Performance Ethics

On the Failure of Audience/Performer Interaction


This blog post covers the courtesies a performer owes their audience and the courtesies an audience owes their performer.

In my years as a musician and music fan, I’ve witnessed many performances, and I’ve participated in many performances. Somewhere in all this witnessing and participating, I began to notice the various ways the relationship between audience member and performer breaks down and fails.

Most of you have probably seen audience members talking over a band, or bands that play so loud that the audience members can’t hear themselves, or you’ve seen a band playing to an empty room, or you’ve seen an entire room full of people ignoring the musicians.

To help fight against these kinds of failures, I think audiences and musicians should adhere to a few basic rules. In some cases, rules already exist. For example, most people don’t horse around or talk real loud at a classical music concert, and they usually don’t sing along or dance to the music either. Instead, people usually sit silently and observe the performance.

But, unlike a classical music concert, a pop music concert is a completely different animal with a completely different performance ethic. These kinds of shows are meant for audience participation: singing along and dancing are encouraged—so is drinking, socializing, and carrying on with friends. But, sometimes carrying with friends turns into shouting, rough housing, and titanic eruptions of uproarious laughter.

Audience Misbehavior

Jergels 2
For those who are confused, when a musician is delivering a performance, he or she is unavailable for conversation.

If you and your group of friends are making wild, boisterous, and totally unrestrained verbal ejaculations while in proximity to performing musicians, then you are almost certainly annoying and inconveniencing those musicians. The musicians are, after all, trying to control the acoustic space—that’s now being filled with your shouting and over-the-top belly laughter. Dealing with loud audiences is one of the most difficult aspects of playing live music.

Now, bear in mind, that I’m not talking about the normal hanging-out-with-friends-while-drinking chit chat that does—and should—go on during pop music performances. I’m talking about things like shouting conversation, bumping into me (or my gear) while I’m playing, and coming up and trying to talk to me—or, more often, yell something to me—while I’m in the middle of singing a song or in the middle of playing a guitar solo.

For those who are confused here, when a musician is delivering a performance, he or she is unavailable for conversation. Just wait to the end of the song and then you can talk to them. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had to rebuff with a wide-eyed gaze that said, “you’ve got to be kidding me. You must see that I’m busy, right?”

But the thing about inappropriately timed requests and shouting is that those kinds of audience infractions are so common that they don’t even phase me anymore. What does phase me is when the audience begins to boil and churn with drunken energy. Often such an audience will crowd into the same area that’s been allotted to the band and begin to challenge my physical space. I’ve worked a few New Year’s Eve shows that basically spiraled into bedlam: fights, people falling into the gear, people savagely bumping into the mic stand. It’s really frightening to watch a drunk audience descend into chaos while your teeth are mere inches from a large metal object affixed to a movable stand. These kinds of environments are not conducive to making music or listening to it.

I could be wrong here, but we can probably scratch fighting, falling over, and yelling off the list of things to do at a musical performance. Happily, out-of-control, drunken audiences, are rare, and most of the time the main problem for musicians is having to deal with a crowd challenging the audible space. In these situations, musicians have two choices, basically: start an arms race with the audience members—an arms race of volume—or just cede audible control to the general cacophony of the room.

In my opinion, it’s best not to start an arms race. Things just get too loud that way. If people want to talk and hang out, let them talk and hang out. Don’t try to blow them down with volume.

Because if they can’t hear themselves in conversation, then they will just talk louder, which will make you play louder, which will make them talk even louder, which will make you turn up even more, which will make them get up and leave the room. I’ve seen it go down like that many times. A volume arms race isn’t good for the bar, it’s not good for the band, and it’s not fun for the audience, so just don’t do it.

Despite my tendency not to fight a noisy audience, I’m critical of the people that make up such an audience. If you’re yelling conversation and you don’t realize the utter impracticality of such a mode of communication, then you’re ignorant to the fact that shouting down a band is rude, and you’re ignorant about the knowledge that the best place to have a conversation is on the other side of the bar far away from the band, and—more than anything— you’re ignorant about the common courtesies that go along with social settings. The most basic common courtesy of any given social setting is possessing some situational awareness. Did you notice there’s a band playing? Did you notice some people are watching and listening to the band? If you did notice these things, and you’re still yelling, then you’re an obnoxious jerk—and, that’s the kindest way to put it.

Performer Misbehavior

Revel and Roost
Your most important responsibility as a performer is to be gracious and courteous to the audience. You can fulfill this responsibility by playing your music at a reasonable volume and choosing your repertoire wisely.

Despite all the unruly behavior I’ve witnessed from audiences, I want to emphasize that musicians are often guilty of their own bad behaviors.

This includes playing too loud, which is the worst thing a performer can do, in my opinion. And, it includes misunderstanding the performance dynamics of the room—which is to say, are you giving a performance or are you background music? The sad truth is not all shows are shows; sometimes the musicians are just wallpaper, and that’s okay—there is no shame in that type of performance. These kinds of shows are common.

People like soft music playing in the background while their drinking or socializing. . It’s your job as a musician to know what type of gig you’re playing. This includes things like cocktail hours and corporate events. No matter what type of gig you’re playing. It’s your job as a musician to know what type of gig you’re playing. Is it a “hey, look at me” type of performance, or are you just background music. You’ve got to know, and it’s wise not to be confused here. If the audience begins to take notice of you, then begin to lean into your playing and deliver something like a showcase. But, it’s not your job to force such a performance upon an unwilling audience.

Your most important responsibility as a performer is to be gracious and courteous to the audience. This is usually done by playing your music at a reasonable volume and choosing your repertoire wisely. Do they want to hear oldies? Do they want to hear seventies rock? Do they want to hear your original music? Do they want you to turn down? Do they want to dance?

Out of these considerations, perhaps the most important is not to be too loud. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard complaints from people at bars, clubs, and restaurants that the music was just too loud, and they couldn’t enjoy themselves.

If most people are there to hang out and talk to their friends and you’re playing at ear-shattering, then they’re just going to leave. And, you’ll be upsetting the primary business arrangement you have with the bar owner—to keep people at the bar buying alcohol. Some shows are meant to be cranked up loud, but many are not. It’s a huge courtesy to your audience if you try to know which one is which.

Also, while we’re on the topic of volume, here’s a truth about the drum set: By and large, this instrument is too loud to be used in the typical bar or restaurant. Although there exist a select few drummers who can play at a modest volume with brushes or with a light touch, but this manner of drumming is rare. Most play with apocalyptic volume.

In my opinion, drummers should start using electronic drums sets when they’re gigging—something like the Roland V-Drum System, which is approximately as loud as an acoustic guitar when it’s not plugged in, so it’s perfect for bars and restaurants. But my experience of drummers tells me that they hate playing electronic drums.

In any case, drummers, and all performing musicians, should operate in a way that satisfies the listeners. Loud volume rarely satisfies. Neither does self-indulgent odysseys of extravagant soloing or over-the-top and histrionic singing. Many versions of the Star-Spangled Banner are so exaggerated they could be used by the CIA to torture terrorists. And it should go without saying that jam bands commit so many sins in this department that FEMA should ping your smartphone when such a band is in the area to warn you about the dangers of an impending, extended guitar solo.

I think it will be helpful if we define, as clearly as possible, the duties of audience members and performers. A performer provides an audible service complimented by a visual spectacle. They are to cater to the needs of the audience and not play too loud. Audience members provide the ambience of attention required to label an event a performance. They are to be considerate of the performers and to cede control of the audible space.

The Problems of Unrehearsed Bands, Disrespected Sound People, and Recalcitrant Bar Owners

Performance Ethics
Making a band wait around to get paid or abruptly cancelling gigs on them isn’t an ethical way to operate as a venue owner.

A few loose ends to tie up here before I wrap up today’s topic. One is the preparedness of the musicians. Players in the band simply must know the chord progression, the melody, the rhythm, and the arrangement. And, there can’t be any confusion between your version of things and your bandmates’ version of things. Does everyone in the band know that there is a double chorus at the end of song five? Does every member of the band honestly know the material?

If the band I’m seeing is missing chords, playing wrong melodies, or mishandling arrangements, then I’m just going to leave. There are too many fantastic performers out there for me to waste my time listening to inept or lazy musicians.

Last point I’ll make here is that musicians should be considerate and courteous to the sound people. That means arriving to the gig early, participating in a soundcheck, and complying with the sound guy’s volume and EQ adjustments. Don’t turn up just because he turned you down. Just like an arms race can be waged with an audience, one can be waged between mix engineers and musicians. My advice is the same for both situations, just don’t engage, find a way to work with less volume.

There are many persistent and annoying dis-courtesies encountered when dealing with bar and venue owners. Perhaps the most egregious discourtesy is when the musicians are made to wait around after their set to get paid. If the gig ends at 1:00 am, then the money is to be given to the musicians no later than 1:01 am. All too often, however, I’ve found myself waiting around until 2:00 am, or even later, until the bartenders finally count their drawers and the accounting for the night is squared away. But, in case they haven’t noticed, my band doesn’t work at the bar. Instead, we were commissioned to play at the bar for a certain amount of time for a negotiated sum.

In my opinion, when my band’s obligation has been fulfilled, every hour of waiting around is an hour that’s been stolen from my life—and for no good reason. Many bar owners are pretty good about not doing this, but there’s been many in my experiences playing live music that were inconsiderate.

Also, sometimes bar owners will abruptly cancel your gig. They’ll call the day of, or they’ll say something like this when you arrive: “Oh, sorry guys, no music tonight,” “there’s a Steelers game.” But, if I show up to play a gig, and you’ve now decided there’s to be no music tonight, then you still owe me money.

This discourtesy is rare, but it’s happened to me before. Making a band wait around to get paid or abruptly cancelling gigs on them isn’t an ethical way to operate as a bar or venue owner.

The Rules

Here are my eight rules for successful audience/performer interactions:

  1. Musicians shall play at a reasonable volume
  2. Musicians shall be sensitive to the needs of their audience
  3. Audiences shall not commandeer the acoustic space
  4. Audiences shall not badger the performers
  5. Bands shall know their material inside and out
  6. Bands shall display courtesy to sound people
  7. Bar owners shall not abruptly cancel gigs
  8. Bar owners shall not make bands wait around to get paid

If these simple rules are followed, then everyone’s experience of live music will improve.  

2 thoughts on “Performance Ethics

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