Sunday, 16 June 2013

You there, in the audience. Yes, you. Shut the f@ck up!

When you go to a gig, do you go to listen - or what?

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I’m at a venue in Birmingham City centre – a pretty unappealing place, all told - standing in the audience with a member of the headlining band; we’re two thirds of the way to the front, by the desk to get the best mix. We're also thoroughly enjoying the support act - it’s a hell of a good band. That’s what support gigs are about: getting yourself in front of a different crowd, and try to reach them. Seems to be working. 

But there’s a problem. It's a couple, ten feet away, who are positively braying. They’re well into each other, and oblivious to the band. The bloke clearly thinks he’s on to a good thing; the girl is REALLY LOUD. What’s onstage zips right over their heads. Their loss; they missed a lovely set. 

My friend's a bit embarrassed. The support act are pals, invited up to play in Brum by her band, the headliners. And the crowd are not exactly treating them with respect. So she feels uncomfortable, and so do I. My attention shifts away from the braying couple, to the rest of the room. There’s a LOT of chat. This is really pissing me off now. 

"You're probably wondering
Why I'm here
And so am i
So am i...."  Frank Zappa

When the headliners come on stage, they go down a storm. This is their crowd, and, at last, everybody shuts up during the songs, listens appreciatively, and applauds in all the right places. But, you know, this just isn’t right. You would have thought the band’s crowd would have wanted to see the acts the band had brought onto their own hometown bill. 

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen decent acts struggle against yakking, bellowing airheads. Every musician I talk to greets it with weary resignation. 

After all, if the gig is amplified and you want to have a conversation… well, you’re going to have to shout, aren’t you? 

But that leads to noise wars. If it’s rock or dance, a band can crank it up, to impose themselves, until nobody bothers to even try talking. That’s overkill, and I hate it. I, sort of, caught one such gig a while back in Moseley, where the PA was cranked up so loud it actually drove people from the room. You could hear just fine downstairs, or even in the street. That’s confusing attitude with volume, and it’s stupid. 

"SHADDUP!.... shhhh, shhhh.... 
Now, is that any way to behave at a rock and roll concert? 
You don't want to hear that for the next half hour, do you? 
Give the singer some..."  Jim Morrison, onstage with the Doors

I prefer to listen to music without fearing for my ears, but you can't always get what you want. If the essence of the performance is good playing, emotion and expression, maybe offering up decent lyrics with a bit of a story, it would be really nice if audiences could manage to give the act some breathing space - and some respect. 

Propping up the bar at the Tower of Song
That’s why Paul Murphy insisted on a respectful audience for his Songwriter’s CafĂ© sessions. That’s why Tom Martin has that sign at the bar in the Tower of Song (hey, maybe it's something about the Cotteridge/King's Norton area). If someone’s here to give you a little bit of their soul, the least you can do is listen. I'm truly grateful for this kind of house rule, and I relished watching the audience apply that rule somewhat forcefully to a noisy yakker at the back of Songwriters last summer. 

I can even understand how people get to think they can disrespect a performer. There is a brutal logic to the process; I get it, but I can’t agree with it. Live shows do have a pecking order: the big boys are top of the bill. But that does not, or should not, imply a lack of respect to acts lower down the bill. Nor does it excuse ostentatiously strolling in after the support act has finished --- or, and this happens too many times, ostentatiously walking out en masse at the end of a set, when your mates are done. 

I talked about this when I was interviewing Jasper Carrott two weeks back, fresh from the gig that sparked this blog post. Here's his take:

I think it gets worse if it’s a free gig. A while back I rolled up to the Station in Sutton Coldfield to catch one of Ben Drummond’s solo nights. He was great; he always is. Unfortunately, the table of brassy orange-skinned shouty women on their night out were anything but. Now, this particular booozer has lots of rooms; the monstrous orange regiment could have settled themselves down elsewhere to shriek and cackle, no problem. But no, they didn’t. They sat there and howled while Ben worked his butt off. 

"If I only had a dollar
For every song I've sung
And every time I've had to play
While people sat there drunk..." John Fogerty

Another time, the extraordinarily fabulous Jo Hamilton was showcasing at the Yardbird in Birmingham City Centre. Half a song into her set I had to ask the bloke next to me, at most ten feet away from Jo, to keep it down. He did, mercifully, and when Jo was done, I thanked him. His response: ‘No worries, pal. I’m a musician too, and I know what it’s like!’. Words failed me…

Media people can be even worse. If it’s a showcase for a new act and there’s free booze and food, you’ll get a crowd all right, but they’ll just get half cut and bray while the poor act has to grin and bear it. I recall a night – Phonogram were building up the fabulous Paul Brady, decades ago, when I felt truly embarrassed to be part of Birmingham radio. 

So here’s my manifesto. If it’s the kind of gig where the band want you to scream and shout, hey, everyone’s a winner. If it’s a night where you want to be pinned up against the wall by the PA system, and have a head full of cotton wool the next day, that’s just fine too. Knock yourself out, yak all you want - nobody's going to be bothered. 

But if the act has something to say, if it's all about the music, or wonderful, personal lyrics, then…. please…. shut the hell up and listen. Chances are you’ll hear something good. And if you don’t like it, step out or go to the bar at the back, and talk quietly. Let the musicians, and those who want to hear their music, do what they came here for. 

In prepping this post, I talked all this through with a number of people, and one observation in particular made me think - sometimes the crowd is awful because the venue is awful. Maybe that was partly what was wrong with the gig I described at the top of the post. If you're not comfortable, and the venue is explicit in its intention to relieve you of as much money as it can in as unpleasant a way as it can, then you just might be justified in feeling pissed off. But that still does not excuse dumping on the guys onstage. 

New talent steps up to perform for the first time each and every day. It’s hard getting across at the best of times, and harder still if it’s the first few gigs. You, in the audience, might just be seeing something special for the first time. Yak and you’ll miss them. Belt up, and then, if you’ve seen something promising, you can say ‘I was there’ with some authority, can’t you?

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Anonymous said...

I find it's difficult when people want to are trying to talk to you whilst you are actually trying to listen to the music, and they make you feel rude for not giving them your full attention or not responding! Very often these same people are seriously annoyed if anyone talks through their own set! You would expect musicians to show a little more fellow feeling and respect, wouldn't you?

Lydia said...

I have found the biggest problem to be with free gigs. I used to regularly attend, and play at, the Thursday night jazz gigs at the Yardbird but the noise was unbearable. I particularly embarrassing occasion was when I was supporting Gilad Atzmon. He was clearly very annoyed at the volume of the audience to the extent that he turned his sax up to a deafening volume and cleared the place. A bad situation for all involved. Having braved recently to perform at the Yardbird again I was pleased to find the atmosphere much changed with an appreciative audience thankfully!

I think when a gig is free people are attracted in to be seen to be cool. Jazz has a sophisticated reputation and they want to get some of that! Unfortunately this doesn't always extend to actually listening to the music. From the point of view of the club I'm sure they have found the best way to sell the most drinks but if you want to listen it can be very frustrating!

I have sometimes noticed in these sorts of situations that if the performer can find one thing to catch the audiences attention they can have them in the palm of their hands for the rest of the set. I once witnessed Ben Drummond do this at the free love club in the yardbird when I played their with an old band N.O.M.A.D. He won a lot of respect that night, I've remembered him since that day!

Michael Gray said...

It's very true. On audience tapes of old Dylan concerts, you could always tell which ones were from the US, because you could hear loud assholes shouting to and fro about cheeseburgers. It's different now maybe because the UK is now also fastfoodier

Tim Powell said...

Great piece. Thankfully I had a different experience recently - Eliza And The Bear at the O2 2. Respect from the crowd for a storming support set.

Andy W said...

Never thought I'd say it but not in agreement here. You are right - it is particularly bad on free nights...but the other opinion is 'I have come out to my local, paid to drink and socialise and have to put up being glared at talking to a friend while a frankly awful acoustic singer is on...'.
If an act is good enough he / she / they will be 1. getting paid gigs and 2. good enough to hold an audience's attention through songs or engagement. These free gigs are there to test artists and get them to hone their skills in what can be a trying environment. Is this not the same as it ever was? Remember you are also in somebody else's space - it ain't all about you and if you are not good enough they won't listen in awe and not should they be forced to be.

I have asked people to move or leave if they talk in an environment I have paid to get in to listen to music so I do see things both ways btw.

Tom Ross said...

I agree. I was at a Boss acoustic gig a few years ago at Symphony Hall. Some women were shouting liven it up - obviously wanted Dancing In The Dark, etc - drove me mad - If I don't want to hear support band I stay outside in concourse till I am ready to watch and enjoy whoever.

And another thing is: at a rock gig one or two saying sit down when 98% are up and rocking apart from the misery usually behind me - rant over!

Andy W said...

Continued...from FB...

On the moan in general...

Christ - where to start...

Two professions have the biggest knockback rates in the world - actors and musicians...but the world of musicians (and songwriters in particular) is an odd one. It takes some massive amount of balls to get up and perform, live, to a group of strangers (from 2 of your friends to 70, 000 people). It therefore takes even more balls to perform and open your heart with your own material and words - expressing something you believe in. You can also be shot down for doing covers, re-interpretation...anything.
So - only people with massive self belief will risk such exposure as they believe they are the best. So - if in actual fact they arent they will bleat about it being everyone elses fault but their own.

2. Development

In no other business will you go in on your 1st day and everyone will listen to your opinions on how to change the world / company / policy. Only through iterative evaluation and progress do you get better, learn your 'craft' and try to improve on what you do. There is no quick route but at each gig something nice will happen - put it in your set next time - a one liner - a timing change - a song sung in key...pretty soon - 6 months in and you should have at least understood something about people, places, situations, where to play, where not to play, what gigs will progress you, which will not, self promotion, advertising, set up, sound, control etc.

If a venue is bad - don't do it again and tell your friends. If it is bad and you have paid - complain. If you are still not being listened to - improve.

Radio To Go said...

This is a condensed version of a Monday 17th Facebook discussion around the blog topic, reproduced with permission:

Pete Steel
Venues have to take responsibility. We used to play O'Neills in Worcester and we would work our butts off to little or no reaction. If anything people looked pissed off at us for interrupting their night out. We later found out that gig listings were put on the back of cubicle doors in the toilet!

Andy Ward
I have played hundreds, if not thousands, of gigs - and NEVER blamed an AUDIENCE for a bad gig - whether they were invited, paid or casual. Some work, some don't but if you cannot entertain or engage what is in front of you move on to somewhere else closer to appreciating your genre but above all else...if you are not adding to their night out - you are interrupting their night out.

Robin Valk
Perhaps. It depends on the performer and the venue. If the venue is using musicians like aural wallpaper, then sadly they will be treated with disrespect by the crowd. I feel the same about the inevitable disco which starts up at social gatherings when all I want to do is talk to my friends. Robin Valk But this one will run and run. I think music has become commoditised and musicians are suffering as a result.

Andy Ward
They are but I saw both ends of this at a free outdoor gathering (about 500 people+) last weekend. Both the same place and same day - two acoustic acts between bands - one excellent and you could have heard a pin drop - the other a little okish and you...See More

Robin Valk
I accept the point about onstage quality - that's clear - but my point is about GOING to a gig Why fork out £20 and up if all you';re going to do is shout at your mates?

Tim Wilson
Great blog Robin! I am somewhat between Andy and yourself here. I am a firm believer as a musician that your job is to entertain the crowd. How audiences respond or behave is down to a lot of different things. A lot of it is the kind of crowd you're pl...See More

Robin Valk
And furthermore... how do you make the transition from OK to great and commanding without stage experience... which may be so awful for you at the start of your career that you are tempted to give up?

Andy Ward
That's very different and something we could have a debate about the reintroduction of corporal punishment for. If you have paid to see an artist and other people are disturbing your evening and the evenings of those around you the venue has an obligation to remove them or get them to retire to a safe distance til the people they want to see are on.

Robin Valk
Now we're on the same page We need to have another chat about the developmental process.

auralcandy said...

let the audience do the work...if there are people who are talking/shouting turn down - not up. It won't take long for an audience member who IS listening to tell them to shut up.

Unknown said...

Loved this debate (newbie to the blog here). I have recently returned to the fold of original music and loving the whole process again. This after having crossed over to the dark side of "cover" gigs. It was always mildly amusing to me that the club secretary would make grave announcements before the hallowed rite of Bingo commenced that children were to be kept quiet and a respectful silence was to be observed by all members during play. With Bingo over he would announce the "turn" on to the stage and pandemonium around the club would resume! It's always helped me keep my already battered ego in check!

I would only add that if it has always been difficult for upcoming original bands to be given due respect, it has only become infinitely more so by the shoddy example set for audience members by the baying and jeering encouraged by "talent" shows on tv. It seems that to trample all the way through a performance, either by cheering or booing, is how it is supposed to be done. There is no instruction manual in the etiquette of how to behave at a concert or gig for young first-timers, so can they really be blamed for the ignorance they show?

Radio To Go said...

Suzi, that's a powerful point, which I hadn't even considered - because I can't bear TV talent shows, and so avoid them at all costs.

What you have put your finger on, however, is yet another aspect of the commoditisation of music, which removes the performer-audience relationship and substitutes it with public humiliation.

Dunc Wooster said...

Whreever the venue, whatever the perceived "quality" of the performers, and regardless of how much you paid (if at all), it's not only about respecting the performers. What about respecting others in the audience who want to listen?