bored – couple who laughingly told me they were only there to hear “We Come Running.” I assumed they were kidding, but as the aforementioned song was winding down, I turned around and they were nowhere to be found. They didn’t even wait for the song to finish!

PRO: More people are going to shows.
It’s simple, but powerful reality – reduced ticket prices are good not only for the bands, but for the fans as well. Cheap tickets provide an opportunity to see live music to people who normally wouldn’t. Or couldn’t. I’ve taken friends to these shows that haven’t set foot in the Crystal in years. Cheaper tickets also allow people to take chances and check out bands that they normally wouldn’t have. While most of the these bands were known commodities in my circle before these shows, I don’t know that any of my friends would’ve shelled out the skrilla to see the Mowgli’s or Gold Fields if tickets had been $20 a throw.

Not only are more people going to these shows in general, but more of your friends are going, as well. Concert-going is a visceral process, and getting to see your favorite band with your favorite is part of the appeal of going to shows. In an era when many hot-ticket Portland shows sell out in relatively short order, coordinating schedules and making sure everybody in your crew gets a ticket before they sell out can be a daunting task. However, when you can snag up to eight tickets for the price of a craft cocktail, it makes it that much easier for your clique’s Social Secretaries to snap up enough tickets for everyone and just dole them out as appropriate.

Hitting a show with two or three friends? Great. Rolling in 12 deep? Even better.

CON: More assholes are going to shows.
More new concertgoers also means more new assholes at these shows. It’s a statistical inevitability. Nobody loves a good deal (and One-Hit Wonders) more than the bridge-and-tunnel set, and several of the early 94-cent shows suffered from an alarming influx of bros. While being awash in Axe bodyspray is only slightly more obnoxious than the Crystal’s usual top notes of sweat, IPA, and pot fumes, the frat mentality that accompanies isn’t particularly conducive to an optimal concert-going experience. At one point during the Walk the Moon show, I witnessed two halfwits in TapouT caps challenge each other to a Dougie contest in the middle of the concert floor, oblivious to the fact that they were bowling over other concertgoers in the process.

Aside from the occasional Missing Link making an appearance at these shows, a far more pervasive problem is the issue that Portlanders simply don’t give a shit. We’ve never been a city that was particularly well-versed in the social graces, and nowhere is this more apparent than at an almost-free show. While I’m guilty of texting and Insta-ing from shows as much as the next guy, I try not to let it distract from my primary purpose for being there – which is seeing the band. Many of my fellow concert-goers don’t seem to share my priorities, however. Not only they do they text incessantly, but they talk as loudly as possible to their friends throughout the entirety of the show, and in some cases even use these shows as an opportunity to conduct lengthy phone calls… DURING THE CONCERT. When Husky (who’s admittedly rather low-key, by indie standards) came to town, the dull roar of conversation from the back of the concert hall almost drowned out his music, prompting my friend Jenna from WaitAndScene to gripe that most “People just come to these shows to chat with each other for 94 cents.”

“People just come to these shows to chat for 94 cents” – WaitAndScene.com

That’s right – people were actually talking over the musician that they had paid to see.

Portland, you’re the worst.

PRO: Sold Out Shows
Almost every I Saw Them When show now sells out, and with increasing rapidity – the upcoming MS MR gig was announced on Wednesday and managed to sell out in less than 72 hours. Not only is this a boon for the band – as I mentioned – but there’s a benefit to the community as well.

For the individual concert-goer, there’s a certain cachet that comes from attending a sold-out show. Call me pretentious (no, seriously – that’s our name, after all), but going to a show that you had to actively plan to attend can heighten your appreciation of the experience, to an extent. It’s far better than rolling out to a show at 10 in the evening because you couldn’t think of anything better to do.

For the venue, a full house usually guarantees increased drink sales, and often from a crowd that’s more than likely to spend. A six-dollar beer is a lot more palatable if you haven’t already spent twenty or thirty dollars on a ticket. Also, since these shows do sell out quickly, I’m sure that venue owners are hoping that the attendees will be equally jolly-on-the-spot with their debit cards when tickets to the next full-priced show goes on sale.

For 94/7, the success of these events helps to solidify their relationship with their listeners, especially at a time when radio and print media are increasingly vulnerable industries. While KNRK runs a great and very popular radio station, these sort of “value-added” extras help improve 94/7’s brand equity.

CON: Undervalued Tickets & Flakey Concertgoers
While cheap ticket prices and sold out shows are awesome, the sad reality is that the Crystal seldom hits capacity by showtime, and many these tickets go unused. Some of them wither in the hands of scalpers, others languish at the bottoms of hipsters’ vintage purses. In the latter case, it’s usually because Portlanders are a flakey bunch – and they’re especially flakey when there’s less than a dollar on the line. People who agree to go to these shows often bail because something else comes up or they don’t feel like trekking downtown on a given evening – and with a 94 cent investment, they don’t feel like they’re missing out on much. At one show, we had so many people flake on us at the last minute that we actually resorted to using our spare tickets as a receptacle for our used gum.

"Ah, fuck it."

“Ah, f**k it.”

Presumably, people with a greater financial commitment are going to be more interested in making sure they get their money’s worth. For example, tickets to Macklemore’s upcoming gig at the Rose Quarter are currently running about $50 a pop – I’m pretty sure that no one buying those bad boys is going to forget to show up.

"I'm sure Macklemore is awesome and all, but these episodes of Gossip Girl aren't going to watch themselves!"

“I’m sure Macklemore is awesome and all, but these episodes of Gossip Girl aren’t going to watch themselves!”

Even people who actually make it to the Crystal to get their dollars-worth of entertainment are prone to their own brand of unreliability. People show up late and leave early. Our crew went to all three of the February shows… and we didn’t see a single opening act. Most nights, we were too busy downing cocktails and appetizers to be bothered.

Additionally, while these bands net a lot of free exposure from these shows, they don’t always net repeat customers. I’ve been to six of the shows that I mentioned earlier, and as of this writing, I’ve only availed myself of one opportunity (The Neighbourhood’s upcoming sold-out show at Wonder Ballroom) to see any of them again. I liked all of the bands well enough, but now that I’ve seen them, I’m in no hurry to spend full price to see them again. Hopefully not all of Portland is stingy as I am… but I fear many of them are.

And Now, Your Moment of Zen
So what’s the verdict? Ultimately, I think KNRK’s efforts are much more of a boon to Portland’s music scene then they are a hindrance. But just like getting a sweet-ass BB gun for Christmas, there are innate pitfalls and dangers to receiving such a gift from the radio gods. The challenge we all face is to enjoy these concerts without cheapening them or ruining them with our typical Portland apathy and bro-tastic antics.

So for those of you lucky enough to score tickets to the upcoming MS MR show in August, remember that you’re there to see the show. Come for the opener, leave the Ed Hardy tee at home, and try to spend AT LEAST as much time watching the show as you do talking or texting your friends. Like Prometheus, 94/7 has given us the gift of fire, metaphorically speaking – now it’s up to us to make sure we aren’t using it to light our farts.

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