Rina Sawayama and Robyn (Robyn by Heji Shin, both photos via PR)

Pop Stars Are Dismantling the Stigma Around Going to Gigs Solo

How acts like Robyn – with her recent secret-gig social app – and Rina Sawayama are finding innovative ways to unite their fans IRL.

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31 October 2018, 12:00pm

Rina Sawayama and Robyn (Robyn by Heji Shin, both photos via PR)

Most of us can pinpoint the one concert that changed our lives. For me, it was Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball. At 15 years old, I queued for eight hours to land a front-row spot, but something strange happened in that time: I made a whole new gaggle of glitter-soaked friends. We cried in unison as she emerged on-stage; we squealed as she strapped on her fire-breathing tits; we even shuffled together awkwardly in an ambitious but ultimately misguided attempt to mimic the “Bad Romance” choreography. We were strangers, but on that night our shared fandom forged a bond that made the whole experience exhilarating.

But now, two strands of research seem to be colliding, presenting a bleak picture for people seeking IRL community experiences. On the one hand, you’ve got reports speculating about whether euphoric experiences like my own are becoming a thing of the past, thanks to online music services. It’s like the music-focused arm of all those ‘millennials – what are they like??’ articles, that tend to describe people below 35 as antisocial, Netflix-obsessed hermits. But, on the other hand, both BBC and Office of National Statistics surveys from this year highlighted that 16- to 24-year-old Brits self-identify the loneliest age group in the country. It may well be time to get creative about maintaining those sparks of spontaneity between music lovers.

And so some artists are trying to tackle the stigma around going to gigs alone, by encouraging their fans to go solo. Robyn recently sent fans on a scavenger hunt for tickets to a secret Stockholm gig last weekend, after the release of her long-awaited new album Honey. You needed to download an app to find your way to there, communicating with fellow fans – last Tuesday, Robyn couldn’t hide her delight that once-strangers were carving out new friendships along the way. UK pop star Rina Sawayama took a different approach earlier this year, creating hot-pink wristbands marked with the words “Alone Together.” Rather than being some sort of Tumblr-caption-made-real, they’re a sweet visual signifier to help solo gig-goers identify each other, in the queue before her shows. It’s worth asking: are these initiatives enough to dismantle the bizarre stigma around going it alone?

According to Rina, the answer is yes. “The feedback has been amazing,” she says, explaining happily that fans take photos alongside their new friends and tag her in the pictures (“It makes me super emotional!!!!”). That’s not to say that the idea wasn’t initially met with trepidation: “At first when I introduced it, people were confused or offended that my dancers were asking people if there were alone in the queue. There were some awkward moments for sure.”

But for Rina – whose debut EP, RINA tackled subjects like social media and its link to anxiety and loneliness – the risk was worth it. “I noticed several tweets from people who wanted to come to my shows but didn’t want to go alone,” she continues. “I totally relate to that feeling – I wouldn’t want to go a gig alone either!” And yet, “a lot of people say that my gigs are a safe space, and my fans are super-friendly, so I knew people would welcome the idea. My dancers Windy and Alisha go into the queue before doors open and personally hand [the wristbands] out, so the interaction already starts there. It’s beautiful to see people making friends with people they just met.”

And that Alone Together statement on the wristbands? It’s actually the title of Rina’s favourite book by Sherry Turkle, and served as lyrical inspiration for last year’s EP. “It just felt right,” she says, reiterating that she wanted to show that being alone doesn’t always mean being lonely. For marginalised people, solo outings carry an added layer of significance, and potential risk. If your appearance is likely to make a bigot afraid, then potentially violent, it can mean a lot to know that you can find solace in public. And that makes the idea of gigs that function as safe spaces equally important. Rina recently came out as pansexual on sugary banger “Cherry,” but her shows have long attracted queer fans who know that her message of acceptance and self-love will permeate the venue.

The same can be said of Robyn, who fuses catharsis and heartbreak in a way I can only really describe as legendary. Tracks like “Dancing on My Own” – a bittersweet ode to unrequited love – pump frequently through the speakers of gay bars, and she reciprocates the love shown to her by a strong LGBTQ fanbase on a regular basis. Her gigs become ‘safe spaces’ in and of themselves, so it made sense that the secret app added another layer to the fan-focussed campaign for Honey. The album, written in the throes of grief, values humanity over everything – she just happens to have leveraged technology to facilitate the union of her fans.

But you’ve also got to clock that Robyn’s secret gig app – which basically required people to track down a series of clues in different locations – was created in partnership with Red Bull, leading some to question whether it’s purely promo-driven or a genuinely innovative tool.

“I appreciate artists trying to help their solo fans not feel isolated,” says Freddie Cocker, who founded online platform VENT to facilitate discussions around male mental health. He likens Robyn’s app to those god-awful ‘ice-breaker events’ – you know exactly the kind I’m talking about: “The app does sound a bit contrived in my opinion,” he continues, “although it might work for younger fans – so I appreciate Robyn trying something new in that sense. It’s better than most artists right now.” Freddie first set out for a gig on his own in 2016, when he saw pop-punk stars Yellowcard at Brooklyn Bowl; after weeks of trying to convince flakey friends he got fed up, booked tickets and ended up dancing with a couple he met that night. “After that, I decided that nobody’s ignorance or unwillingness [to commit to buying a ticket] would stop me enjoying live music.”

Taylor McGraa’s joy about being at gigs alone outstrips their anxiety. Taylor’s first solo gig was Princess Nokia at XOYO back in January 2017, but they ended up bumping into people they knew along the way – without feeling pressure to stay with them. “It was so good, because I got to move around wherever I wanted without stressing out about losing people. I’m quite short, so I lose people a lot!” As for Rina and Robyn’s initiatives, Taylor describes them as “kind of interesting, but also a bit gimmicky,” although they admit it may be the case of the ideas not resonating with them personally. “I’m sure it would be great for lots of other people who get anxious going to places alone or want to meet other fans, but for me the whole joy is getting to spend quality time with myself; it’s about experiencing an artist I really love with other strangers who also really love them.”

Robyn and Rina may not have created universal solutions (and we’re not entitled to expect that from them) but they’re at least showing genuine care for their fans, and trying to enhance the solo gig-going experience. You might have a load of reasons for seeing a live act on your own, and none have to the the lazy ‘ur a bit of a weirdo, eh??’ variety. Maybe you’ve had friends cancel at the last minute; maybe you love your own company and want to thrash your limbs around without feeling like you’re being judged by the only faint acquaintance who could actually commit to buying tickets and coming along. If live music really is under threat, whether from venue closures or the so-called YouTube effect, it’ll mean more to artists for us to show up, whether in a massive group or not. Who knows, the show that changes your life may end up being one you watch on your own – we’ve just got to topple the stigma to get there, first.

You can find Jake on Twitter.