Why musicians do intimate gigs

After a sell-out performance by Sir Paul McCartney in London this week for just 350 people, we look at the attraction of intimate gigs.

Sir Paul McCartney performs at The 100 Club in London. The historic London venue is threatened with closure and Sir Paul's intimate concert was an attempt to raise funds to save it. MJ Kim / MPL Communications Ltd / AP Photo
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This week, tickets for an eagerly awaited Paul McCartney gig sold out in seconds.

Perhaps that's not so much of a surprise: the allure of seeing one of the remaining Beatles is still strong, not least because in recent years he's taken to playing some of his famous band's most-loved tracks. But this time, the tickets were even more sought-after than usual. There were only 350 of them. And this would be his most intimate show in years.

The lucky 350 paid £60 to see McCartney play in The 100 Club, a tiny venue on London's Oxford Street. Beginning life as a jazz club in the 1940s before famously hosting riotous gigs by the likes of The Sex Pistols and Oasis, The 100 Club is under threat of closure due to high rents, and McCartney's appearance on Friday lunchtime was part of a concerted effort to save it. But, judging by his animated comments when he announced the gig, McCartney was just as excited by the novelty of playing to so few people.

"This show presents a different challenge to performing in a stadium," he told a press conference. "I'm looking forward to being able to interact with fans on a face-to-face basis." The 100 Club is a wonderful venue, dripping with history and atmosphere. It was reportedly a magical experience for all concerned - although whether anyone not lucky enough to be in the front row would have actually seen McCartney is a moot point. Which begs the question: given that it's almost impossible to get a good view, the sound is usually awful and the bands themselves are limited by the space such venues offer (McCartney performed a "stripped-down" set), why are intimate gigs often held up as being the most exciting thing a band can do?

The answer is obvious in McCartney's case - his concert was a chance for his admirers to get some appreciation of how The Beatles must have sounded when they were playing the early 1960s Hamburg clubs every night. As soon as a band graduates to arenas and stadiums, the nearest fans are miles away, behind rows of monitors, security guards and safety fences. Most end up watching the action on the enormous screens either side of the stage - they might as well have paid for a concert DVD and recreated the experience by standing in their living room on tip-toes for two hours, ducking beverages thrown by their friends. Big gigs are so impersonal that even the most likeable and intelligent lead singers are forced to bellow generalities of the "Good evening Dubai, how ya doin'!" variety. In short, the very things that made the band special - the urgency, the immediacy, the personality - are completely lost as soon as the the stadium gates are unlocked.

And do the musicians themselves actually like seeing the whites of their crazed fans' eyes - or are they just told to play along by their record companies? It's no coincidence that there are now more and more intimate or "secret" gigs at the same time as major tours are being sponsored by mobile phone companies, soft drinks brands - or, in the frankly bizarre case of Shakira, a family car. On Sunday and Monday, for example, Coldplay played two secret, low-key Christmas shows in Liverpool and Newcastle. True, it was for the homeless charity Crisis, so we mustn't be too snide. But there's no doubt it also keeps at bay any accusations of selling out and encourages the idea that the band still loves the thrill of in-your-face rock'n'roll, rather than its financial rewards. In short, such endeavours are an easy way of reuniting a band with their fans.

Sometimes, of course, "intimate gig" is a cipher for an artist who isn't quite sure of their status in the music hierarchy. In 2008, Adele was widely praised for her first record 19, a Grammy award-winning album of vintage soul. She played the prestigious Hollywood Bowl. But two years later, with Lady Gaga in the ascendancy, perhaps we've moved on to more modern thrills. Adele's reaction? She's booked a "secret" show at Liverpool's Cavern Club in January. Everyone involved knows that this gig will be talked about, be oversubscribed and "build momentum" in advance of the album release. Intimate gigs, then, are now as much a part of the marketing campaign as giving away the first track of the album free on iTunes.

Sniping aside, when it works the atmosphere of a small gig can be one of the most thrilling experiences live music can offer. I had the privilege of seeing The White Stripes at The Roadhouse in Manchester (capacity: 200) in 2001. Admittedly, this wasn't a deliberately intimate gig, as they were yet to make it big. And yet, despite seeing them later at special venues (the ornate Blackpool Empress Ballroom), festivals and, finally, an arena, nothing will ever match the exciting, all-consuming, primal rock'n'roll at that small venue nine years ago. Even though I actually saw little other than the very top of Jack White's luxuriant hair, there was the real sense that this was something unique.

And yes, perhaps Madonna and Prince's "secret" performances at London's Koko a few years ago were similarly memorable for those who were there. Even though Madonna played only a six-song, 30-minute set, it was generally noted at the time that she seemed to loosen up and have a bit more fun than the military regime of her arena shows usually allows.

Maybe she was just pleased people had turned up. Pity, then, the hip American band Yeasayer. Back in 2007 they booked a Manchester date, and it was billed as a chance to see them in an intimate venue before they went stellar. There were approximately four people there. Still, at least everyone present got to chat to the frontman. Individually. You don't get that at a stadium show.