As the Daily Planet’s music coverage has grown over the past couple of years, I have increasingly found myself and/or writers and photographers on assignment from me facing a capricious monster called The Guestlist. Through my adventures and misadventures with The Guestlist, I’ve learned a lot about how live music shows are booked, promoted, and produced. Mostly, I’ve learned that it’s a miracle they happen at all.
The Guestlist is, for any given music show, the list—sometimes a single sheet, more often a dogeared sheaf of papers—featuring the names of those individuals who have been promised free admission to the show. Sometimes this includes those who have purchased tickets, but more commonly, those who buy their way in get physical tickets; those who earn their way in through favors other than cash are (supposedly) on The Guestlist.
Bobby Kahn, a friend of mine who’s worked planning events, has a sage expression: “Guestlists are nothing but trouble.” They’re a necessary evil, but it’s true: in my experience, The Guestlist is a giver of headaches to everyone who touches it.
Why? Because The Guestlist is actually many lists. Everyone involved with the show has a list of some sort: the artists (including any openers), the venue, the promoters, the sponsors, you name it. And then those lists have sub-lists: the artists have their personal lists, and the lists controlled by their label, and the lists for media. How many spots everyone gets on The Guestlist has to be negotiated when the show is booked, and I’m guessing that the Guestlist-induced headaches begin at that stage.
Once its theoretical existence is confirmed, The Guestlist must become a living, breathing thing. This involves all parties involved deciding who’s on their lists and getting their lists to the venue in time for the venue to equip door staff. At a one-door establishment like the 400 Bar, this is theoretically a simpler matter than at a big club like First Avenue, but “simpler” doesn’t always mean “more reliable.”
Everyone wants media coverage, so theoretically there are a number of avenues through which members of the media might go to get on The Guestlist. I tend to play by the rules and start with the artist’s public relations agency, which is often based in New York or somewhere else far away from Minnesota—very possibly far away from the artist’s home town. There have got to be artists who never, or rarely, meet the PR staff who serve as their media gatekeepers.
So here I go. I send a polite e-mail to the appropriate PR rep (never mind how I go about determining who this is; it’s not always a simple matter, and sometimes no one—including the artists—seem to know the answer), asking if our writer and photographer may please be put on The Guestlist, with photo pass for the photographer.
Sometimes, especially with big-name acts, I’m informed that our request will be considered, and they’ll decide a day or two before the show whether they can fit us in. (In other words, if X represents the number of Guestlist spots the PR firm has access to, and Y represents our rank in prestige/reach/desirability among the media outlets requesting access, we have to wait to find out whether X will be greater than Y.) More often, I’ll get a relatively quick note back, ranging from an enthusiastic thank you to a curt “sure.” Sometimes, there’s not even any punctuation.
Okay, so now we’re theoretically on The Guestlist, and I notify our writer and/or photographer that we theoretically have access to the show. I forward the e-mail from the publicist, which constitutes the only evidence we’ll be able to muster if our placement on The Guestlist comes into question at the door.
Here’s where my personal Guestlist-related headaches begin. Now, we’ve been told by the PR rep that we’re on the Guestlist. That should be the end of it, right? Well, theoretically. In reality, the Guestlist for any given show finally comes together only hours or days before the show starts, and in my experience there’s vast room for our initial request to be forgotten in the weeks between that initial request and the show itself.
So, when I’m not too busy, I send a reminder to the PR rep a few days before the show, confirming that we’re planning to cover the show. I then get a response ranging from nothing at all to a friendly confirmation to a surly warning to quit bugging the rep because we’re on the damn Guestlist already! In the relationship between media and PR reps, Guestlist access is like sex in a marriage: theoretically it shouldn’t take any reminding, but in reality sometimes you need to prod your partner, and that’s embarrassing for your partner, who would like to believe—as would you—that it will just happen naturally.
In the best of worlds, the PR rep knows damn well that there’s a significant chance that something will go wrong, and supplies you with the name and (o manna from heaven!) the phone number of the tour manager, who is the ultimate arbiter of Guestlist access from the artist’s side on the day of the show.
At this point in the process, the names of our writer and photographer reside on a spreadsheet on a hard drive probably somewhere in New York. By the time the venue doors open, those names need to travel from the PR rep to the tour manager to the venue to whoever’s doing security at the door. This seems to be a risk-fraught journey, because a really substantial proportion of the time, someone screws up. How substantial a proportion? Well, here’s an anecdote: I was scheduled to cover a show several weeks ago, but on the day of the show, I didn’t really want to go. I made a plan: when I get to the door of the venue and I’m not on the list, I decided, I’ll just leave. (I had, of course, been assured by the PR rep that I’d be on the list.) I arrived, I wasn’t on the list, and I left. So really, you can almost plan to not be on The Guestlist. Headache, right?
By this point, you may be starting to see how The Guestlist must cause stress for everyone involved. The tour manager may have bigger fish to fry, dealing with venue staff and possibly irresponsible artists, than being johnny-on-the-spot for the distant PR agent transmitting The Guestlist. The artists have to deal with everyone who knows anyone they ever might have known asking them—right up until the last minute—for spots on The Guestlist. And the venue has to manage this hole-ridden document, including turning away people who say they should be on The Guestlist but aren’t.
As for us—the journalists—on the frequent occasions when our theoretical Gueslist placement does not become an actual Guestlist placement, we’re left feeling like assholes, looking at a bouncer who’s heard “but I’m supposed to be on the list” so many times that he’s about to snap. But I am supposed to be on the list! Really!
What do we do when we’re not on The Guestlist? Well, we get creative. We try explaining to the door person. Then we try to find someone who can find the tour manager. Sometimes we just give up and leave—but I’ve only done that when I really wasn’t that enthusiastic about covering the show in the first place. It’s a credit to the responsible and hardworking staff at local music venues—in particular at First Avenue, by far the busiest local rock club—that I’ve always managed to find someone who’s willing to listen and work with me to do what needs to be done to get us in to cover the show.
But it’s a pain in the ass, right? For us, for them, for everyone. Guestlists are nothing but trouble, but they’re a necessary trouble.
Taking a rosy-glassed big-picture view, one can see that the perpetual problems with The Guestlist are a side effect of what makes live music so much fun—it’s a highwire act. The artist converges with the venue and the audience, and months of planning—booking, ticketing, practicing, building sets and sound systems—have to pay off with a smoothly-run show where not only does a lighting rig not fall on anyone’s head but where some actual artistic expression takes place.
Often, shit goes wrong. Sometimes it’s little shit (the guy from the Daily Planet isn’t on The Guestlist), sometimes it’s big shit (a lighting rig falls on someone’s head). Some of this shit going wrong can be blamed on certain music people being kind of flaky (and a lot of music people are kind of flaky), but even the most responsible people (and a lot of music people are very responsible and conscientious) are working in a system with so many moving parts, and so many uncertainties, that shit is virtually guaranteed to go wrong. When it doesn’t, everyone high-fives and rocks out…except for that guy standing outside with his phone, trying to find an e-mail from the PR rep.
“But I am supposed to be on the list!”
Photo: Lookbook at First Avenue in 2010. I was supposed to be on that list. I wasn’t on the list. I worked it out.