Nicki Minaj @ BEC, 19.05.2012

You look at photos or videos of Nicki Minaj and you think “That’s got to be fun to photograph”. I mean it just has to be really, doesn’t it? How could it fail? It has to be worth a 75 minute each way trip all the way out to Boondall, even if it’s only for three songs? Besides it’ll make a nice change from miserable indie acts playing darkened Valley venues as they stare at the floor and complain about how miserable their lives are or litter every song with auxiliary floor tom drumming. A quick check of a few of the Flickr concert photography groups doesn’t flag up any issues about dodgy contracts or being made to photograph from the mixing desk so I cheerfully put in to cover it and start to look forward to it.

Of course nothing ever runs that smoothly and the first confirmation email sent from the promoter says that it’s from the back of the room at the mixing desk and the contract will follow. With Coppel being bought out by Live Nation, this instantly sets the alarm bells ringing, Live Nation well-known in the USA for their nasty contracts and I start wondering if this will be a non-starter and I’ll have to go back to the promoter to decline photographing because I’m being made to sign away my copyright for free. When the contract does come through it isn’t as bad as that, although a new one on me, at least as far as I can recall, is that as well as printing my name and signing it, I also have to provide details of my address. You give an inch, they take a mile. And in an instant I really wish that I wasn’t making a 75 minute trip across Brisbane to take photographs from the mixing desk of an arena for three songs, before being escorted out of the venue and having to make the 75 minute train journey all the way back again. A whole evening given up for less than 15 minutes and a set of photos that I know aren’t going to be much good and with a release contract to sign.

On getting to the BEC, my mood isn’t much improved in finding out from reception that it’s actually a 9:10pm not an 8:30pm start and that we’ve been made to turn up and wait for an hour for no good reason [Minaj starts closer to 9:20pm in the end]. Eventually we’re led out into the main arena and into a raised platform (with seats) almost at the very back of the floor area, behind the mixing desk and behind a lighting desk that has its own space behind the mixing desk. It’s a long, long way from the stage. It’s so far from the stage that it isn’t until I download the photos afterwards that I realise when the show starts Minaj is facing away from the stage when she first appears at the top of the stairs. It’s so far from the stage that (at least with my lens) you can’t take a photo without getting the people stood at the front’s hands and phones in shot.

On the subject of phones, I can’t recall ever seeing anything like it. When the lights go down, everybody has their phones out; it’s incredible. The floor is split into two, with a barrier running across to separate (I’m guessing) those with the most expensive tickets with those in the cheap seats. The barrier isn’t too far in front of the mixing desk and even all the people that far back from the stage have their phones out. If it wasn’t so tragic the LCD glow around the arena would be a beautiful sight. Also, I can’t remember the last time I saw a reception like the one Minaj gets as soon as the lights go down; the screaming is deafening. I guess I don’t go to many pop shows at the BEC and the older crowd that goes to see the likes of Duran Duran and Kylie are a bit more grown-up than the crowd going to see Nicki Minaj. I’m sure once they would have made the same level as noise as heard tonight but with old age has come some sense of demeanour.

On the subject of the crowd, it’s a very, very mixed bunch. It’s mostly female and mostly very young (as shown by the number of parents patiently waiting outside at the end of the night) but there are more males that I would have expected and some noticeably older women too (although whether they’re here with their kids, I can’t tell). While waiting in reception before the show, a couple walk in and I notice the guy is wearing a Black Flag t-shirt. “As if” I think to myself. It’s a drunken crowd too; even getting off the train, a group of girls are telling one of their mates that she needs to pull herself together as they won’t let her in otherwise. During the almost 75 minute wait in reception a policeman comes in to use and phone and talks to the receptionist about the underage drunks they’re picking up and at one point during the show we spot a couple of police officers escorting a woman from one of the seats at the side, one on either arm as they take her up the stairs towards the exit in full view of everyone.

The three songs seem to fly by or maybe it’s that they all merge into one, with there being no live band accompaniment and only a DJ on the far side of the stage. From all the way at the back of the floor you can’t tell if he’s got any turntables and is doing any live mixing or is purely pressing play on the backing tracks for each song. Based on the quality of the sound and the orchestrated dance routines, the latter is more likely. In the end, I’m not sure whether it’s been three songs or four, there’s little in the way of gaps between songs and the mash-up nature of the songs makes it hard to tell. Whether it’s three songs or four songs, no one comes to tell us and escort us back out of the venue. I know that I’ve taken enough photos that aren’t going to be of a very high quality so take a seat and watch the show, while the other two photographers make the most of the opportunity and sneak a few more photos in. But even after the next song, no one appears, nor the one after that or the one after that. The other two photographers call it a day before me but I stay and watch the show, albeit from the back of the floor, catching about an hour of the show. Based on what the receptionist had been telling people earlier in the night, there’s only another five minutes left anyway (although by the sounds of things it went on for longer).

For someone who doesn’t go to these sort of shows much, it is entertaining; it is fun. The fun that I had hoped from putting in to photograph it does manifest in the end, despite all my reservations earlier in the night and the annoyance of being made to photograph from the back of the room. It is the sort of spectacle you don’t get at the smaller venues in the Valley. There is a big disadvantage in not having a live band in that when Minaj leaves the stage, as she does three times during the night for costume changes, there’s only the DJ to maintain the show’s momentum. Sadly he’s not up to the task. The costume changes take their time, possibly longer than expected given the uncertainty and awkwardness. The DJ plays a few snippets of songs and tries to engage the audience but without Minaj on the stage, interest is limited. It’s a really strange experience. During the first costume change, the most awkward of all of the them, there’s a period of silence from the stage that’s eerily matched by the silence from the audience. It might be 30 minutes into a pop concert but you could hear a proverbial pin drop. During another costume change the DJ tries to get the audience to wave their hands from side to side, but within 15 seconds every one has stopped and so he has to try again to engage with the crowd.

Reading the two-and-a-half star review on the Brisbane Times’ website, the reviewer puts the blame for the show’s malaise on Minaj when it really says a lot more about the audience, in particular modern audiences. The people who have come to the BEC tonight are commercial radio listeners, they’re not type of people you’re likely to experience at many gigs around the Valley, unless it’s a big named act getting lots of play on Nova 106.9fm. Watching the crowd before and during the show, the night is almost being treated as a Saturday night out clubbing in the Valley. They’re here for the here-and-now of it. They’ve come to hear the big hit singles they’ve heard on the radio. The costume changes are treated almost as if a club DJ has played a song they don’t want to dance to, they want to get off the dance floor and come back when a song they like gets a spin.

The night is a lesson in short attention spans, the scourge of modern society. That an audience, en masse, can’t maintain any excitement, even for a minute, is a sad indictment, even with the awkwardness of the costume changes and the empty stage. It’s no surprise that at the end of the night the audience leaves quietly and there’s no calls for an encore: they’ve come for the big hit singles they’ve heard on the radio, the big hit singles have been played, and that’s the end of it. There’s not going to be much in the way of clamour for Minaj to come back on and play an obscure rarity, something that any long-suffering fan of an indie band would lap up at any gig they went to. The audience reaction could easily be related back to the camera phones at the start of the evening. There’s an all-singing, all-dancing stage show going on, an impressive spectacle, and yet the majority of the crowd are watching it through the LCD screens on the back of their phones rather than actually living for the moment and properly engaging in what’s happening before their very eyes.

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