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Chris Conte: My Night As A Grammy Seat Filler

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Posted at 11:33 AM, Jan 29, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-29 14:39:38-05

Half of the people on flight 4186 from Nashville to New York City were musicians, their carry-on guitar cases, garment bags and sequin scarves gave it away. It was also one of the last flights headed north on the eve of the 60th Annual Grammy Awards at Madison Square Garden. As we rose into the clouds my seat mate, Dan, began a conversation you only hear on a flight that originates from Music City.

Dan, it turns out, had spent the last 30 years of his life writing and performing for some of the industry's trail-blazing artists. This weekend though, he was heading to New York City in a more supportive role. Rows ahead of us, he would explained, was his friend, Alan Miller, who had received a Grammy nomination for his work on the song "I Wish You Well" with the Mavericks, who also had been nominated for a Grammy and were also sitting a few rows ahead of us.

Music was all around flight 4186. The Grammys were 24 hours away.

Two days prior I had received the kind of email in my inbox one might typically assume is spam. Days before a friend had encouraged me to sign up online to be a seat filler for the Grammys.

"No chance," I thought to myself as I hastily filled out the form and uploaded a headshot of myself. But it was worth a shot.

The email was titled "Congratulations! Your request has been approved." At this point the Grammys were only four days away. Not much time to schedule a trip, let alone one to the Big Apple, but the cards fell into place and that's how I found myself on flight 4186 with my ticket to the Grammys in hand.

Outside of Madison Square Garden in Midtown Manhattan, they pressed their bodies up against the police barricades. Hundreds of people hoping to catch a glimpse at fame, stardom, a life most of us can only imagine. Limos of all shapes and sizes, all black, lined the streets around the Garden. Music's biggest night had returned to New York City for the first time in more than a decade. 

Inside the Hotel Pennsylvania Ballroom we were quickly placed into line. Imagine the scene from "Charlie and the Chocolate factory" where Charlie and the others are being ushered in with their golden tickets. Only this time there were a few hundred of a us and the grand prize was a night sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with music's most influential artists.

The ballroom was packed with people. A guy with a megaphone blurted out instructions. "No pictures with celebrities or you will get kicked out!" He said over and over again. Those in line knew this might be a once in a lifetime chance, their outfits portrayed it. Floor length fur coats, diamond earrings, jewels and of course a singular white rose pinned to each person's lapel.

We were all given the roses as we entered, it was this year's call to action moment, the rose signifying unity and solidarity with the #metoo and 'Time's Up,' movements - a long overdue culture shift for women who have been treated as unequal’s by the industry and society for far too long.

"I promise you will have the best night of your life ever," the guy with the megaphone blurted one last time and with that we were given our marching orders to cross the street to the Grammys.

What is important to understand about being a seat filler is that it's all about appearances.

Not just our appearance but the appearance of the multi-million-dollar production, as well. For aesthetic purposes it doesn't look good to have empty seats on camera at any time during the show.

So, our job as seat fillers was to constantly fill seats as artists got up to accept awards or go to the bathroom. Think of it as a high-stakes game of musical chairs. Only instead of swapping seats with Jane from your 3rd grade class, you're swapping seats with Beyoncé.

Backstage we were separated into two distinct lines. On one side the seats fillers, on the other side of the halls beneath Madison Square Garden, was the mosh pit crew. This line was noticeably much younger than us in both their facial features and in the way they dressed. This crew would be on their feet for the entire three and a half hours of the show and they would also be the closest to the stage and in turn have the most air time on television. For obvious reasons those in charge wanted this group of people to portray a younger demographic.

Did I mention you can't go to the bathroom during any of this?

The only way to determine seat fillers were any different from the rest of the crowd were the small green ribbons which we were mandated to wear all night long. Failure to do so would result in us getting kicked out. We could be seated anywhere in the auditorium and we more than likely would be moved multiple times as the natural ebb and flow of the evening went on.

I had heard stories of people sitting next to Jay-Z or filling an empty chair as Nick Jonas went up for a performance.

Our job was to make sure the audience looked full.

Echoes of excitement reverberated across the hollow cement halls at the Garden, then suddenly our single file line was let in.

Two minutes before show time I was quickly hustled to my first chair of the night. A few rows back of stage right, I could see Chris Stapleton and Jerry Seinfield ahead of us.

Inside the lights dimmed and the director's voiced boomed across the speakers as celebrities, ushers and camera crews scrambled to get into place. "Five .. Four .. Take your seats please! Three, Two ..." Then Lady Gaga appeared.

There were 20,000 people inside Madison Square Garden, her silhouetted piano and voice commanded the attention of every single person in that room.

Then a tap on the shoulder, it was time to move.

My next seat assignment was much closer to the stage but this time on the opposite side of the auditorium. We could see the glorious colors coming together behind the stage as Bruno Mars got in place for his performance. 

The song ended. Commercial break. Another tap on the shoulder. Time to move again.

At this point in the evening I ended up with another seat filler whose name was Christine. She too had never done this before. We could have reached out and touched the stage if we had wanted. And then Ke$ha appeared.

Almost heavenly in her white dress (another nod to the #metoo movement) she was surrounded by the "Resistance Choir," her voice seemed to shake under the weight of the words of her song "Praying." We watched as Eric Church, Maren Morris and Brothers Osborne paid tribute to the victims of the Las Vegas shooting. "These kids can't be forgotten," he said.

Another signal from our handler for the night. It was time to move to the floor.

This would end up being our best seats of the evening. A small group of artists had decided to head out early for an after party and so these seats became ours until the show was over.

Row seven, seat four.

Right in front of us sat Lorde, smiling ear to ear in a shimmering red dress. Next to us, Patriots owner Robert Kraft who was sitting next to "The Talk" host Julie Chen. Most people don't realize how truly normal most of these people we idolize are. They were on their cell phones taking selfies, some had iPhone cable stretched into their pockets connected to small chargers, we've all been there.

The lights dimmed again and there on a balcony beneath the singular glow of a spotlight was Patti Lupone. Three decades prior at the Grammys she had given the same performce of "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," and yet there on stage all these years later with her arms stretched outward toward the sky she might as well have been Eva Perón in the flesh.

Our time as seat fillers at the 60th Grammy Awards was nearing an end but not before the most memorable performance of the evening could take place.

In the center stage, just a few feet from us stood Logic. His song "1-800-273-8255," named after the phone number for the National Suicide Prevent Lifeline hits home to any of us who have ever lost someone to suicide. As spotlights shown down on Logic, we could see the back of his sweatshirt with the words "You Are Not Alone," on it. Then on the main stage stood dozens of suicide attempt survivors, along with friends and relatives of suicide victims. One man was struggling to keep himself upright with a cane, another women wiped a tear from her face as the words left Logic's mouth, "you don't have to die today."

Logic didn't win a Grammy last night but he still made an acceptance speech of sorts. Sensing the political tenor of the room and giving an nod to New York City, he began to recite the words The New Colossus which sits firmly in the left hand of the Statue of Liberty. "Give us your tired, your poor," he said.

The crowd rose to their feet in applause.

As James Corden thanked the crowd and closed out the evening, it became clear this night was not about celebrities or trophies or the next big hit, it was a simple statement about the prolific staying power of music, one which bridges generational gaps and binds us together no matter where we're from or who we are.

Chris Conte has spent the last six years as a reporter for the NewsChannel 5 Network. He filed this story from New York.