What is dimming the charm of live gigs? Lessons from the Trevor Noah and AR Rahman shows

For consumers of live gigs, there's always the promise of adrenalin rush. But the recent two fiascos tell a different story.

ByFathima Ashraf | Rama Ramanan | Roshne Balasubramanian

Published Sep 29, 2023 | 9:00 AMUpdatedSep 29, 2023 | 9:00 AM

AR Rahman/ Trevor Noah from their live performances earlier (Instagram)

“Dear Bengaluru India, I was so looking forward to performing in your amazing city but due to technical issues, we’ve been forced to cancel both shows. We tried everything but because the audience can’t hear the comedians on stage there’s literally no way to do a show. We’ll make sure all ticket holders receive a full refund and again I’m so sorry for both the inconvenience and disappointment this has never happened to us before.” — Trevor Noah

This is no Shakespearean comedy of errors, but a tragedy for Trevor. And yet, the joke was on Bengaluru, India’s Silicon Valley.

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‘A first’ for Trevor

US-based stand-up comedian Trevor Noah is currently touring India with his new show, Off The Record. From September 22-24, he had two shows in New Delhi. He then had shows scheduled in Bengaluru on September 27 and 28. However, the show on Wednesday night had to be cancelled at the last minute owing to a “technical glitch”.

The show, which was scheduled for 7.30 pm at the Manpho Convention Centre in Bengaluru, was delayed by 30 minutes because Noah was caught in Bengaluru’s infamous traffic. Many fans joked, “Trevor got Bangalored.”

If this wasn’t enough, the show ended abruptly after many members of the audience complained of “bad acoustics”.

All Noah could do was apologise and assure them a full refund.

As recently as 10 September, the highly-anticipated ‘Marakkuma Nenjam’ concert in Chennai, too, left the audience with scarring experiences, both literally and figuratively. Featuring the Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman and organised by ACTC Events in Chennai, the event took a disappointing turn.

Attendees faced a multitude of issues, from traffic congestion and organisational mismanagement to a shortage of volunteers, disturbing incidents of groping and molestation, stampede-like chaos, and subpar audio quality.

For consumers of live gigs, there’s always the promise of adrenalin rush and dopamine doses. But the two recent fiascos tell a different story. One of deceit over deliciousness (of content), and two, of the price paid (no pun intended)!

South First decided to take a deep-dive into what it takes to organise an event for award-winning artistes, the power and the accompanying responsibility of the organisers, and expectation setting versus reality that fans encounter.

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Mismanagement of crowd

Stand-up artiste Trevor Noah’s debut performance in Bengaluru was one of the most anticipated events of the season. It didn’t help that people left work early, and braved the traffic on a Wednesday evening to get to the venue on time. But the experience was far from what they had imagined.

“I left for the venue at 5.30 after work and got to the venue at 7.45 pm. It was so crowded. It looked like they overbooked the place to accommodate as many people as possible. There was no functioning air-conditioning which made things worse. The opening artiste came to perform and nobody could hear anything. The sounds were muffled, and people who sat behind started chanting that they couldn’t hear,” says Bengaluru-based Divya Menon.

After multiple sound checks, the situation seemed to have slightly improved but it was too late. “Trevor was confused if people were saying they could hear or couldn’t. He didn’t want to continue performing with such a poor audio system,” she adds.

During the entire time they were trying to fix the issue, there were announcements asking people “to enjoy the refreshments and that they “will be back soon”. But that never happened. It was disappointing,” Menon recounts.

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Is this a pattern?

In 2022, during musician Pradeep Kumar’s concert at the Music Academy, Chennai, audience members occupying balcony seats voiced their displeasure as the speakers malfunctioned, diluting their musical experience.

Earlier this year, at the Yuvan Shankar Raja concert in YMCA Nandanam conducted by Noise and Grains, there was a severe case of crowd mismanagement, with many attendees leaving the event just to catch their breath.

The Wow Madurai ‘Happy Street’ event organised by Madurai Corporation, Madurai City Police, Arroww Digital & Iyarkaicst, ran into trouble and ended abruptly due to poor arrangements by the organisers.

“Indoor auditoriums like Good Shepherd in Bengaluru, and Music Academy in Chennai, with a seating capacity of 1,500-2,000, have a pre-designed sound and light experience for the audience. So, big shows here don’t have an issue if it’s conducted indoors,” asserts Charles B, founder of Medai, a performing arts space in Chennai and Bengaluru.

“But in the case of Trevor Noah and AR Rahman, which were open-air auditoriums, the issue is that sound travels. We need to ensure acoustics are not disturbed. The effort required is double,” he points out.

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Need to augment audio

Good sound and audio quality are basic ingredients in the success of live events.

Bala S, a Chennai-based seasoned sound engineer with a prominent sound production and design company, weighs in on the technical aspects of a concert set-up.

According to him, in standard concert configurations, they typically employ a set-up with line array speakers arranged vertically and strategically aimed in various directions to ensure comprehensive audio coverage throughout the venue.

“When I attend concerts,” Bala says, “I always aim to secure seats that are not too close to the speakers but still offer a good listening experience. However, in the ‘Marakkuma Nenjam’ concert, there was only one pair of line array speakers set up at a very low height, which wasn’t sufficient to adequately cover the entire crowd. It would have been better if they had added an additional pair of line array speakers.”

Inevitably, technical issues arise. But the onus is on the organisers, says Charles. Often, organisers procure quotes from vendors and end up with the best quote of the lowest quote, he reveals.

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Right people and right venue are crucial

Bengaluru-based stand-up comic Sonu Venugopal says she is upset for multiple reasons. “I just feel let down because of how it all panned out. I was looking forward to watching him perform. Now I don’t think he (Trevor) will ever want to come back again. Apart from the fact that I didn’t get to see him, I feel embarrassed on behalf of the city.”

Charles concurs, adding that fiascos like this bring shame to the Indian market because word spreads fast.

Besides, the venue sets the tone for the event and impacts the live experience. “I understand that as comics we want to scale up, we want to sell a 500-seater, 3,000-seater, 15,000-seater, etc. Purely from a commercial point of view, it adds a lot of credibility. Comics like to do that, including me. Because it creates that FOMO amongst people who haven’t seen you live,” says Venugopal.

For Charles, who is also an expert in sound, lights and art for theatre, it’s all in the preparation. “Shows held abroad ensure all kinds of checks are done for at least 10 days. That’s how they pull off shows of Shakira and Jennifer Lopez with a crowd of 90,000,” he notes.

Get the right people to do the production, says Venugopal sternly.

“The tickets were expensive and you need to deliver accordingly. It’s not like in Bangalore, we don’t have options. We have indoor stadiums. We have Kanteerava, we have the Koramangla indoor stadium,” she emphasises.

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Safety concerns

On the night of Rahman’s concert, which was held at Adityaram Palace, numerous tweets surfaced, highlighting instances of groping within the crowd. Women took to Twitter and various social media platforms to recount their experiences.

Charulatha Rangarajan, an independent filmmaker, was among those who endured a distressing encounter. As a die-hard fan of the composer, with his name even tattooed, she described the ARR concert as one of the most traumatising experiences in her life.

“I felt threatened and uncomfortable throughout the event and was molested twice. Multiple altercations broke out in my vicinity. Even when an announcement about a missing child was made, it was completely overshadowed and drowned by the next song. My initial hope for a peaceful evening turned into a series of panic attacks and distress,” she recalls.

Beyond the concert, Charulatha found herself grappling with victim shaming on social media platforms.

“I’m speaking out because I have the right to express my disappointment and angst. The whole event was chaotic. VIPs had a better experience, but as fans, we felt let down. The artistes should have apologised, not just in the newspapers. It’s their moral obligation. We came for AR Rahman, not for the chaos,” she adds.

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Reasonable expectations

The expectations of the audience, who invest their hard-earned money in such events, are fundamentally straightforward: clear signposts to guide them to the venue, an efficient parking system, clear directions to gates, access to water and food stalls, restroom facilities, assurance of audience safety, and high-quality audio, even for those holding basic tickets, and in this case, a proper refund clause.

However, it appears that these reasonable expectations were deemed too much to ask for, raising critical questions about event management and attendee safety in large-scale gatherings.

“If an AR Rahman fan is paying ₹50,000 to hear him live, a good audio system is a fair ask. Along with their time, money is a huge factor. If someone is spending ₹4,000 and commuting one hour from Whitefield to watch a live show, it is our responsibility to offer them a good experience,” affirms Charles.

Meanwhile, Sreenivas, a manager at Amazon, remains among those still waiting for a refund from the event organisers. He expressed his exasperation: “I’ve been patiently awaiting a refund of ₹29,000. Initially, AR Rahman tweeted a specific mail ID to send the details for a refund, which I promptly did. However, a few days back, the ACTC organisers shared a different ID, suggesting that the deadline to request a refund was approaching and to mail the details. Mismanagement has been a consistent issue throughout this entire ordeal.”

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Basics must be followed

Ashwath, a curator of shows in Bengaluru and Chennai, details, “The organisers should have done their recce properly. It’s not a pre-recorded event that people are coming to watch. It’s a live performance. In stand-up, the artiste’s voice has to reach everyone, no matter how many people are in the audience. That makes the role of a good audio system crucial.”

There are certain basics to be followed. The seating capacity of the venue should be checked. The stage has to be lit, so that the artist is visible to all. Audio equipment should be of good quality and a good sound engineer should be hired. Parking facilities should be examined and traffic in the area considered, especially when the venue is away from the city. Along with checking the artists’ arrival and security measures, these things also should be planned well, elaborates Ashwath.

Charles worries that such incidents might have a dwindling effect on the physical attendance of shows. In these times of streaming services, where audiences prefer watching shows on OTT, takers of live gigs, who are returning to the outdoors after a horrifying pandemic, might turn sceptical, he fears.

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Positive changes

Despite the recent concert disaster leaving many attendees disillusioned, there are signs of positive changes in event planning. On September 26, Seven Screen Studio, a prominent film production house, made a significant announcement.

They stated that the audio launch event for the movie Leo, starring actor Vijay and directed by Lokesh Kanagaraj, would not take place as originally planned at Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium in Chennai on 30 September.

The reasons cited were overflowing pass requests and safety constraints. This decision is especially significant in light of reports circulating about counterfeit passes being printed and distributed.

With the venue’s capacity limited to accommodating only 6,000 attendees, the decision to cancel the event appears to be a prudent one.

It reflects an awareness of the need to prevent overcrowding and ensure the authenticity of passes, steps crucial to creating a more enjoyable and secure experience for event-goers.

Putting on an unforgettable live show is a solid way to engage people by giving them an in-person experience that gives them a departure from their drudgery. While the recent incidents may be unforgettable for all the wrong reasons, here’s hoping that lessons are learned because the show must go on — for culture to nourish the human spirit!