It seems simple: If you’re in the business of selling people tickets to see musicians, you should try to make the people and the musicians as happy as possible. And yet, thanks to their possession of prime locations (and the fact that the concert business in America is a shameful monopoly), certain big-box venues (ahem … Hammerstein, Roseland, “The Fillmore New York”) have gotten away with treating both groups poorly: muddy sound, bad views, jam-packed bars. But we may be able to look back at this year—specifically, Iggy Pop’s April 9 show at Washington Heights’s United Palace Theatre, and even more specifically the moment he invited the entire audience onstage, during the song “No Fun”—as a turning point for the forces of musical good.
The United Palace has the advantages of the traditionally dominant venues—vast seating, a breathtaking interior—but in spirit, it’s more like the new, smaller clubs giving the old standbys a run for their outrageous service fees. The acoustics are great, a tiered layout ensures good views for everyone, and the stage is capable of accommodating a big-time band while keeping things intimate enough that the audience can rush onto it. (But only when asked! Always be considerate of your idols, audiences.) For these developments, concertgoers can at least in part thank Bowery Presents, the business behind such standout venues as Mercury Lounge and the Bowery Ballroom. Michael Swier, a partner in the company, opened the Mercury Lounge in 1994. “I wanted to build a place where musicians would want to play,” he says. The ceiling was hung on springs and sand stuffed in the stage, creating artist-pleasing acoustics. “When you build a stage where bands can hear themselves really well,” Swier says, “they’re not guessing. They’re going to play better.”
In the past year or so, the United Palace and a number of other venues have taken that lesson to heart while dedicating themselves to sensible spatial design. The Music Hall of Williamsburg is in the same space that formerly housed Northsix, but the Bowery folk took it over and created a vaulted ceiling with fewer hard edges, making it feel like a concert hall. Studio B, near the Greenpoint waterfront, has a wide layout that keeps bar lines away from the action; the back bar and lounge are also raised about a foot off the main floor, which allows for better views than one usually finds in a club of its size. The HighLine Ballroom, positioned next to a Western Beef supermarket in Chelsea, spreads the crowd along a room whose long edges face the stage, so that no one’s more than 100 or so feet away. And in Hell’s Kitchen, Terminal 5’s approach is vertical: Two mezzanines rise above the floor, creating a spectacle of flailing arms and bopping heads hanging off railings more than 25 feet in the air. One recent visitor compared it to a scene out of Total Recall, which seems appropriate: This, one hopes, is the future of live music in New York.