Written by Dylan Sparrow with Sam Weisberg
Although it’s apparently a decade-old institution and counting, I hadn’t heard of the Infringement Festival until last year. I’m guessing that if you live outside the blast radius of Buffalo, NY, you haven’t heard of it either.
A little background
For the unfamiliar, Infringement is a shambolic two-month “arts” hoedown that includes, among other things, live music. It’s an anything-goes situation with seemingly no criteria for entry beyond being a hominid that moves, makes noises, and/or brings objects to display. I am sorry to report that my experience as a performer at this festival last year was easily the worst I’ve had in any gigging situation. I am writing this to warn any others who would make the mistake I did.
As a musician, my gut instinct has always been to avoid playing festivals. My bandmate, Sam, has no such instinct, and is also gifted in the art of cajolery. After a bit of prodding, he convinced me to sign our band up for a performance slot at the festival. Keep expectations low, we agreed. Do it for valor, a few drink tickets and an opportunity to stay warm as performers, we told ourselves. Everything else is out of our control.
Artists were to expect little if any money; cool. Advertising would be minimal, presumably per the actual scope of the event; cool. Requests for a reliable backline list were met with vague and tentative responses down to the last minute; cool. Being city folk, neither of us own cars, so we knew we’d be sitting in Amtrak trains and taxis for 20+ hours before the whole thing was over. Cool! That’s the word we kept saying, over and over, like a mantra. “Cool.”
Still, there were bigger red flags early on. Sam described Curt Rotterdam, the festival’s music organizer, as particularly terse. I know, I know: big whoop. If you play live music at the DIY level for longer than a few months, you will encounter terseness. Mr. Rotterdam, however, was more than terse. Let me explain the chronology of events that lead up to him screaming at me over the phone and then hanging up before I could say a word.
We were booked for August 1st and 2nd at two different venues in town: Nietzsche’s, which is a dive bar, and Dreamland, a house-cum-art space. We packed only the bare essentials: one guitar, one bass, a drum machine, cables, and a single pair of clean underwear (one guy per leg hole). Even in this pared-down state, traveling would be clunky, but a little exercise never hurt nobody. Thankfully, Sam’s wife Adina elected to help schlep our stuff as zero hour approached. We were ready for the festival!
After a long and dozy train ride, we pulled into a train depot in neighboring Depew, located on the portentously-named Dick Road. An expensive cab then delivered us to the co-op offered as free lodgings for festival musicians. Throughout the weekend, the three of us would be sleeping on cramped sofas in a living room crawling with SNES games, VHS tapes and clothing while the 15 denizens—who were all very friendly—went about their business around us.
This house was also fairly close to Nietzsche’s, so we headed over on the early side to sound check. The sound guy, a man named Patrick Sears, quickly revealed himself to be an archetypical disgruntled, condescending sound guy. Working musicians have all come across some variation of Patrick. He barked at us to move our gear around and gesticulated as if in the midst of housebreaking dogs. We played it cool, because, “cool.”
Problems, part one
Shortly after sound check, my backpack containing some gear and clothing went missing. I quietly paced around the stage, the venue and the backstage area in search of it. Coming up empty, I asked Sam to keep an eye out for it. We both agreed it was unlikely that anyone took it. Despite my having a strong mental image of the bag sitting on the stage moments before it vanished, I chalked it up to a brain glitch on my part. I then left the venue to retrace my footsteps.
I revisited the fast food joint up the block that we’d stopped at along the way. This was the only other place I could imagine the bag would be. No dice though, so I returned to the club a few minutes later, disappointed but ready to rock the house. Show time!
As I approached the stage, Patrick Sears very aggressively hurled something large and heavy at my face. Not my hands. My face. My reflexes were still sharp from playing Final Fight back at the co-op, so I managed to catch it. If I hadn’t caught the backpack, it would have been an unpleasant sensation.
“Look a little harder before you accuse my staff of stealing, eh?” he snapped at me with a cadence that briefly transformed Nietzsche’s into a high school locker room. Considering neither Sam nor I had accused anyone of stealing, I first assumed this was some in-joke that had been cooked up in my absence. Stunned, I attempted to smirk it off, but Patrick’s expression remained a fixed mask of hostility, and I quickly surmised that he was, in fact, not joking.
You know the kind of anger you get when your most cynical thoughts feel like truths on display? I had that. I restrained myself, arriving at the intonation: “Don’t throw things at me. That’s not fuckin’ cool, man.” I stressed the word “cool,” and returned his stare. He said nothing, walking off the stage.
Sam explained that my bag had been somehow nudged behind the large black cloth that made up the back of the stage. In my orientation, most stage tapestries have solid walls behind them, but every venue has its quirks. So, my bad. I’ll be sure to study the architectural blueprints of every venue I play from now on. Cool!
Our set was performed for an almost empty room. Despite Mr. Sears doing what Condescending Sound Guy invariably does, i.e. neglect to mix us properly and be generally absent, we felt our performance went as well as it could. A tree does fall in the woods.
We spent the next hour or so simmering at a corner table, enjoying our semi-free beer while a series of incongruous acts periodically filled the room up with mostly melodious sound. The “headlining” band, Joseph & The Beasts, actually drew a considerable audience. Although their style of music was much different than ours, we appreciated their set and told them so afterwards. Although they seemed to have a subtly icy onstage rapport with Patrick as well, no more objects were hurled.
The club scene eventually spilled back outside. I made myself scarce while Sam, who has always been more extroverted than me, made the rounds, chatting up whoever would engage him. Somehow he struck up a conversation with a local who mentioned that he used to book shows with Curt Rotterdam, but parted ways, as he “isn’t the easiest guy to deal with.”
We spent the next day walking around metropolitan Buffalo. It was a bit more desolate than we’d expected (Chippewa Street was largely shuttered) but we managed to locate a charming Italian restaurant surrounded by empty stretches of concrete, and there we sat down to eat a well-deserved, gargantuan lunch.
In the late afternoon, a tumultuous rainstorm hit. We hid under the awning of a liquor store in Allentown for about an hour; not much else was open. When it cleared up, Sam went to meet up with Patrick from Nietszche’s to collect our money. I waited outside, knowing that if I had to deal with that guy it might not end well. Sam soon reemerged with about $100 in his hand, reporting that the transaction went smoothly with no ill will exchanged. We collectively breathed a small sigh of relief. Alright! So far it’s just another day in musician land, right? Onward ho.
When we showed up at Dreamland a few hours later, the atmosphere seemed temporarily warmer. It was basically an open party, not an official club like Nietzsche’s, and we initially considered this to be a good thing.
Dreamland’s apparent matriarch, a woman named Dana McKnight, initially came across as friendly. We exchanged some brief niceties during setup, and I felt a good vibe starting to settle. Her band Orcsmear, which had been described to us as a “Lord Of the Rings-themed noise band,” were supposedly playing after us.
All the musicians brought and shared their own beer and food—including us—and the place was crawling with local youths. Although the scene was a bit cliquish, we didn’t mind. As it had already been stipulated that we’d make no money from this night’s gig, we figured a packed house is still preferable to a hundred bucks if we had to choose.
This is where things get craptastic.
Problems, part two
A minor technical issue then precipitated a shift in the staff’s attitude towards us. Their floor-mounted P.A. wasn’t receiving any sound from our drum machine. Figuring it was a problem on my end, I fiddled with it myself to no avail. None of the staff seemed to care. I asked a staff member (I think his name was Seth) if he could help. He rolled his eyes at me and then told me to help him drag the P.A. speaker across the room and we’d try a different outlet. A growing audience looked on patiently.
The outlet change seemed to work. Now we were getting sound out of the P.A., but it was incredibly weak, distorted sound prone to feedback. Fuck it, show time! We jacked the drum machine volume as high as we could get it, which was loud enough to be workable, and decided that any more lost time tweaking ran the risk of sucking the air out of the room.
We launched into our first song, “Don’t Go,” and watched as the audience proceeded to blithely disavow the song’s refrain. Maybe they simply just couldn’t hear it; the mix was so distorted that I think my voice just sounded like “blurb de durp doof, wuh durgurr.” By the song’s conclusion, half the room had migrated back to the hangout spots in various other areas of the house. Despite the tides, we didn’t hold back after that. Sometimes you just gotta go for it, even if the audience doesn’t.
About 30 minutes into our closely-timed 40-minute set—by which point very few people were watching—Dana McKnight waltzed onstage and drastically lowered the volume on the drum tracks. She did so mid-song, and without any warning. “Yeahhh,” she said in a loud, snarky tone. “You guys are just a bit too loud, so we’re gonna turn this down, mmkay?”
I continued to play the song to the best of my ability while Sam paused to try reasoning with her, informing her that we needed the drums at that level or we’d fall out of time. That fell on deaf ears. We were certainly not as loud as the six-piece indie rock band that came on before us, so this baffled us. Sensing the sabotage was complete, I said nothing, but turned and fixed her with a stare, never taking my eyes off of her as I simultaneously played my instrument. She broke into nervous laughter before ducking back out.
As the rhythmic backbone of our music had now become a vague blur, the song began to fall apart. I’m actually fine with things falling apart when the forces of entropy get all up in my grill like that. I try to have fun with it; I don’t see the point in playing a neutered, obsequiously consonant set for people who have long ago decided they weren’t interested. Sam has never been on board with this mindset. As such, we deal with setbacks like these in different ways. Sam prefers to stay professional no matter what happens, even if that means looking like a wind-up doll. I take a more “situationist” approach that can either be described as “punk rock” or “applied immaturity,” depending on your perspective.
This is all to say that I saw the last few minutes of our set as an opportunity to be an appropriate opening act for a “Lord Of the Rings-themed noise band.” I howled whatever nonsense came into my head and scraped away at my instrument carelessly, turning our song “The Zenith Imperative” into a grinding dirge. Dana reappeared again during this to wave a giant clock in my face, informing me that a half hour is apparently enough. Unfazed, I performed the “song” through to completion, which lasted another four or five minutes, still landing us short of our modest set time.
I was annoyed, but remained civil with everyone around me. I didn’t argue or accuse. I simply helped Sam pack up our stuff and retreated to the kitchen to sit and mind my own business for a while. Sam and Adina soon joined me and we sat around staring into space while we processed the experience. The next act came on, a solo techno artist who was saddled with that same crappy, blurry P.A. His music was barely audible.
“God, this guy sucks,” a clique member sitting nearby said aloud, looking sideways in our direction. “People shouldn’t play music out a P.A. It just doesn’t work.”
“Well,” I countered calmly, “it depends on the venue. If this guy were playing in a big nightclub, he’d probably do fine.” Perhaps he thought my response too tempered, as he simply frowned and slinked away.
The malice of McKnight
Dana McKnight eventually appeared and began chatting openly with various people around me. By the time she’d reappeared, my frustration had been replaced with a nebulous feeling. I was ready to just drop the negative energy, at least until we were out of there.
Dana proceeded to turn to me and tell me about her band. I was informed that, due to some issue, Orcsmear would not be playing that night. This didn’t stop her from telling me about the details of their costumes, the places they’d played (they’d been together for two months), and so forth.
I sat there listening with a mixture of legitimate and feigned interest, asking a question or two and generally allowing myself to be swept up in the picture she was painting. Perhaps sensing that my guard was down, she then paused and her tone of voice changed.
“By the way, you were an asshole,” she said bluntly.
“How was I an asshole?” I asked her.
“You were giving me attitude. I have the right to turn down your sound. You have to respect the rules of the host.”
“I did respect your rules,” I said. “We didn’t touch the volume level. Short of stopping mid-song, we finished our set when you wanted us to.”
“Look, I know you’re a young punk rocker, maybe you haven’t played many gigs,” she continued, “but you have to learn how to deal with people turning you down. My band? We play noise. If someone messes with our sound, we don’t complain, we just keep playing.”
I looked at Dana. She was visibly younger than me, as were all her friends. I informed her that as a “young punk rocker,” I’ve been gigging for over 20 years, and that I understand how this works, and that I did not actually violate any standard house rules. She looked at me in disbelief. “20 years?! Damn, how old are you?” she said. Her clique all huddled around her, eyeing us suspiciously.
If you don’t know me, I am about 5’10, I visibly possess the ability to grow a full salt-and-pepper beard, and my voice is on the deep side. I am not Emmanuel Lewis. Unfortunately.
I told her my age. A theatrically exaggerated expression of shock darted across her face. “What? No way! Living the life, huh?” she remarked. Her friends all parroted her sentiment with off-putting oohs and gestures.
I mentioned the effort and expenses involved in us playing a free, truncated set in a far-away venue. She told me she didn’t care. I tried a few other lines of appeal, but she interrupted each one and repeated that she didn’t care. She played in a noise band, she repeated, and they never sassed back to nobody.
“We don’t play noise,” I told her. “Noise is fine, but not all artists have the same requirements. What can I say? We’re at an impasse. Let’s just drop it.”
She performed an impressive neck-roll and continued to force the issue. “You know, we might have invited you back here if you didn’t act like such an asshole.”
“We don’t want to be invited back,” I informed her.
Flustered, she then left the room, mumbling something unintelligible. I came under the quick impression that unflinching gratitude and subservience were qualities she expected from musicians. I turned to my group, and we all agreed it was time to leave.
Once outside, our mood sank even deeper. We needed some time to sit down and decompress. Spotting what we thought was an abandoned church parking lot, we put down our instruments and sat on a pair of wheel stops next to a dumpster. I stared at the ground, unhealthily fatalistic musings swirling through my mind.
Right then a short, skinny bearded man of about 50 years old came out of his apartment complex across the way. He stared at us with intense distrust.
“This is private property,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
“We’ve had a rough night,” Sam explained. “We just played a show that didn’t go well and we’re recovering.”
“Well you can recover someplace else,” he snarled. “Get out before I call the police.”
“Great town!” Adina remarked as we got up and walked away. Even as we clearly were evacuating the premises, this man followed behind us, watching us like a hawk for a good 5 minutes until we were completely out of his supposedly legal jurisdiction. “We’re on the fucking street!” Sam screamed. “You can’t do anything, fuck you!” But he stood there staring ahead, probably long after we left.
The next morning, a gentle depression lingered. We didn’t want to hit anyone or exact any revenge, we just wanted to get the fuck out of Buffalo. We laid low at the co-op for a few hours and took turns playing Super Mario All-Stars until the floating carpet level started to get annoying. I then went out to the front porch and sat alone for many hours, sullenly staring into space. At some point Sam and I went out to get lunch, even though I wasn’t hungry.
The wrath of Rotterdam
When we returned, Sam checked his phone and realized he’d just missed a call from Curt Rotterdam. No voicemail had been left. Sam called him back.
“Hi Curt. You called?”
“Yeah,” Curt replied. “About eight people that I know, eight volunteers, said you gave them shit during the festival. You got a major attitude problem. If you ever want to play Infringement again—or any festival—I suggest you calm down a little.”
“Uh, let me explain, Curt,” Sam said, indignant. “Nothing happened at Nietzsche’s. There was a misunderstanding. Dylan lost his bag for a second, and for some reason the sound guy thought we were accusing the club of stealing it. We didn’t! And at Dreamland we were a little mad because this girl turned our sound down in the middle of the set, but we didn’t say anything about it—”
“She’s allowed to do that!” he yelled. “It’s her place!”
I heard Sam try to elaborate on why someone should not be allowed to do that, at least not in the fashion she chose, but he kept getting cut off. According to Mr. Rotterdam, eight people complained about us, and he trusts them. He then hung up.
I pulled myself out of my stupor and asked Sam to hand me the phone. As the band leader, I felt like maybe it made more sense if I tried to explain ourselves to Curt Rotterdam. I called him back, and he answered immediately.
“Hey, Curt? Hi, this is Dylan from Giggle the Ozone. Sam just—“
“Yeah. I’m going tell you the same thing that I told him. You guys were douche bags. At least eight different people complained about you guys. If you ever play Buffalo again, you’d better learn to respect the venues.”
“Wait. Hold on. Can I explain myself?” I asked.
“No. I don’t want to hear it,” he said, his voice rising in volume.
“Excuse me, but we didn’t even interact with eight people over the course of this entire festival. That doesn’t even make sense—“
“Hey! Hey! I don’t want to hear it!” Curt screamed over me.
“So you’re just not gonna let me talk?” I pressed. “So you’re just gonna yell and not listen to my side of the story? You know, even cops—”
Again, he hung up.
I handed Sam his phone back and plopped onto the rocking chair out front. Sam texted Curt his full version of what went down, since, as of yet, there’s no technology that enables people to cut off texts mid-sentence.
He wrote back: “Yeah, I don’t CARE what the reasons were. These people have been my friends for YEARS and said you gave them shit. You need to change your attitude. Try fucking charm school or something.”
Sam wrote back: “You are a very angry person and I hope you find inner peace soon.” I’m glad he was manning the phone, as I don’t know if my response would have been as zen.
Our train was arriving soon, so we packed up our stuff, thanked the co-op people (who welcomed us back anytime), and found ourselves back at Dick Road just in time for a long, cramped train ride back to Penn Station.
I don’t want this account to serve merely as a tale of first-world woe. I believe it helps highlight how archaic the standard artist/venue relationship has become. When it comes to playing independent music in places such as Nietzsche’s, we’re stuck with this quaint proposition:
Artist performs, venue is compensated with fan-derived money and clout. Venue provides “appropriate” pretense for performance, artist is compensated with increased audience and/or fan-derived money. The actual content of the performance is a tertiary factor, even though this tends to be what artists value most.
Both sides collaborate to sustain an insidious delusion: the existence of an abundant, free-floating class of alcoholic “indie music fans.” It is fabled that these fans are particularly hungry for obscure live music. In fact, they prefer it to the myriad alternatives available on any given night. They heed gig posters, make note of stickers on restroom stalls, and spend untold hours surfing Soundcloud out of the sheer joy of discovery.
Such people may have once roamed the earth in packs. In the developed world, they clearly no longer do. The expectation that a business would derive significant revenue from such people is just plain silly. It probably has been since jukeboxes could hold more than 100 songs, but it’s especially so today. The only way it wouldn’t be silly is if the venue actually liked the artists it booked.
In reality, unsupported artists are just playing the lotto. They’re hoping that the venue will have a built-in audience inclined to enjoy and remember them, and that the venue is nice enough to pay them regardless of draw.
On the venue’s side, there is less to lose in the immediate. A single poorly-attended 45-minute slot hurts the artist more than it does the bar. But the risk for such venues is cumulative; if they provide “talent shows” for too many hopelessly insolvent acts, that could drive away potential patrons with needlessly loud noise. Let’s face it, this is what most live music in bars is.
Places like Dreamland might view “clout” as more important than money. This is fine by me, since I’m all for building a culture in which money is not a prime motivator. But fostering an environment that isn’t mutually beneficial, in any tangible way, is just a waste of human energy.
Audiences’ expectations are not the same as they were in the 1950’s, yet most artists and venues proceed as if this isn’t the case. The magical thinking and notions of artistic exceptionalism that once buoyed a whole industry are no longer helpful. So, maybe live music needs to change.
I have a few ideas about how we might change it, but instead of taxing you with quixotic musings, I urge to you to join in the brainstorming process. Share this with your friends. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts. Start a band. Build a bridge. Plant a baby.
We didn’t write this to tell concertgoers where to spend their evenings. But if you’re an artist weighing whether or not you should risk money, time and emotional energy to participate in a small festival in upstate New York, go with your gut. I suspect this won’t be a problem for a lot of people. But it was for us.