Within 24 hours of each other, a series of 60-second videos from two different shows appear on the Instagram of @FrontRowPoster. It’s January in New England, and the first set are from thrash band Iron Reagan’s show at Alchemy, a small, upstairs club in downtown Providence. The second is a DIY show at Shed Cellar in Boston, taken the next night.
Scrolling through his feed should be a dichotomy. The last clip we see of Iron Reagan begins with long-haired vocalist Tony Foresta (also of Municipal Waste) commanding a crowded floor to “circle it up;” immediately followed by Shed Cellar’s lineup which, that night, included poetry readings and the queercore band, Dump Him. They’re two hemispheres of the music scene that wouldn’t, in any other circumstance, occupy any part of the same world or space — let alone the same social media channel.
But here they are, and the result is a feed which has to be one of the most thorough archaeological sources for what’s currently happening, locally and underground, in the greater Boston area.
Self-appointed archivists, like Front Row Poster and others working the scene, are not on stage themselves. Yet their adjacency to the bands and artists can be an integral part of our city’s musical identity.
In 2017, Front Row Poster saw more bands play live than there were days: 455 bands at 150 shows. He’s a familiar, but discreet presence at shows, preferring not to use his real name, despite his propensity to showcase others.
For a band who wants to find and leverage the footage from the guy who stood right up front the whole time, Poster makes it easy. Videos are carefully clipped and hashtagged, with routine discipline, for each show he attends: #IRONREAGAN @ #AlchemyProvidenceRI 1/11/2018 with #LEFTCROSS #CEMETERYPISS #DESPISEYOU. The full set is cross posted to YouTube, for anyone curious from the Insta-tease and seeking more.
He’s not alone, of course. Front Row Poster is joined locally by showgoers like John Doherty, who hits shows nightly (twice on a weekend night), and shares out songs to his YouTube channel. Doherty estimates he attended as many as 400 shows last year. While out, it’s not unusual for him to run into other archivists, like SKMDC Boston, who attended 168 shows in 2017.
“He’s one of the hardest working,” Doherty says. “They call him SKuby. You’d know him when you see him. He has a good model and is similar to me in that we stand off to the side. We know the good spots in the club, where you don’t have chitter chatter, not close to a bathroom. If you see SKuby at Great Scott, you know that’s where you want to stand.”
The idea of having a model — a method — seems important. It’s what separates the casual Instagrammer, taking a video of their friend’s band, from the hardcore showgoers who, through hours of consumption and uploads are creating a digital footprint of New England’s music landscape. And while this new crop of documenters have the internet at their disposal, they’re continuing a trend that stretches back decades. Consider the recently released archives of iconic Boston promoter, Billy Ruane, who had the foresight to record shows at the Middle East in the ’80s and ’90s. His YouTube channel, Road to Ruane, was launched posthumously this past August and the names of the acts we see are familiar: Morphine, Lyres, and Del Fuegos, among many others. They’re a time machine to a different Boston.
A portion of Front Row Poster’s content comes from familiar names, too. Last year, he secured his promised front row position and shared footage from acts like the Descendents, Black Angels, Black Lips, Wire, Hot Snakes, Ministry, and Ceremony at clubs between Boston and Providence. The lion’s share of content, however, comes from smaller local bands, frequently at unsanctioned venues like Teacher’s Lounge and The ER in Allston, Hardcore Stadium in Cambridge, Distant Castle in Worcester. Scanning the full list of 455 bands en masse is disorienting, like looking at the backend algorithm of a hardcore band name generator: Psycho, scum, bury, death, pus(sy).
The content mix is intentional. By including larger acts, Front Row Poster hopes to draw attention to his channel and, by proxy, local bands could then draft off the traffic from a known act. His full YouTube set of Death Grips at the Palladium this October, for example, has more than 39,000 views. (Two different YouTubers call him a god for sharing the whole set.) When he explains his mission, it seems simultaneously altruistic, yet single-mindedly ambitious. But the people on the 2AM basement and hyper local beat aren’t the only ones documenting live music in Boston.
David Marx attended and recorded 36 different Boston-area shows last year. While he travels in different circles than Poster or Doherty — he opts out of local shows and focuses on national tours through the Royale, House of Blues, Paradise circuit — he also curates an envious social media footprint both on YouTube and his (private) Facebook page. On his docket for 2018 are Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Superchunk, the Darkness, and the Kooks.
He doesn’t spend time editing his footage or using filters and, like Poster, only shoots on his iPhone. Because of the type of shows Marx sees, the biggest time commitment comes the day of the show itself. For last week’s Killers show at TD Garden, he waited in line beginning at 3:30 to make sure he was up against the barrier in general admission.
Are the sheer amount of hours spent standing worth it? For Marx, yes.
“It’s a lot easier to be up front,” Marx says. “You’re not being pushed against someone in front of you. If it’s a long show, seven or eight hours, you have the barricade to lean on.”
He explains his relationship to the photos and videos: “As far as documenting stuff, you are living in the moment and stuff is getting filed in your brain, but I can’t rely on my memory forever. Long-term memories, the details can be so vivid, but sometimes the short-term stuff is like, wait, what happened a week ago?”
Marx’s feed is impressive; he isn’t seeing Fenway-priced shows every night of the week, but the names are big enough and his tenacity in sticking up front gives you a view you think you’d be priced out of. But where Marx is impressive, Poster can often feel illicit. Should we be able to check out a basement show from our phones, in our beds? It’s an intoxicating public display of subculture, a simulacra of a night life, and through a lens so well traversed, and — well — obsessive, you’d think he’d have seen Lightning Bolt at Fort Thunder in 2000, not at Machines with Magnets in 2017.
But he didn’t. Front Row Poster didn’t begin going to shows until 2015. It’s an unexpected revelation.
He explains that, growing up, he always had an “impatience” with radio, oldies, and familiarity when it came to music. “Hearing the same stuff over and over drives me crazy,” he says. He became interested in the live, local scene when he began going to shows to record his cousin’s punk band.
“As I went to their shows, I’d videotape other bands,” he says. “It was rewarding, so I just kept doing it. People would be happy, especially if they were a band that wasn’t that well known. I would post the songs I thought were the best or liveliest part of the set and I started doing Instagram because I thought it was different. Like a card catalog or a teaser, if you wanted to see the whole video [on YouTube]…I’ve learned if I stop taping, I’ll miss the best part of the show. You’ll think it’s a lame song then it’ll turn out to be the best song they have. You can never tell.”
Unlike Doherty, who estimates he knows 90 percent of the bands he records and will return to scene fixtures, Poster rarely spends much time on the same band. “If I capture a band a couple of times, I usually move on because I already know what it’s about,” he says. “My videos don’t do as much for people if I record them a bunch.”
One of the bands he has recorded multiple times, however, are post-punk band Way Out, filmed seven times in the last two years. Way Out bassist Nick Sadler, who’s performed locally for twenty years in other bands like cult noise rockers Daughters, has seen his share of people film him play, and explains what it can mean for a band.
“So, I love Front Row Poster. To me, his presence at a show is completely invaluable,” Sadler writes. “He is an asset to any group or musician, and to the music community as a whole: single-handedly generating a history of both local and inspirational touring bands. From what I gather, he is a pretty adventurous listener, with strong taste, so it’s flattering to have him at a show. Anyone doing what he’s doing is (there are few who do it the way he does, but several putting their own spin on it) and is as easy to be around as he is, should be regarded with appreciation.”
While the relationship between bands and their guerilla cameramen is generally one of appreciation — Doherty mentions acts like The Monsieurs and the Rationales have both used his footage for music videos — there are occasional snafus to pulling back the curtain on what was formerly an exclusive, in-the-moment live event.
“I know not to put out a new song that a band hasn’t released yet,” Doherty says. “The bands I record kind of trust me not to do that. You also have to be careful on copyright laws when they do covers. Any Led Zeppelin cover will come down, same with Prince. And recently, I had a young band send me an e-mail for ‘copyright infringement’ so that came down, too. It was sort of funny because the guy in the band was just a kid, like sixteen.”
Even Marx, whose YouTube brings us front row to mega-acts like Pearl Jam, Guns N’ Roses, and Iggy Pop, agrees that the risks and legalities of recording are generally minimal. “I’ve never been asked by YouTube to remove any videos,” he says. “It might be flagged with a notation of a potential copyright issue, but nothing happens or changes. The video doesn’t get removed.”
Doherty says he tries to mitigate the amount of posts a band might object to by not sharing anything with poor sound. Front Row Poster takes a similarly protective stance to his subjects. “No matter what, I want to make the bands I see look good,” he says. “My greatest accomplishment is if I go to a show and there’s only six people. I’ll try to cut around the applause or watch my angles. It’s like fake theater.”
In 2017, people consumed 1.1 million minutes — over two years — of his theater, across 18 countries.
It’s an uptick from 2016, when users only watched 365,000 minutes of video. It’s also a pace he questions he can sustain.
“I might give it up. I ate through a lot of music this year. It could get boring,” he says. “I do think about waking up earlier. I could do something else, like refurbish a barn.”