Why are we rock fans treated so badly?

It's long ceased to be the sole province of the young; people now watch Oasis and Pulp `en famille'
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The Independent Culture
THIS COUNTRY has a Prime Minister who once played in a rock band. That perhaps goes some way to explaining why next week a government-appointed body will meet to discuss the state of live music.

Unfortunately, the Music Industry Forum, which includes the rock star Mick Hucknall, will focus on the situation for bands, promoters and managers. If we had a Prime Minister or a Culture Secretary who regularly attended rock concerts, I suspect the focus of the report would be rather different. For the one art form where it is seen as de rigueur to treat audiences badly, make booking tickets a nightmare and downplay such incidentals as being able to see and hear properly, is the rock concert.

Two generations have now grown up reared on rock music and regard going to see a band just like going to an opera or theatre. But the big rock concert promoters clearly think back to their own youths, mud-splattered Glastonbury festivals and spaced-out afternoons at the Roundhouse, as the benchmark for how to enjoy live music.

However, rock music has long since ceased to be the sole province of the young. Thirty, 40, and 50-somethings go to rock concerts just as they do to operas. People watch not just the Spice Girls but also Oasis and Pulp en famille.

Though "watch" can be an exaggeration. How often at a rock concert can you really see and hear properly? Most concerts at places such as Wembley have untiered seating in front of the stage; and when people stand up - in other words within 20 seconds of the concert starting - those under 6ft tall see no more of the show.

Even more annoying are the enforced and totally unnecessary delays to the start of every rock concert You stand sardine-style in sweltering conditions for an hour watching roadies touch amplifiers and gaze intently at wires - I mean what do they actually do that couldn't have been done during the afternoon? Starting times on the tickets bear no relation to the real start time. Yet if you ring up the venue and use an in-phrase (such as "give me the running order") you will find that it is known,precisely, to the minute, when the group comes on and off stage. Those supposedly spontaneous encores are in fact planned to the last detail.

Why, also, is rock the one entertainment where it is considered pedantic to want to know where you are sitting when you buy your ticket? Venues often will inform you only of the price range. The row itself is a nice, or more often nasty, surprise on the night.

Promoters are, of course, not helped by the choice of venues. It is quite incredible that while we can be said to have led the world in rock music since 1963, Britain does not possess one purpose-built rock venue. Just as incredible is the fact that while hundreds of millions of pounds are going from the national lottery to build new museums, new theatres and new opera houses, not a penny of lottery money has been earmarked for a rock venue.

Our most famous venue for rock concerts is Wembley, a place built as a swimming-pool, then used for ice-skating, where now most of the seats do not even face the stage. The one area of the venue where you can see and hear well is well-nigh impossible to book. It is reserved for record company staff and other guests (and, of course, the critics, many of whom would do well to review concerts from the sight- and sound-impaired standpoint of most of the audience).

Wembley is not alone. In the rest of the country many venues are also converted sports halls or shed-like, soulless barns. Real atmospheric rock venues, such as the much lamented Rainbow in London, are now long gone.

I would like to suggest a rock concert code of practice, which would include the phone number of a complaints hotline printed on the back of every ticket. In one court case where fans did bring a complaint, the judge ruled against the rock fans as they had not made their complaint on the night of the concert. (If he had been to a rock concert himself, he would know that is virtually impossible in the frenetic atmosphere of a show.)

Above all, what we need are purpose-built venues with comfortable seating upstairs and a dance floor in front of the stage for those who wish to stand or gyrate to the music. The Empire in London's Shepherd's Bush comes closest to this. But it should be the norm. Every big city should have a proper rock venue, with a main house for big gigs and a smaller space for more intimate concerts. The venues could also start treating their customers like grown-ups.

I know, it's only rock'n'roll. But we shouldn't have to suffer to watch it.

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