As much as they may depend on a good audience for a living themselves, musicians are often guilty of being of the worst people to have at your show. Here Joe Hoten reveals the many judgements and insecurities which make musicians terrible audience members.
By Joe Hoten from the CD Baby DIY Musician blog
What every musician is secretly thinking during someone else’s show.
Just as teachers can make the worst students, so too can musicians make the worst audience members. Sure, we’d like to think we lead by example, but the truth is far more cynical. We’re fickle creatures, our pride barely masked by a veneer of modesty. When we go out to “support” other acts, that veneer peels away revealing the harsh judges within.
Disclaimer: This list doesn’t apply to every musician, of course, but it describes what many of us are guilty of thinking when we’re at someone else’s show.
We Judge the Equipment
As I wait for the players to take to the stage, I scan the gear. No matter your genre, you’re probably doing the same — sizing up the saxophone, the sampler, the amps.
As a guitarist, I survey the banks of brightly colored boxes positioned at the bases of the mic stands. Effects pedal elitism is one of the more refined forms of snobbery we like to practice – certain cheaper brands are practically prohibited by musicians who consider themselves (and wish to be considered) professional, certain big-name brands are derided as “uninspired” or “obvious” choices, high-end brands are dismissed as “unnecessary” (did you know, for example, that the £130 MXR Carbon Copy is said to be virtually indistinguishable from the £30 Dr Tone DLY101?) and more obscure brands are reserved for try-hards.
Our attention will soon turn to the guitars themselves. One way or another, we’ll be able to find a way to criticize them: they’ll either be too expensive, and therefore the badge of a “poser,” or not expensive enough, and therefore the mark of a novice. More or less the same goes for the drums – even before you hear them played, you can decide whether they’re a showoff who’ll never get around to using their five extra cymbals, or they’ll be boring to watch with only one tom and a crash-ride.
We Judge the Other Audience Members
There are two criteria by which we’ll judge the other members of this audience: quantity and quality.
In terms of ticket sales, having a larger crowd is a more practical success, but that won’t stop us poking holes in it. Half of these people are bound to be relatives, who barely count as they’re obliged to attend by genetic law. Failing that, we can always say the good turnout is the result of a “popularity contest.”
Naturally, a small audience is much easier to mock: “Don’t worry,” we’ll say to the artist, “this just means that everyone here is a real fan.” But we know that’s not true.
The quality of the audience members can also be grounds for a quick upturn of the nose. If we see someone wearing, say, a Ramones t-shirt they bought from Primark, we feel we can mark that against you – only people who wear shirts of bands they’re actually fans of would be allowed to come to OUR shows. Unless, of course, we have to sell more tickets.
We Immediately Jump On Any Mistake
It’s easy to cast stones when we’re in the audience. We listen for anything that goes wrong, however insignificant it might seem to the non-musicians in our midst. A strained high note that gets lost in the vocalist’s throat, a misjudged, clumsy drum fill, or a lick that bends the guitar out of tune are all music to our ears, even if they aren’t to anyone else’s.
If it’s a less experienced band who aren’t quite doing the songs they’re covering justice, we get to feel superior. And we may even magnanimously suggest to one another that they’re at least showing a glimmer of potential. “Ah,” we might say, “I remember my first time, too.” If it’s a less fortunate band who are contending with a technical failure, we indulge in a little schadenfreude. At least it’s not happening to us, right? God, imagine being that unlucky.
But if we’re watching a bunch of real pros who are absolutely killing it, it just doesn’t seem fair to us. Why aren’t their guitarist’s strings breaking? Why isn’t their drummer dropping their sticks? This is where we can make ourselves feel a little bit better by saying things like “doesn’t this seem a bit too polished?” and “it’s not rock ‘n’ roll without a little danger; this just feels a bit too safe.” How dare they practice so much they don’t do at least one thing wrong!
We Think We Own the Songs We Play
If we cover a song regularly in our set, we’ll add our own quirks to it over time, and it’ll start to become a part of us. So much so that when we hear another band cover it, it’s hard not to feel a little violated. They clearly don’t understand the song to the same extent that we do, and they probably stole the idea from us to begin with.
How insulting, then, that they don’t even understand the song properly. Bands who cover “Sweet Child o’ Mine” in the original key of Db whilst remaining in standard tuning, for example, are missing the point just as much as bands who let their bassists start their cover of “Seven Nation Army.”
Having said that, the hypocrites in us wouldn’t think twice about lifting a song we like from another band’s set and giving it our own treatment. After all, it’s not like they own the song!
We Try Not to Be Moved
Neither physically nor emotionally. We become immovable objects. Trying not to dance to a persistent beat is a skill in its own right, and one which we’ve carefully cultivated. And it’s very easy to denounce any emotion shown during a song as “put on.” Especially if it’s a covers band – how can singing a song that didn’t even happen to you make you choke up every time you sing it?
Similarly, we flatly refuse to laugh at any witty onstage banter, or to be impressed by any tales of high adventure – they’ll get a wry smile if they’re lucky. But we reserve the right to become embittered should anyone give us the same treatment when it’s our turn.
We Hate Soloing
A crime even more heinous than flaunting your expensive gear is flaunting your musical chops. Unless you’re a jazz musician, and therefore anomalously exempt from this rule and actively encouraged to seize your moment in the spotlight, you’d better wind your neck in. Being “in the zone” isn’t nearly as fun for anyone else as it is for you, and it usually makes you look a bit weird if we’re honest. “We came to see the band,” we say, rolling our eyes to each other, “not the Second Coming of Hendrix.”
Sure, we might be a little impressed by some raw talent (not that we’d admit that to you), maybe even a little intimidated by it (not that we’d admit that to anyone), but we’ll still find a way of taking the moral high ground, because you dared to not be modest.
On some level, we musicians survive on sapping a little success out of our peers, not unlike vampires, or leeches. We don’t mean to be cruel – perhaps we’re just more sensitive than most to those reaching above their station. After all, there’s only one ladder to the top, and we’re not too proud to grab a few pairs of ankles as we climb it.
How does your own pettiness, jealousy, or insecurity come out during someone else’s show? Let us know in the comments below.