Why Are We So Obsessed with Musicians’ Riders?

The post Why Are We So Obsessed with Musicians’ Riders? appeared first on Consequence.

There’s never a shortage of discourse. Not in politics, not in sports, and certainly not in online music circles. When it comes to the latter, on any given day, there’s a topic du jour, be it some asshole (Ben Shapiro) rapping with some other asshole (Tom MacDonald) or a hardcore band kicking out a member for secretly feeding their bassist estrogen. Though, one point of interest seems to pop up on a strangely regular basis: riders. Just yesterday (March 12th), a blurry picture of Pavement’s 1999 rider once again sparked thread upon thread dissecting the merit of musicians asking venues for snacks and a case of beer — leading many to ask, are we really doing this again? Why are we so obsessed with musicians’ riders?

For the unfamiliar, a rider is a list of hospitality requests made on behalf of a touring artist. They’re sent to promoters and venues who, in turn, might fulfill all, some, or none of the asks. (Think Van Halen requesting no brown M&Ms backstage.) More often than not, these are not contractual obligations, though, of course, the more famous the artist, the more pressure they can apply to ensure the green room will have exclusively colorful M&Ms.

Pavement might be the latest band to go viral for their rider, but they’re not the first to get caught up in social media crossfire. Jack White’s inclusion of a homemade guacamole recipe on his rider elicited plenty of digital chuckles, and an unknown DIY group was put on blast for merely having a rider when, according to the original poster, they might have struggled to sell tickets.

But why do these posts garner such engagement? Riders are extremely commonplace when it comes to live events; both pop stars and indie bands alike have their own. So, why is a practice that nearly every band in your Spotify library engages in so darn interesting?

Well, for one, it’s the a great opportunity to dunk on strangers — and dunking on strangers is the internet’s bread and butter. Quips and witty comments are catnip for posters, and the idea of some entitled, famous, rich artist asking for a handout or a low-level indie band acting like hotshots is fertile ground for a flaming hot takes.

And, like, sure, whatever. Internet callouts are nothing new, and they’re not even necessarily always unwarranted. But in the specific case of the rider, there’s certain undertones that pervade the criticism. Behind laughing at [REDACTED]’s request for six hot vegan meals, there’s the implication that touring musicians should be roughing it, sleeping in vans and scraping by on nothing more than the strength of their will until they hit the big time.

It’s a notion that artists have been fighting for a while. Before Wednesday dropped one of the most acclaimed indie records of 2023, they caught backlash for the unspeakable transgression of staying in a hotel. “It’s called ‘sleeping in a Walmart parking lot’ you cowards,” one user replied when the band posted their expenses playing South By Southwest in 2022. “Y’all soft as fuck,” read another reply. If a band can’t even spend their own earnings on a bed to sleep in, what business do they have asking a promoter to provide food?

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What’s important to remember, however, is that these asks are just that — asks. It’s no secret that it’s become harder and harder for smaller and mid-level bands to turn a profit (or even break even) on tour. Riders can help make the process much easier, and safer, for everyone involved, and if the promoter is unable or unwilling to fulfill any requests, rarely does it become an insurmountable issue. What’s more is that, depending on the details of the contract, it’s not uncommon for rider items to come out of the artists’ pocket, with expenses being taken out of the guarantee or ticket sales split.

Anecdotally, I’ve experienced this first hand. Back when I booked shows for my alma mater’s student radio station (go rock lobsters!), I encountered riders on the regular. Being a woefully underfunded student organization at a state school, there were many times we didn’t have the budget to cover a majority of the artists requests. And yet, not only did it never once cause drama, the artists were extremely understanding and polite about it. One of the few times we did manage to secure the budget to hit the grocery store prior to a show, the band even made a point to express both their gratitude and their surprise that we got everything they listed.

The utility of riders extends beyond asking for lunch, too. It’s a space for artists to make known any accommodations they might need in their quarters, from giving notice of an allergy to requesting no alcohol backstage. Even when requests are objectively silly on the surface, there’s almost always some reason behind it. Remember Van Halen’s seemingly ridiculous ban on brown M&Ms? As it turns out, it was actually the band testing the production staff of the venue. Their elaborate, pyrotechnic-heavy stage show was as dangerous as it was exciting; if something went wrong, someone likely would have gotten seriously injured. Thus, brown M&Ms became a first warning. If they saw any in their candy bowl, they knew the venue staff likely didn’t read through their rider as carefully as needed, and would ensure to test the fireworks with even more care.

Could Van Halen have accomplished the same thing in a less dickishly diva way? Most definitely. At the same time, is it a relatively harmless practice with, at least according to the band, intention behind it? Also, yes.

To the internet’s credit, plenty of people recognize all of this. Just head to any of the viral posts —  including yesterday’s — to find a wave of responses defending the artists and commenting on how reasonable the requests really are. In fact, these people’s awareness is likely one of the factors that lead to these posts becoming so widespread. There’s a certain aspect of controversy-bait, as both the dunkers and the defenders will come out of the woodworks and engage with the post.

So, while there’s a certain level of novelty in seeing what your favorite band’s go-to snacks are, maybe we’re not actually all that obsessed with musicians’ riders. Perhaps, we’re just obsessed with discourse, and riders present a perfect, relatively low-stakes battlefield for opinion slinging. Or, I don’t know, maybe everyone just wants to try Jack White’s recipe for guac.

Why Are We So Obsessed with Musicians’ Riders?
Jonah Krueger

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