10:01 AM CDT, July 28, 2013
Memo to: Everyone.
Re: Shutting Up During Concerts.
So, uh, everyone … if you've been wondering lately about what you could do to dramatically improve my enjoyment at concerts this summer (and beyond), well, No. 1: Wow, thanks for the unlikely consideration. But also, Nos. 2 through 5, the following suggestions are behavior modifications that I would appreciate you adopting immediately, particularly as we approach the Lollapalooza festival of ephemeral bands and drunk suburban teenagers, which begins Friday in Grant Park:
No. 2: Please refrain from recording video of the concert and/or taking pictures of the stage. (You will never watch this footage; your photographs are blurry images of distant lights, and no one wants to see this stuff.)
No. 3: Please refrain from huddling with friends, your backs to the stage, to snap yet another photo. (The first 36 pictures were fine, the flash is irritating and those "friends" of yours will "forget" to offer gas money.)
No. 4: Do not shout requests. (There is probably a set list. Also, you're making the singer/genius nervous.)
And, lastly, No. 5:
At the risk of sounding ancient: You're making me nuts, what with the oblivious yakking, the screaming into each other's faces (because, you know, it's so hard to conduct a conversation over live music) and the assembling into clusters to hold summit meetings while people around you strain to hear plaintive ballads.
And I'm not just talking about the chattering classes who occupy Grant Park every August for Lollapalooza, or Union Park every July for the Pitchfork Music Festival. There's also the incessant talking at intimate clubs and theaters: At City Winery on Randolph Street — the smallish, youngish outpost of New York's City Winery — founder Michael Dorf has made sure there are "signs on the tables and signs on the candelabra, the wording being to respect the artists and your neighbors and not talk during shows. We make a vocal announcement to remind people. We have a house policy to shush, and we take it seriously." Dorf, who also started New York's famed Knitting Factory in the 1980s, then added: "Yet it's still a big complaint. I don't ever recall having to care as much about (talking at shows) as I do now. We've been doing a lot shushing, it seems."
It does, doesn't it?
It also seems talkers are growing bolder, more entitled. At the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park — where entitlement and incessant chatter often seems like a way of life, part of the texture of the place — "for every letter I receive that complains about how 'the people next to me would not shut up during this or that concert' it seems I get a letter from someone complaining they were insulted because they were shushed at a show," said Nick Pullia, Ravinia's director of communications (who also processes its audience gripes).
The chattiness of movie audiences — and lately, theater audiences — is well established. Much less discussed, however, is the guy standing behind me at every show I've seen in the past few years who needs to moan right now about his fantasy football picks. Or the woman in a cluster of friends, turned away from the stage, loudly wondering if she should go to law school. Indeed, an anecdotal, not-super-scientific survey of local music venue managers, owners and a few musicians suggests that the smart phone-driven attention span of music audiences is increasingly fragile — and all this constant yammering is likely a ramification.
Jake Samuels is the general manager and talent booker for SPACE in Evanston, an intimate, 250-capacity room that opened in 2008 and often features quiet, acoustic performances. Even he said: "It completely blows my mind when people pay good money for a show here then talk the entire show. We train our staff when to shake a martini, when to deal with talking. But some people, it's like they want background music."
Which is not always lost on the performer.
I asked Elliot Bergman, who plays with his sister Natalie in the Chicago-based indie group Wild Belle (playing Saturday at Park West and Sunday at Lollapalooza), if he can hear chatter from the stage. "Oh yeah," he said. "And it ruins a show. A couple of jerks can cancel out the good will of hundreds. People are not aware of the impact their attention has. It's like they forget they are seeing actual people before them."
Bergman told me about a recent show that Wild Belle performed in Athens, Ga., where he got into "a bit of tug of war with this guy who was shooting us with his phone from the front — he had a flash on his phone and we're in this small club, in this intimate setting. So I had to say to him, 'I'm going to take this from you and give it back at the end of the show.' And he's like, 'No! Please! I didn't know there was a light!' Which may not exactly be talking, but I feel like it all comes from the same place: a larger, overall distracted vibe."
In March Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead walked off stage in the middle of a Bob Dylan cover because of talkers (at a show outside San Francisco, no less). Rapper Lil Wayne (!) has asked an audience to shut up. Regina Spektor did, too. As did Neil Young. And, while it's not exactly talking: At an early July show in Atlanta, Beyonce told a fan to "put that damn camera down" and focus. Even way back in 1997, at Dorf's Knitting Factory in New York, avant garde musician John Zorn asked the people in the balcony to "Please shut the (expletive) up," which was a bit awkward because those people were U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Vaclav Havel, the celebrated playwright and former president of the Czech Republic.
Without question, though, the gold standard for an annoyed musician lashing out at a chatty concert audience came from Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, who, during a solo show in 2006, stopped and earnestly asked: "What can I do to be of better service to you? Am I not playing the right songs?" The clip of this (easily found on YouTube) is wonderful: "Tell me what I need to do to get you to listen to the concert that you paid money to go see," he said, asking for a short silence and eloquently reminding everyone of what it can be like to be in a room of people in unison, just listening: "It's what you do when you go to a concert. You get to be a part of it."
My own hyper-awareness of distracted audiences began with Radiohead's 2008 performance at Lollapalooza, which, granted, was in Grant Park and sort of a party, but the volume of inattentive chatter became so obnoxious you couldn't move anywhere to escape it. Typically, that's how I've dealt with concert talking — through passive aggression, by moving, shooting glares, suffering silently. Lately though, I've been asking people what they're talking about, asking them to shut up, reminding them this isn't their living room.
Usually they apologize.
Sometimes they yell "It's a concert!"
And I yell back, "I know. I bought tickets, too!"
To be fair, there are shades of gray: Unlike a movie theater and theater (or classical, orchestral performances, which generally demand attention), a concert venue is rarely thought of as a secular church. Shouting approval is encouraged, "Woo!"-ing unfortunately standard. Aside from recognizing the performers, there are few accepted rules of decorum. Daniel Post Senning, co-author of the 18th edition of "Emily Post's Etiquette" (and great-great grandson of Post herself), said: "People take it for granted that generally, out in the world, it's clear what's expected from you etiquette-wise. But at a concert? That's a social negotiation."
At the risk of encouraging the Chatty Cathys, they have defenders. Rob Mazurek, a well-regarded Chicago cornetist known for his experimental and conceptual jazz works (playing Tuesday at the Whistler with the Exploding Star Micro Orchestra, and this weekend at Constellation with his quartet), said when he performs "I am usually completely zoned into the sound, and because voices, breathing, coughing in the audience are part of that sound — the airplane flying overhead, the ambulance siren outside, the cocktail shaker making all kinds of interesting and non-interesting rhythms — I try to use this to my advantage." He added: It's not just the job of the listener but the performer, the bartender, ushers, etc., "to understand the importance or non-importance" of quiet. Which means, basically, that sometimes the music at a show is everything at a show.
Along the same lines, Troy Hansbrough, Old Town School of Folk Music's senior director of programming, said: "I don't know if I can relate. Seeing a band is a social experience and some people meet up with friends and maybe the act on stage is not their priority." That said, he added that he doesn't encourage talking at concerts and that Old Town doesn't have this problem at all, because an Old Town audience expects "a listening room."
A good point.
Vibe counts: The intimate, music-obsessive air of Old Town generally results in a polite, focused crowd, just as the pricier seats of the pavilion at Ravinia see a relatively more attentive audience than the expansive, less-costly lawn, where "policy is, audience sets decorum," Pullia said. Likewise, at weekend music festivals in large parks, floating from act to act is encouraged, and not everyone is there with a show in mind. Talking abounds. And yet the size of a room doesn't dictate focus: Tim Stephans of Lincoln Hall and Schubas Tavern asked around the management office of the two clubs, and consensus was that fans buy concert tickets but fans bring friends who talk, and "once there is some level of chatter, others follow."
But it's not inevitable.
Last week I went to see Jay Z and Justin Timberlake at Soldier Field, and while the cellphone mafia was out in force, incessant chatting was not. At least in my section, a sizable hike from the stage.
Which kind of dispelled what I heard at Pitchfork a couple of days earlier: I had walked up to random people who were talking and asked why they were talking and if they thought it was OK to talk when the people around them were trying to listen. I wasn't angry — more wary and resigned than anything. I explained I wasn't here for a public shaming: I sincerely wanted to know why they were talking and if they were aware of how loud they were.
And the people I spoke with were … nice, apologetic, thoughtful.
What I heard most often was: "I feel like we're far enough from the stage," which is what I heard from Maddy Boesche, 22, of Chicago, who was maybe two yards from the stage and talking so loudly she could be heard above Savages, a loud British guitar-based act with a Patti Smith-like singer. I told her she was loud.
She apologized and said that she knew. Her friend, Steven Wulff, 21, mentioned they were in the "talking section." Her friend, Amanda Stanhaus, 22, said, looking at the stage: "The band doesn't seem to mind."
Boesche said that the night before, during Bjork's set, she was focused, even reverential.
Savages are rowdy, Bjork ethereal.
On the other hand, there's a degree of self-interest that chatty audiences tend to overlook. Later in the day, soon after Savages, I found myself beside a circle of friends who were talking loudly through a set from the modest, minimalist Minnesota band Low. The moment Low was finished, the circle of friends rushed toward the stage, to get a good spot for the next act, electronic-music artist Andy Stott. I followed behind. I stopped Jonah Smith, 19, of Chicago, who told me: "We didn't really care for the other band because we're here for Andy Stott, and it's not like I didn't like the other band, it's just not a priority." But you guys were so loud, I said. And, like, 20 feet from the stage! He said he was sorry, because if anyone talked during Andy Stott he would be hugely annoyed. He also told me he goes to Columbia College and is studying music management.
I raised my eyebrows.
"Yeah," he said, "I know."
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