Friday, July 30, 2010

What musicians are thinking when they look at the audience

I was talking to a young musician friend recently. He plays in his own band but also goes out regularly doing covers in pubs. "You've no idea," he said, "how difficult it is to get people to listen."

I've been thinking about this ever since. Maybe part of the reason I've been able to persuade musicians like Chris Difford, Mary Gauthier and Barb Jungr to come along to True Stories Told Live and just perform for ten minutes is because they know how precious somebody's undivided attention is. In some ways they're happier playing to a listening audience for ten minutes than competing for the attention of a bigger, paying crowd for much longer.

I'm always amazed by the resilience musicians show in walking out in front of people who would clearly be happier drinking, eating, talking or being entertained by someone else. I try to put myself in their shoes and imagine how the world looks from the other side of the monitors. I often wonder why they don't just walk off.

I was thinking about this again this morning while looking at Amy Rigby's excellent blog. She's an American musician who's married to Wreckless Eric. They live in France and play wherever they can. This never was an easy life and it's harder than ever right now. There's no record company, no management, no structure, no career path, just a life. Unlike many musicians Amy Rigby is perceptive enough to notice the audience and candid enough to write about them. This is a show the other night:

Today I'm recovering from our gig at the Site Corot last night. Held in an unused auberge in a lovely spot near a river, next to some old glove factories, it took five meetings and three months to organize. Many people showed up, having been told we were either a) a "rhythm and blues" group or b) country music. They stayed for about three songs and the rest of the set we played to our usual ten friends and the few assorted French people too polite to desert us. But the river made a nice sound and we still remembered how to play.

The dread and anticipation, the inevitable misrepresentation, the evening that peters out before it is meant to, the embarrassed silences, the battering taken by the confidence: sounds like nothing so much as a blind date.


  1. I always listen; bad manners not to. I'm constantly amazed at the amount of people who've paid forty-odd quid to see a band and are happy to talk, film, eat and drink their way through a gig, let alone lend an ear to a band who are playing in a pub.

    However,the last time I saw Chris Difford live, I set my hair on fire, so I'm not averse to drawing attention away from the turns.

  2. Last weekend I played for the first time ever in front of an audience (and in a band actually).

    I play ukulele. It was a friends 50's and 60's cover band. It was interesting.

    The fact that it looked like very few were listening was rather pleasing to me - the none reaction meant that I wasn't so big a car crash that I drew their attention.

    I imagine if I were a more accomplished player I'd think different, but as it stood I accepted indifference as a triumph

  3. I'll tell you why we don't "just walk off." There are two real audiences we are playing for:
    1) Each other.
    2) The sometimes very few people in the audience who really "get it."

    We understand there are many motivations that bring people to live concerts, few of them having actually to do with the music.

    I take it back: there's a third audience that I personally appreciate: those who are just learning about your genre of music. Talking with the brave few who come up afterwards to ask real music questions are the golden moments.

  4. As a musician I've never felt I deserved the audiences attention I always felt it was mine to earn. Too many people feel the opposite. As an audience member I always think come on now, entertain me!

    By the way that liitle quote will be way too familiar to most bands I suspect. The almost empty room and a handful of friends is the norm at most gigs I've been to or played at by unsuccesful bands...

  5. Eric and Amy often play to sparse rooms (it's probably no coincidence, that, like Boo, they'll play in your living room for a modest fee and expenses) but that doesn't make their shows any less magical. They engage. They get everyone down the front so there's no lurkers at the back. And they talk to the punters after the gig before they leave. God bless 'em.

  6. The Open Mic scene holds just as much etiquette horror. There are some events that take the musicians' side and demand silence - repeatedly by the host - and intense attention to the artists and their efforts: which I always appreciated, but also felt left the room feeling a little too worthy, a little dour. Then there's the other kind of night run by good-times merchants who are happy to let the crowd do their thing - it's a pub, it's a night out, who are we to tell you how to enjoy yourself? And while that's potentially a nightmare to deal with as a struggling solo folkie, by god it drags your stage presence up by the scruff of the neck - or soon teaches you that this ain't the gig for you.

    David's absolutely right - resilience is vital in a musician. If you can't handle being ignored, talked over, even playing over a juke box (one great gig I played..!), then you ain't gonna make it. You have to be indefatigable in your self-belief (or at least in the belief that this is what you want to do with your life); I wasn't - that's why I stopped. Good luck to all who keep the faith.

  7. In about a hundred years people will look back on the 'rock n roll' era from the 1950s to the 1990s as a strange time when performers of music expected their audience to stop do anything else and just give them their undivided attention, with perhaps a bit of a swaying and appreciative whooping allowed. I say this after spending time in China where there the tradition is for audiences at musical and theatrical events to talk, eat, drink, heckle and wander around during performances. I imagine it was much the same at the Globe in Shakespeare's day. Isn't it a bit narcissistic to expect your paying audience to put their evening on hold while you express yourself?

  8. You are quite correct, Michael, in your observation. Alex Ross reviewed two books for "The New Yorker" a couple of years ago in which, indeed, sitting quietly and listening to music is a phenomenon of the 20th century. Before this music always had a function: dance, dinner accompaniment, to make festivities more lively, etc.

  9. Dan Biddle: Ah, the open mic night 'shush'; it has it's place I guess, if it's some nervous singer/songwriter who has only ever played in their bedroom. But otherwise I find it annoying.

    There's one in particular I used to go to quite regularly and the woman running things (very nice and perfectly lovely when you're chatting to her) would turn into the 'shush beast', hushing even the rustling of a crisp bag.

    The problem with the 'shush' is that if the performer who follows is crap then it makes them look even worse....

  10. There is another aspect of keeping quiet: not just respect for the performer, but consideration for other audience members who might just want to listen.

  11. Had a couple of similar experiences recently, both at the Eden Project. Martha Wainwright had a terrible time with talkers, but she was on the wrong bill. Very few people in the audience had paid to see a sensitive singer-songwriter, they'd come to have a noisy time with Paolo Nutini (who was terrific, by the way). Not her fault, but have to say she didn't deal with it very well - sarky comments and a general air of misery, plus kicking off with 3 solo acoustic songs before the band came on.

    The other occasion was Mumford & Sons, of all people - lively enough to engage practically anyone, I'd have thought. "I'm talking to my mate, all right?" was the answer when I asked one particularly mouthy individual to zip it.

    Both times it was amazing the number of people who thought it was ok to talk and laugh loudly in large groups - it was as if they were at a party and it was just an iPod in the corner. Even if I'm bored I don't talk, I just go somewhere else - not hard at the Eden Project.

  12. I also blog along these lines, and a friend recently sent me a YouTube link that will probably look and sound eerily familiar to my pub banding brethren.

  13. Maybe audience members ought to answer a questionnaire before being allowed to purchase a ticket or enter the event.

    The lack of respect shown by audiences these days is appalling.

    People's attention spans are so short.

    Why, if you've paid a hefty sum for a ticket, would you want to chat to your mates during the performance?

    You might as well go to the pub or, better still, invite our mates round to your house and stick on the artists' CDs and then talk over that.

    Then people who actually want to go along and listen wouldn't be impinged upon by uncultured, ignorant morons...

  14. Anonymous1:03 pm

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