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Musicians discuss considerations behind cancelling, not cancelling shows in wake of House Bill 2

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Illustration by Nelle Dunlap

There was a swift response from the arts community, and particularly musicians, after the passing of House Bill 2. Some artists and bands cancelled performances to send a message that the state government had crossed a line, while others used their show as an opportunity to condemn the bill’s discrimination.

Under the Radar published a story Tuesday about artists’ decisions on whether to play or not to play in North Carolina after HB2. You can read the full article here, but note the website contains graphic language.

Less than a month after the bill’s passage, Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr, Pearl Jam and Maroon 5 had cancelled upcoming concerts. A few days after the wave of announcements, the report states that Against Me! lead vocalist Laura Jane Grace, a transgender artist, announced the band would be going ahead with their scheduled May 15 show in Durham.

Pulling the plug on their show was not an option, they said, and they would use their performance as a protest against the law and an opportunity to start a dialog within the community. “Visibility is more important than ever,” Grace explained in an interview before the concert, then hit the stage and burned the birth certificate that the law now said was necessary to prove that one was using the correct bathroom.

Other artists followed suit: Cyndi Lauper, Animal Collective, Father John Misty, Mumford and Sons and Duran Duran announced they would go forward with shows, and many made statements during their performance and donated a portion of their profits to LGBTQ organizations.

The consensus that once had appeared so clear now clearly wasn’t, and musicians were left to debate just how they should respond to a law that they uniformly opposed. Should artists who want to change a law do so by using their clout to cancel shows and inflict pain on the local economy, thereby turning up the heat on the state’s representatives to create legislative change? Or are artists more effective when directly supporting those affected by such laws, using their performance to build community and create consensus that will eventually result in cultural change? Is there a right way to protest?

“For us, when we were first thinking about it, our initial gut reaction was to cancel the shows,” says Death Cab for Cutie’s Nick Harmer. On tour with CHVRCHES at the time, they had booked two North Carolina shows for June long before the legislation was announced and soon realized they were caught directly between the two camps. “We knew that playing in North Carolina with HB2 being what it is was going to be a real conflict for us internally, and we needed to figure out some way to make peace with that. We had some conflict initially about turning [the shows] into benefits, too, because we didn’t want to seem like this band from Seattle, Washington, that rolls into North Carolina and tells everyone how it should be. We didn’t want to feel like we were standing on a soapbox.”

The article explores different considerations for playing or not, including the question of just when a law or policy represents something so odious that simply entering that state or city is unacceptable.

If HB2 doesn’t cross that line for some artists, what would? On the other hand, if artists are boycotting North Carolina due to anti-LGBTQ legislation, why stop there? Why not cancel shows for anti-worker or anti-immigrant or anti-environmental legislation, as well?

“Where do you draw the line?” says Hutch Harris of The Thermals. “You can find a reason to boycott any state and you won’t have to look very hard. Have you been to Florida, or Texas, or Utah? We were strongly against—and critical of—the boycotting of Arizona to protest the SB 1070 immigration law. Punk bands like us exist to play for kids in fucked up cities and states—to show those kids there is a way out; there is a better life. One irony is we still got hate mail from ill-informed idiots who thought we were boycotting Arizona.”

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