Updated: Mar 8, 2022
In this week’s edition of Bright Sounds, Dark Lyrics we explore the phenomenon of bands getting their set times screwed over at shows and its analogies to other aspects of life. Have you ever been the victim of a set time screwing? Post your story in the blog!
Anyone who has ever played in a band for long enough can relate to this scenario. You get booked for a show, you get promised a certain time slot and set length, and you agree to play based on these and other conditions: who the headlining band is, venue, potential turnout, money, etc. At the show however an unforeseen circumstance causes disruption to the natural order of things: a band is late, an important piece of equipment breaks down, or other bands are downright assholes and don’t feel like playing the set time or length they were given. Discussions happen behind the scenes, usually without you involved, and your band ends up playing so late that no one is there to see you, or your set is cut absurdly short. In Seinfeldian fashion we will call this “The Set Time Screw-Over”. Here are a collection of such stories from TSC and also one from my last job. Share your set time screw-over story in the comments below!
My earliest memories of our set time getting screwed over involves the band Speed Crazy. Now I have nothing against these guys, they’re a solid psychobilly band from New Jersey, but they happened to be the cause of inadvertent set time screwing on more than one occasion. One memory in particular that really comes to mind is a gig we played at The Continental in which Speed Crazy arrived late for their opening slot and knew the promoter well enough to push all of the bands back by an hour or more, to the point where we ended up playing at midnight for only a handful of people on a Thursday night. This happened more than once to the point where “Speed Crazy” became the punchline to our jokes said in the same way as “those meddling kids” from Scooby Doo.
3 Floors of Ska: Blizzard Edition
This was one of the most memorable TSC shows for me because we played a gig at the Knitting Factory when all of NYC was covered in a blanket of snow 14 inches high. I remember how unusually peaceful it was in lower Manhattan with no cars on the road… that peace broken only by Tom cursing while slugging his amp through the snow. It wasn’t the snow he was cursing at though, a major bomb had been dropped by Craig earlier in the evening...
Around 6PM before leaving my apartment in Astoria I remember seeing the insane blizzard outside my window and secretly hoped the show would get cancelled so that I could just stay inside where it was warm and cozy and drink scotch. Craig calls me up and says, “Jeff, we have a big problem! I just got to the Knitting Factory and they told us that we’re going on at 7:15 PM”. “What?!! They told me 9:00 PM!”. Craig was with a couple of other high school friends who left on the early side so that they could be in the city before the snow got too bad. That is one of the biggest advantages of NYC, you can still get around in a snowstorm because the subways still run. Apparently so many bands had cancelled that they decided to consolidate everything to two stages and called it “2 Floors of Ska”. For some reason our set time got pushed up several hours earlier. I’m not going to point any fingers at who made this decision, but obviously no one in Tri-State Conspiracy was consulted or going to be there on time for a 7:30 set when we were expecting something much later. It is not unnatural for one to assume that scene politics are behind such decisions.
The show ended up being fun despite all of this. My high school friends were already trashed so they didn’t care. We ended up pushing our set back to the very end in the Tap Room which was at same time that The Toasters were headlining the main stage. Hub City Stompers were playing right before us so I politely asked Travis to encourage everyone to stick around for us. We actually had a small but loyal crew stay for us and they danced their asses off. It feels good when friends side with you over the headliner. My poor high school friends had to take metro north back the next day, while violently hungover, and making all local stops all the way home: a good 3 hour ride from Grand Central to New Haven. They didn’t regret a thing.
“Where’s the Fire?”
This particular gig was notable for being the time that Callum taught us how to stand up for ourselves against the set time screw-over. Callum was the eldest of the group and managed to teach us such lessons from time to time. The event was a backyard party thrown by Craig and a mutual high school friend who were roommates in New Britain, CT. The party featured a few live bands through our network of friends and was dubbed, “Where’s the Fire?” since their apartment was a former firehouse. It turned into a fairly big (and loud) gathering so they checked with the local police ahead of time to see if permits were needed to avoid any skirmishes. They were told “no”, but worst-case scenario they might be asked to stop playing in the event of a noise complaint.
During the afternoon another band attempted to swap set times with us which would have put us on later in the evening. This goes to show you that a set time screw-over can happen even through trusted friend networks. Callum huddled us together and told us how we need to do a better job standing up for ourselves. He came up with a pretty good excuse at the time to stick to our original set time. Unfortunately I can’t remember what the excuse was but it probably had something to do with his 2 hour commute back to Red Hook, NY. It ended up working, despite how aggressive the other band was being, and we ended up playing a solid set for our friends during the peak mid-afternoon turnout. We were lucky because after we left the police showed up and raided the party. Apparently they got very aggressive with the party goers to the point of using physical restraint towards some folks, all because of the loud music. Perhaps they should have gotten that permit after all?
Panteon Rococo at La Boom
I have mixed feelings about this show because on the one hand we got great exposure to a very large audience, however the degree to which we got screwed over set time-wise was pretty bad. We got this gig because Fernando had an in with the promoter and managed to get us on right before the headliner Panteon Rococo, a touring ska band from Mexico. On paper this was pretty amazing because La Boom is a huge venue in Queens and people roll in deep to see shows there. On the other hand, the show had a strict cut off time of 10:30 and also Panteon Rococo insisted on adding an extra opening band at the last minute, despite the promoter’s objections. Well you know what happened next: the opener started 20 minutes later and each band played longer than they were supposed to. As a result we only got to play 3 songs and my microphone wasn’t hooked up correctly so people couldn’t even hear me. Afterwards, Skankin' Richard told me how disappointed he was. I did have a lot of people take photos with me after our performance which was cool but I feel like I let down Skanking Richard who came all the way from Connecticut to see us play.
The most notorious case of set time screw-over was the infamous Jimmy Evil show, so infamous that we actually wrote a song about it on our third album Outbreak. The show was pitched to us as a private party for a “new website dedicated to rockabilly, hot rod, and tattoo culture” with “serious interest from Spike TV”. The show would be fully catered and feature other rockabilly bands and burlesque dancers. This was all bullshit, the guy was the devil and was saying all the right words to pique my interest. The “private party” turned out to be at a dive bar in a strip mall somewhere in Mount Sinai Long Island, the “catering” was a few trays of Chinese food that were mostly empty by the time we arrived, and the audience were Jimmy Evil’s friends who played in shitty metal bands. We had arrived pretty early that afternoon, as we were expecting a more professional set up with a proper sound check. Our set time got pushed back several hours to the point where we only played for 5 people at 11PM on a Sunday night. That was the only gig I’ve ever played where I just wanted to go home and not play.
We just drove 3 hours, no food no open bar.
Hey Jimmy Evil, I’ll be sleeping in my car
Knock three times on my window, when you want me to start playing.
Ain’t coming back here again. Do you understand what I’m saying?
The Big Orange Bonanza
This is my favorite anecdote because it's about the time we finally banded together and stood up against a set time screw-over that almost happened to us in Orange county, NY. The event was called “The Big Orange Bonanza”, a 3-stage outdoor ska festival held in Circleville in the summer of 2007. We were slotted to headline one of the side stages and to finish right before The Slackers who were headlining the main stage. The PA system on one of the stages blew out during the event which forced a reshuffling of bands similar to the 3 Floors of Ska show described earlier. We saw our set list set list taped up, with our original computer printed set time crossed out and our new set time written in pen. As you can guess, we were pushed back and now slotted to play dead last and at the same time as The Slackers.
I think something just snapped in all of us at this point. We were fed up with this bullshit and got so pissed that we decided to finally do something about it. I huddled the team together and tried to pull together the best John Madden play possible. “Okay guys, here’s what’s going to happen. We’re going to pull a New Britain, Connecticut. I want everyone to play dumb about our new set time and and we’re going to rush the stage as soon as this band is finished. Callum and Steve, start setting up your equipment right now. Steve, listen to me… start wiring up your pedals now, I know how long that takes you. If we set up as quickly as possible there it will take several minutes before anyone takes notice. If they do, just play really dumb and polite. We need to set things in motion so quickly that it will seem more inconvenient to take our equipment down again then it will be to just let us play. We can even offer to play a shorter set to seem more polite”.
Craig replied, “And if anyone says anything, we can just say that we’re lending our guitar amp to The Slackers (which was true) and we have to be done before they play”.
“Good thinking Craig! Okay, everyone know they have to do? This is the last song, so let’s do this… Break!”.
Things went according to plan and started setting up. About 50% of the way through one of the sound guys noticed what was up, “Hey you guys are Tri-State right?”
“Yeah so I think In the Face is going on next and you guys are after them”.
“Oh…really? I was told we were going on now”. I was acting as confused as possible.
“Yeah, the PA blew out on the other stage so some of the bands got brought to this stage”
“Huh….I didn’t know that. Well okay we can get off the stage if you want. I mean…. Whoa look at that, it looks like we’re already set up and ready to go though. Maybe we can just play a shorter set? You see… we’re lending our guitar amp to The Slackers so we have to be done before they are”
“Umm….” He looks over at the other tech guys.
“I mean it’s up to you, we don’t mind taking our stuff down. It’s just that we’re all set up and ready to go”.
“Hold on, let me get back to you”. He goes over to confer with the tech guys. A few minutes goes by and he says, “Okay, you guys can go on”.
It worked and we played the set. After our first song I made a reference to David Byrne from Stop Making Sense and said, “Does anyone have any questions?!!”. I thought it would be a rhetorical quirky funny thing, but right then another ska scenester, and good friend of In the Face, comes on stage.
“Yeah I have a question!”
“What is it”
“Um…why is Tri-State Conspiracy playing right now and not In the Face?”
“Good question. It’s because we’re lending our guitar amp to The Slackers and need to finish before them”.
“[long pause] I don’t believe you”. Immediately he walks off the stage.
After our set the scenester / ska police officer, started reprimanding us about what assholes we were being. Tom was just taking it all in as he usually does with belligerent people, “Yup…..uh huh….okay…….yeah this kind of stuff happens to us all the time……yup…..okay….mm hmmm”.
The next night though we played a show with said scenester’s band in Providence, RI. When I arrived, Tom was already there drinking beer in the parking lot smoothing things over with his bandmates. It reminded me of that scene in Swingers when Vince Vaughan invites the other guys over to the apartment to play Sega hockey after their altercation in the parking lot of the Dresden Restaurant.
Looking back I’m really proud of the teamwork that we all demonstrated in that situation. I came up with the playbook strategy, Craig fed me the one liner to shut people up, everyone came together to implement the plan quickly, and Tom smoothed everything over after. So proud.
Believe it or not, the set time screw over phenomenon is not limited to playing shows, it also happens in corporate America, too. Not too long ago I was taken off a product line that I was managing, mostly due to internal office politics, and right before I was about to present an invention to the executive team that I had been nurturing for 2 years. I suspect that a narcissistic manager had an issue with me shining too brightly in that office. As a result, the concept was literally ripped out of my hands and presented by someone else. As I sat there back stage I suddenly had flashbacks to the above anecdotes. The punk ska kid in me said, "fuck this" and made a brief cameo on stage anyways just to irritate the powers that be. This internal shift set me on a path to quitting that job and starting my own company.
So those are my stories. What’s your set time screw-over story? Post it below!