In recent years and especially in this post-pandemic world, it seems the only way to push through and ‘make it’ is by focusing on playing the social media and streaming game. This tried and tested method has worked wonders for many but for others, nostalgia takes over and the craving for irl human interaction is key. For the Reading four-piece Only The Poets they decided to do things the old way through gigging relentlessly. Playing to any room, house party, pub and venue that’ll have them, the boys have worked up quite the following. In a relatively short period of time the band has gone from playing to a couple people in a small English town, to touring Europe and selling out 1,600 cap venues – all without a label for the most part. Now with a major label deal under their belts and hundreds of thousands of followers across multiple social media platforms, they have just completed their biggest European tour. One has to wonder exactly how they managed it all, especially in this oversaturated market where funding is scarce, and touring has become increasingly difficult for many artists. You just have to go along to a show and see it for yourself to understand that the answer lies in the special relationship the band shares with their fans. An artist or band doesn’t get far without their fans and Only The Poets have a firm grasp on this reality. Their respect and appreciation for their fans feels genuine, and it’s never more apparent than when they share the room together.
The night before their Shepherds Bush Empire show, they encouraged fans along to Camden Assembly to catch their support band, ‘JUMP’ – which is also the name of their latest single… Little did fans know, and much to their delight, Only The Poets burst on stage for an intimate show to treat some of their most devout fans. The energy in the room was larger than life as the floor bounced and everyone screamed the lyrics to every song. As a photographer, these kinds of shows are equally exciting and terrifying at the same time. On the one hand you’re so close to the action, you become immersed in it all and you’re front and centre with your subjects. On the other hand it can feel like you’ve just gatecrashed a party in a ridiculous costume, and your presence isn’t particularly welcomed nor appreciated. I was taken aback by the kindness and empathy of the crowd. In the midst of such raw emotion and excitement, they still took a moment to guide me to the front and help me do my job safely. I witnessed how they came together and took care of each other like long lost friends. If one person became overwhelmed or started to feel unwell, the crowd would open up and funnel them to a safe space at the back to catch some air and let them back in once they’d recovered. A refreshing scene compared to many other gigs where it’s every person for themselves. More often than not, the behaviour of the crowd depends on the environment cultivated by whoever is occupying the stage.
The band is very open and reinforces their admiration for their fans, everything they do feels like it is for their fans and nobody else. They are preoccupied with creating a safe space for people to enjoy themselves and their music, so they can fully let go. When I meet up with the boys after the show for some portraits, they are in high spirits but worn out from giving it their all. I inform them about the fans still lingering in the venue, for fear of missing an encore. They seem mortified at the prospect of potentially disappointing any of their fans as the tradition completely slipped their minds. Reassuring them that everyone is happily singing together (Only The Poets tunes of course) in the venue and outside, they relax a little and joke around together. They come across as down to earth and regular guys, considerate and professional without taking themselves too seriously. A breath of fresh air compared to some. As I leave content, tired and ready for round two, fans have spilled out into the surrounding streets, perched on curbs and standing in the road as they wait for a glimpse of the boys loading out.
The next night in the O2 Shepherds Bush Empire feels like an alternate universe compared to the night before. It’s not often you go from seeing a band in a 200 cap venue to a 2,000 cap venue the very next day – both venues packed out to the gills. The photo pit is occupied by young female identifying photographers, not something I’m used to seeing as most of the time pits are dominated by men. The band had run a competition to give fans a chance to shoot any show on their tour, which explains this phenomenon. I arrive a little late and rather than fighting through them, I decide to keep to the wings and let them do their thing. As the first three songs end and we’re escorted from the pit, it’s all smiles as they rush to join the rest of the fans. I retreat to some seats on the upper level, where fans are jumping and shrieking just as much as everyone behind the barriers in front of the stage. At times, the band is inaudible over everyone screaming and singing. The band captivates their audience throughout the night. At one point they come into the crowd, politely hushing everyone so they can play acoustically for one song. Every phone torch shining and phone filming each second. As they return to the stage, the crowd bursts and ceases to waver for the rest of the night. Pyrotechnics explode and sparks fly. Light up balloons dance around the venue. Their final night of the tour goes out with a bang, leaving everyone with a night to remember.
Words + Photography: Yasmin Cowan // @yascowan