Quiet, Please!

Nov 1, 2016

Noisy crowds are a regular, and indeed expected thing at music clubs that specialize in louder rock music. But the inherent decibel level of the act on stage is usually more than enough to drown out the din. But at smaller venues or with quieter acts, a noisy crowd can be a real detriment to an artist’s ability to connect in a meaningful way with their fans and to fans’ ability to enjoy the artist.  At one recent show I attended in Ashland, the crowd of 150 or so was so loud it was difficult to tell when the concert even started. It wasn’t until the second song that people started to really pay any attention.Been to a live concert recently? How was the experience? Did it meet the expectations you had going in?  Increasingly, it seems that for many, the concert going experience is coming up a bit short due to an old problem with new twists; namely, poor etiquette among patrons.

A noisy crowd can be a real detriment to an artist's ability to connect in a meaningful way with their fans and to fans' ability to enjoy the artist.

There’s a guideline that I like to use in relation to the concert experience. The “one third, two thirds” rule. That is, the front 1/3 of the crowd is there to participate actively in the concert experience. The remaining 2/3 are there to participate in a social experience, with music accompaniment.  The front third doesn’t have to strain to hear among the laughing, talking, and other partying that goes on near the back.

A recent show at the Ashland Armory featured the very lovely (and soft) harmonies of the duo Lily & Madeleine—a recent in-studio guest at JPR. The crowd—obviously there for the headliner—was such a noisy bunch that most of the ladies’ stage banter was lost in in the milieu, and it was a struggle to hear most of their abbreviated set. For those in the front few rows, there was quite a nice performance going on. For the rest, it was time to catch up with friends.

The Britt Music and Arts Festival is a good laboratory to try out the 1/3, 2/3 concept. Get back past the sound board on the hill, and it’s often a noisy picnic with some music in the background. That can be rather frustrating to folks who’ve stood in line for a couple of hours for the “land grab” of lawn seats, only to have the constant distraction of their neighbors throughout the show. I talked with Britt’s Mike Gantenbein about this phenomenon, and while he did agree that some shows are a bit problematic, he said it’s very dependent on the particular artist.

It’s certainly not limited to outdoor venues. Jana Pulcini-Leard at the Cascade Theatre in Redding added that talking—not a quick whisper, but full blown conversation during performances is on the rise there. She added that cell phone usage during shows, with those bright screens that grow larger every year is also on the rise. Most of those pictures are junk anyway.

Talia Engel, who books music at the Brickroom in Ashland posited that it’s a problem perhaps amplified when there’s a low cost of entry. Low ticket prices or cover charge don’t exactly cause a high degree of investment in the experience, right? But you can’t say that some of the Britt shows or Les Schwab concerts are inexpensive, so that argument just doesn’t explain the phenomenon of buying tickets to a concert, only to barely pay attention. A “sit there and be quiet” blanket policy seems draconian, but I’m not sure where the happy middle is.

One other problem has been popping up with a lot more regularity. Smoking. And I’m not talking tobacco. Pot smoke at concerts is nothing new, of course. But for years (decades?) it was relatively isolated, fairly subtle (it is still illegal, after all), and mostly unobtrusive. But lately, marijuana consumption at concerts is casting a much bigger cloud (pun intended) over shows.

Perhaps nowhere was this on display more visibly than Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. The gigantic festival, held in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, drew an estimated crowd this year of 700,000 people. As a free event in the middle of an urban setting, the crowd is comprised of a giant stew of tourists (including me), aging music fans (me?), homeless, hippies, hipsters, and a gaggle of “travelers.” The sheer enormity of the event makes any attempt at policing pot consumption completely futile. Giant clouds of smoke floated above the crowd at most of the stages in the park. And “subtle” people were not. From pipes of all shapes and sizes, to “flower girls” wandering through the crowd with baskets of “joints, cookies, two for $5,” it was everywhere. Interestingly, the emcees at Hardly Strictly made (laughable, considering the scene) official pre-show announcements before every set reminding people that there was no smoking of tobacco allowed in the park. Thanks for that.

Unlike drinking, which is also a regular occurrence at most concerts, marijuana use tends to negatively affect the neighboring patrons, much the way cigarette smoke used to before smoking bans became commonplace. Beer and wine drinkers don’t have that kind of negative effect on neighbors unless there’s excessive consumption. And then, eww. Britt’s Gantenbein pointed out that cigarette smokers are generally now pretty considerate overall and adhere to smoking bans or designated smoking areas. But people who smoke weed (or vape, another topic entirely) haven’t come around yet.

Perhaps we’re at the beginning of a new round of education, awareness, and training for pot smokers at concerts the way tobacco users’ behavior has been gradually altered. With the steady march towards legalization of marijuana, an outright ban is starting to feel as silly as a ban on a six-pack, but perhaps those that need a little chemical assistance in order to enjoy a concert could be nudged toward an alternative that doesn’t affect others.  I hear brownies are yummy.

Eric Teel is JPR’s Director of FM Network Programming and Music Director.