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The audacity of Low: What does a band ‘owe’ us when we pay to see them perform?

Alan Sparhawk performs with Low at Rock the Garden (Nate Ryan/MPR)
Alan Sparhawk performs with Low at Rock the Garden (Nate Ryan/MPR)
  Play Now [28:18]

by Andrea Swensson

June 18, 2013

Whether you attended Rock the Garden, listened to the live broadcast from home, or simply followed along on Twitter, chances are you’ve caught a few mumblings and grumblings about Low’s 27-minute-long, one-song set.

As the sun peeked out and the crowd peeled off their rain ponchos, the Duluth trio launched into their song “Do You Know How to Waltz?,” a normally 14-minute-long song that first appeared on their 1996 album The Curtain Hits the Cast, and stretched out the song’s jammy, droning coda to create an unending wall of noise.

Scanning the crowd during Low’s set, the reactions seemed muted at best. Most people stood stock-still, staring at the stage, as if trying to discern just what was going on. A thirtysomething man next to me literally had his mouth hanging open for part of the set, while his date kept looking at me nervously and laughing, unsure how to react. And it certainly wasn’t the only surreal thing to have happened that day, with Dan Deacon’s impromptu parking ramp set still fresh in many concertgoer’s minds.

But in the time since Low stopped playing and Alan Sparhawk concluded their appearance with the simple sentence, “Drone, not drones,” the reaction to Low’s Rock the Garden performance has taken on a life of its own. Both the slideshow and review on our site have been inundated with impassioned comments, and the social media snowball has rolled down the hill far enough to spawn Twitter accounts on both sides of the aisle (@FU_low vs. @TheLowDrone).

The reactions were so severe that Alan Sparhawk has already given an interview defending the decision to play an unconventional set, saying "It was a big show, so we wanted to do something big and different. If I was there in the audience, that’s the kind of thing I’d like to see a band do." Meanwhile, fans continue to praise the band for a "punk rock" move while others grapple with whether or not Low delivered the set they felt they deserved.

“We paid them to put on a show and they didn't. They very do literally owe us,” wrote commenter Zetes Johnson. “The expectation is that they play a certain amount of time, and presumably, you know, a couple of songs. I'm not sure it was specifically mentioned on my ticket... but on the marquee, yes, they were listed and, no, they did not play.” A few of my followers on Twitter had similar reactions: They came to a Current-affiliated event to see Low play the singles they've been hearing on the Current, and they felt ripped off. One follower in particular responded to my tweet in support of Low's set by insisting that I would have felt differently if I had paid to get into the event, rather than worked it.

All of this raises an interesting question. In this era of insta-downloads and unlimited, streaming free music, forking over actual cash for a concert ticket seems to have raised our expectations to new heights. But what does an artist actually "owe" us when we pay to see them perform live?

It's a tricky question to answer, because as we all know, a concert ticket is not a contract. Of course, there is an expectation that the band will come out on stage, pick up their instruments, and do something with entertainment value. If they just flat-out didn't play, the venue would likely issue some kind of refund. But beyond that, are they required to play the hits? Are they supposed to stand a certain way, act a certain way, or give the crowd a certain kind of interaction? And does the price of the concert ticket directly reflect what kind of experience the concertgoer is about to have?

Well, no. If that was all true, fans would have to fork over more money on their way out the door if they witnessed a life-altering show, or one that provided them with three encores instead of the typical one or zero. The choice is ours as consumers whether or not to purchase a ticket, and the choice is the artists' what they will do when they get up on stage—and really, it's all much more rooted in economics than we might like to admit. If a band performs well, the theory goes, fans will come back to see them again. If not, that's on them and their reputation.

But a band does owe us something, no? At least from a social perspective, we expect them to put effort into their performance, to demonstrate their artistic talents to the best of their abilities, and to "earn" the spotlight that is cast on them when they step out of the shadows we cast on one another and up onto that stage. And in that regard, I would argue that Low did fulfill their obligation. They gave the crowd something unique, something unexpected, and something that provoked. Everything that happened after that was beyond their control.

Low may not have won over many new fans at Rock the Garden, but maybe that wasn't the point. Here's another question for you: How would people have responded if they had performed the "hits" off The Invisible Way in a more straightforward manner, as they did at the Fitzgerald just three months ago? Would their trademark introspective, somber, and down-tempo music have gone over any better with the festival crowd if the songs had been a little more familiar?

One thing's for sure: Low got people talking, and it doesn't look like this discussion is going to die down anytime soon. I'm eager to hear more of your thoughts; please leave your reactions in the comments.


Slideshow: Metric at Rock the Garden

Slideshow: Silversun Pickups at Rock the Garden

Slideshow: Bob Mould at Rock the Garden

Slideshow: Low at Rock the Garden

Slideshow: Dan Deacon rocks the underground garage

Slideshow: Scenes from Rock the Garden

Andrea Swensson's set-by-set Rock the Garden recap


Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.