Searching For The Sound: When Audiences Drown Out The Music

7b988d3981468cc48bd289c2a57e5d22I suppose there has always been rude people at live shows. Any concert I’ve ever been to has had talkers. You know, those folks who seem to be only peripherally aware that someone is on stage making music and that there are people actually engaged in listening (or trying to listen, as the case may be). And of course, the louder the music, the louder the chatter.

But it used to be that a few dagger stares or a handful of friendly requests of “Shhh” or “Could you please keep it down?” would more or less do the trick. Sometimes, getting up and moving to another location within the venue would be a viable solution. But nowadays, these talkers seem to have become a larger percentage of the audience. And recently, some on-stage artists have had to be very vocal about their frustration. And rightfully so. I applaud these musicians and my heart breaks for their frustration. As my heart breaks for all those in attendance whose experience was negatively impacted by those whose conversations were more important to them than honoring and respecting the musicians they supposedly paid some pretty steep prices to see (but obviously not listen to).

A few years back, I was at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles seeing the band Furthur and the woman next to me was talking up a storm. I mean full-blown, in-depth conversation. FAR louder than the music. And no matter how many people would kindly ask her and her friends to keep it down, she couldn’t control herself for more than one or two minutes before the top-of-her-lungs chatter began again. When I finally asked her outright “Why?” she replied “Sometimes this music is just better as background” to which I suggested that maybe it would make better background in her living room and not at the Greek Theatre where the rest of us are actually trying to listen and be engaged. She laughed, as if I’d been joking, and wen’t back to being her apparently oblivious –or just plain rude– self.

This past year, seeing the same band at the same venue, the gentlemen sitting next to me were engaged in a full-blown conversation for almost the entire duration of the band’s 3 hour-plus concert. They’d look up periodically at the band if the music got loud enough (loud enough to interrupt their conversation, that is), but they quickly returned to their very important socializing, completely unaware of all the people whose experiences they were sabotaging.

These people appear to have no sense of what the group dynamic is. Or the power of music. And since it’s not against the law to talk at such venues (though it seems new rules are starting to – thankfully- be put in place at some smaller houses), more and more people seem to be doing it.

Bob Weir, one of the founding members of the Grateful Dead, was playing a solo acoustic set at his own Sweetwater Music Hall in Northern California recently when he felt impelled to end his set in mid-song when audience members refused to stop talking during his performance. Despite his vocal efforts to gain some respect and silence the offending ticket-holders, Weir finally chose to give up and walk off stage. And I don’t blame him. When he returned later in the evening backed by his band, the chatter continued, eliciting pleas of “Shut the Fuck up!” from this now completely frustrated and insulted bandleader.

Several years ago, performer Jeff Tweedy stopped his show in mid-set to confront the audience. He asked them outright what they needed. Was he doing something wrong? Was there something else he should be doing to gain their attention and respect?

Is this a reflection of something bigger? Has it indeed gotten worse, or has it always been this bad? Should venues implement a no-talking rule (at least within reason)? I know at the Hollywood Bowl, ushers will ask attendees to please refrain from talking if they are disturbing other patrons during a concert of the Philharmonic. So why not during all other concerts? Is other music somehow less important? Or is it just our perception of appropriate behavior in conjunction with certain styles of music? Perhaps, we need to ask these ushers to step in and quiet these disrespectful or apathetic talkers down. Or perhaps there should be a special “talking section” where folks can hear the music, but engage in conversation at the same time without disturbing the rest of the audience. We certainly don’t put up with talking in a movie theater. We understand that it destroys the experience of engaging with the film. The same is true for engaging with music. And perhaps more musicians ought to step up and ask the audience to be quiet. Despite the fact that, as in Weir’s case, it seems to not initially make a difference. But perhaps it’s the first step in changing the public awareness and expectations surrounding musical events. Instead of allowing those loud few to set the rules of conduct, why don’t musicians and audiences alike take back the live musical experience and demand a certain mode of conduct which is appropriate for such events. Like I said, we already implement this in movie theaters (though talkers do find their way in there and are, often, eventually silenced by an outraged crowd). We also do it in libraries. We set the rules of appropriate conduct. We do it at the symphony, which often takes place in many of the same venues as other types of concerts. And at the opera. So why not all concerts?

If only I could steal the voices of these folks –just temporarily– like Ursula in THE LITTLE MERMAID… I promise to give them back the moment the show’s over.

You have my word.

Searching For The Sound: When Audiences Drown Out The Music

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