Of all the businesses struggling to survive over the past two years, concert and live music venues have had one of the toughest roads.
As we’ve slowly (or rapidly, as the case may be) opened things back up, music venues were one of the things I was most nervous and excited about returning to. I was curious about how I would feel. I was curious about what would be different.
I made my return to the Hollywood Bowl amphitheatre two Fridays ago for the first night of H.E.R.’s intriguing collaboration with the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra. It was her first time at the Hollywood Bowl, ever, and I wish I was going to be spending the next few paragraphs extolling H.E.R.’s exorbitant charisma, talent and beautiful symphony with Gustavo Dudamel and company.
But I’m not, and it’s not their fault at all.
Returning to the Hollywood Bowl, as currently configured, was a mistake.
Now: This wasn’t Woodstock ’99, not even close. But, and this likely isn’t surprising to many of you, it was clear that not enough has changed at the Hollywood Bowl.
According to gathering expert Priya Parker, the author of The Art of Gathering (an insightful book that holds the prescription for how to consciously gather moving forward), the host’s first step when planning an event is to establish a “bold, sharp purpose” to your gathering.
With The Hollywood Bowl, I imagine the purpose to be something like: bring people together to connect via the musical talents of XYZ.
The host’s job is to protect their purpose at all costs and it was clear that The Hollywood Bowl was more concerned with making up for lost time than protecting that purpose.
Upon arriving, I learned that H.E.R. was a sold out show. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but ignorance isn’t an excuse.
What it meant, I found out, was a full-blown, nearly 100% filled to capacity grandstand of people. Even outdoors, a sold out show cramped on wooden benches with mostly unmasked patrons (because they are eating, drinking and smoking) didn’t feel comfortable. In fact, it’s the most unsafe I’ve felt in public since the pandemic, and this is coming from someone who took a 35-day road trip around the U.S.
Hollywood Bowl never had an abundance of leg room or space between seats — it’s like an outdoor airplane — and that claustrophobia is even more magnified nowadays.
Now, I know that when I buy tickets to a show, I am taking a risk. I understand that and I won’t argue I made a mistake.
But by buying a ticket to a show, I am also trusting the venue to uphold their end of the bargain: to consider all of their guests, not just the ones in the front rows.
I know what you’re thinking: why didn’t I leave? Well, it’s complicated. Thanks to an even more aggressively late arriving crowd than Los Angeles is known for, it was impossible to know what “Sold Out” entailed until well after the show began, as people kept streaming in, and in, and in, hours into the concert, long after the intermission. People slowly boxing my partner and I in. Interrupting us, yes, but worse, trapping us.
And we still could’ve left. We should’ve left. But I fought that feeling. I fought it, because I don’t want to be a coward. I don’t want to walk out on a concert I paid for, I don’t want to walk out on H.E.R. I don’t want to awkwardly climb over a row of people. I don’t want to be negative or blow things out of proportion.
That’s my problem, but it’s also a human problem. Once I’m out and about, once I’ve bought my ticket and the show has begun, once I’ve compromised once, it’s so much easier to keep compromising, despite feelings of discomfort because it feels like I have less choice. Mistakes oftentimes beget more mistakes because of an unwillingness to take responsibility for when you make them.
As Parker says, “grumbling comes when guests feel poorly governed and unprotected by their host.” And yes, this is me grumbling. I know I sound like an old man and that’s why it took me so long to share this. But the feeling I had on the shuttle back to the parking lot, when I had no choice but to close my eyes and look down at the ground as no one stopped people from continually boarding our overcrowded bus, was exactly that: we are being poorly governed, we are unprotected.
And that is a breach of trust. Are we really back to the standing in aisles of buses phase of our Return? Do we ever want to get back to that? At The Hollywood Bowl, the answer was clear.
It is the host’s responsibility to protect your guests. I didn’t feel protected and I imagine I’m not alone in that feeling.