Valerie Gritsch is the community manager for London-based indie label Xtra Mile Recordings. As community manager, she handles all of their social media channels, in addition to managing their street team and other fan-engagement efforts. A New York native, Gritsch is currently working towards her master’s degree at The Graduate Center, CUNY, where her research includes, but is not limited to, music fandom and celebrity studies. The subject of her thesis will focus on celebrity death and how fans create history. Gritsch, whose history of chronic nerve pain eventually led to fibromyalgia and myalgic encephalomyelitis (commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome), caught up with us to talk about her experience in the music industry and what adequate accommodations can and should look like.
When did you start going to shows and getting more connected to the music scene?
My first concert was Billy Joel at age seven at an arena, but my first general admission rock show was Sum 41 in 2002 when I was twelve. Around then was when my interest in the New York/Long Island local music scene began to grow, and I went to my first local show when I was thirteen. I fell in love with the bands I saw in small Long Island clubs, church basements and VFW halls, and decided I had to work with music in some way, somehow. I began promoting these bands to friends of mine, helped sell tickets to gigs, and even booked a few shows at my high school. I was constantly on street teams, and always did whatever I could to support the music I loved. Years later, in 2013, that behavior helped me get noticed by Xtra Mile Recordings, who offered me a job.
Talk a bit about your disability and how it affects your experience attending shows
In 2006, I somehow herniated two discs in my lower back, causing tons of nerve pain. It pretty much immediately made attending gigs harder, as I couldn’t stand for as long as I used to be able to, the crowds/pits became danger zones, and the very thing that kept me going—live music—was what was exacerbating my pain. In 2009 I had a laminectomy, which helped for a little while, but now, ten years later, I have two more herniated discs (making four total) and chronic nerve pain, which led to fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis.
All of this makes attending shows an exhausting and often painful experience. I often need a seat for at least part of the event to keep my legs and back from flaring with pain during the show and to keep me from a fatigue flare the following day. Working at a show can be a challenge as well, as I am expected to run around managing street teamers or collecting content for social media. The only way I survive working at gigs is by taking frequent breaks to rest.
Have your experiences with venues improved over time when it comes to ableism/inaccessibility or have things mostly stayed the same?
Unfortunately, things mostly have stayed the same. Some venues are fantastic with accommodations, and others are a straight-up disaster. There’s a huge problem with ableism and rudeness from staff members at venues, even if they are accessible and give you a seat. There have been many times when staff has been condescending, questioned my disability (even if I am very clearly struggling with a mobility aid) or asked invasive questions about “what was wrong” with me. Usually, if I am able to connect with an actual person (be it a venue manager or staff member, or a band member) before the show about what I need, I will have an easier time. In my experience, the UK usually takes better care of disabled music fans than the US does.
Have you ever felt discouraged from going to shows because of your disability? Have lack of accommodations ever stopped you from going to a certain venue altogether?
Yes, I have avoided certain shows based on the venue. If a show is at a venue that is difficult to get to via public transportation, that venue isn’t exactly accessible to me, as I will expend a lot of energy just getting there and going home. If I know a venue isn’t accessible, and I’m already flaring with pain and/or fatigue, I just won’t go to the show and will eat the cost of the ticket, which sucks. If I have had an exceptionally bad experience at a venue I will avoid that spot going forward so that I don’t have to go through the physical and emotional exhaustion of it all over again. In instances of venues I haven’t been to yet that do not list access information or respond to my inquiry, I usually will still go to the show and hope for the best. I try not to let my pain and fatigue limit me, but I have to listen to my body and do what’s best for my health.
Any advice for folks who are disabled and interested in working in music?
Find your passion and do whatever you can to make it happen. Like Conan O’Brien said: if you work hard and are kind, amazing things will happen. There will be roadblocks and inaccessibility, but if we all keep demanding accommodations, the industry will eventually have to listen to us. Stand up for yourself, and be stern and assertive to get what you need and what you deserve from the people and places who would hold you back due to your disability. Remember that it’s literally against the law for them to discriminate against you.
What’s been your best experience with accessibility?
In the autumn of 2008, my herniated discs and nerve pain peaked in the middle of my fall semester. I could hardly walk or stand, and this is what ultimately led me to have spinal surgery. I had to drop all my classes that semester, however, I was also in the middle of an A&R internship with Columbia Records. My supervisors there, Maureen Kenny and Andrew Keller, were the main reason I was able to keep interning during this period. They changed the internship around me, giving me a more supportive chair in the office, giving me more administrative work to do, and allowing me to attend shows with a reserved seat so I wouldn’t hurt myself more. It really felt like they went above and beyond to make me still feel welcomed and included, and I learned so much more than my fellow interns. I will never forget their kindness and dedication to making sure my internship was always accessible.
What’s been your worst experience with accessibility?
The worst experiences have always been with rude venue staff who don’t take me seriously or see my disability as valid, just because it’s not always visible. When they give me a seat, but it’s in an unsafe place or a spot where I can hardly see or hear the stage—those are the moments when it is literally, painfully obvious that so much of the music industry ignores that disabled music fans exist. It’s easy to get discouraged and upset, and those are valid feelings too, but it makes me want to keep kicking up a fuss to make venues pay attention to us.
What can venues do to make your experience at shows as smooth and enjoyable as possible?
LISTEN TO US. When we tell you what we need, please don’t ignore us or make snide comments or give us disgusted looks or ask invasive and out-of-line questions. Listen to us, and help us. We are paying customers who are just as important as any abled-bodied music fan, and we deserve to enjoy live music just as much as anyone else who paid for a ticket, or anyone else who is there to do their job!
Is there anything else disability/accessibility related that you’d like to talk about?
I see a lot of people write online that they don’t consider themselves “disabled enough” to request accommodations at shows, and they go and end up in a lot of pain. Please, do not put yourself through this. Accommodations exist for a reason and if more people speak up about needing them, then it’ll slowly become normalized that disabled music fans exist and want to go to concerts. If you can’t make it through a show without feeling awful, or you’ll go and then spend the next day(s) recovering because you didn’t ask for and receive help, then you are “disabled enough.” Take care of yourself, demand your legal right to accommodation, and enjoy the gig of your choice!
Who have been your favorite artists lately?
My forever favorite artist is Frank Turner, who not only makes great music but is a great ally for disabled fans. I’ve also been enjoying Antarctigo Vespucci, Menzingers, Brand New Friend, and Holy Moly and the Crackers.
What is your dream show lineup?
Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls, Against Me, Antarctigo Vespucci, and an entire production of Hamilton: An American Musical.
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Half Access is so excited to announce that we’re hosting a virtual summer panel series this year!! From The Crowd To The Stage: A Look At Accessibility In The Music Industry will take place the last Saturday of June, July, and August at 11am PST and cover a wide range of issues. This conversation is especially important for us to have as COVID-19 restrictions begin to lift and we see concerts coming back in the late summer and early fall. It’s crucial to keep accessibility to live music venues at the front of our minds to make sure everyone can safely enjoy their first show back.
In comparison to smaller clubs and theaters, arenas are often leading the way when it comes to accessibility. It’s often easier to find detailed accessibility information on their websites, and accessible seating options are almost always available at the point of purchase. Arenas also do a better job of accommodating as many disabilities as possible. That being said, arena accessibility is not without its flaws.
Photo by Micala Renee Austin
Our whole mission at Half Access is about informing people. We want accessibility and awareness across the country (read: whole world), and we understand that it starts at the individual level. Any charitable cause begins when someone starts informing others of injustices or needs, and all those individuals come together to make a positive change. This is the same mentality of La Dispute, a band known for their charitable work and dedication to equal rights and accessibility for everyone. Half Access has had the pleasure of working with the band throughout 2019, so we asked them a few questions about their beginnings in supporting nonprofits and their advice on how to contribute, especially within the music scene.