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Audience Etiquette

Fiddlin'Around headerIt makes me happy to play music, either as a soloist or with a band, and to realize that real, live people are actually listening! Seeing your musical choices and decisions connect with or move someone emotionally is a beautiful thing. I know there are fine musicians who don’t want or need feedback from anyone and who are content to play to the birds while sitting alone on their front porch, but that is usually not enough for me. Especially when the birds aren’t even listening. All musicians are acquainted with being ignored by people in the audience who aren’t paying any attention to us, and while it can hurt our feelings, we make excuses for them or try to act like it doesn’t matter. Well, I don’t think I’ve ever written mean things about an audience before, but sometimes you guys just don’t act right! There is such a thing as audience etiquette.

Audience member talking on cell phoneAges ago I was fixin’ to get on a plane headed for Europe on a tour with a blues guy named Coco Robicheaux, and for some reason that I can’t remember now, our guitarist was being replaced at the last minute with a guy who none of the rest of us knew. We had one small gig in New Orleans before leaving, and it was really kind of a rehearsal as it was our only chance to run through those tricky songs of Coco’s with the new guy. We had a small though attentive and forgiving audience, but after a couple of songs two women came in and sat fairly close to the band and proceeded to talk to each other throughout the entire performance. Loudly and about trivial crap. By the end of the night, I was so steamed about having had to listen to these women talk about their stupid boss, and their stupid new shoes and their stupid lives that I went over to them and told them I’d be at their workplace on Monday morning where I would sit on their stupid desk and play the violin. Serious righteous indignation on my part. So we go on tour, and after being ignored for like three weeks by the new guitarist, I was completely clueless and freaked out about why he and I were having such crummy communication and no comradery. The drummer finally fessed up to me that one of the women I had chastised was actually the fiancé of the guitarist and he now hated me for talking to her the way I did. Sigh. We all lost—the European audiences cause we were giving less than stellar performances, the promoters, the other band members for having to walk on eggshells the whole tour, and I was pissed all over again that he didn’t come talk to me with his grievances like an adult. All because these women just weren’t sensitive to what was going on.

But the main issue between musicians and the audience is about our personal/band/equipment space. We all play venues that were never designed to provide a separate or elevated area for a band, so we have to trust the audience not to invade our space. Basically there is never, ever, ever a reason for someone to cross that invisible line and enter the realm of the band or a soloists’ area. But, since we often are playing in bars, we are often playing for clumsy drunks whose judgement ain’t so hot and who are arrogant or vain enough to think that rule doesn’t apply to them. Most singers have had some drunk stagger into their mic stand and cause that heavy and solid metal mic to hit them in the face. I know one guy who has a permanent screen tic tac toe scar on his upper lip. It happened to me a few months back—after I had nicely asked the dumb ass drunk to dance anywhere else but right in front of me, as there was plenty of room on either side. Well, of course he ignored me, stumbled and hit my stand, which hit me and chipped a front tooth. So many people saw him do it that he actually contacted me later and paid my dental bill, which was quite decent of him, but we usually bite it on a financial level also. Players have expensive and beloved instruments, cables, foot pedals and other do-dads on the floor by them or leaning against amps which are easily damaged when stepped on or knocked over. I just threw away 8 cables that had problems, most of which came from being stepped on or roughly yanked out of something –at around 40 bucks a cable that is not chicken feed. As if I had any chickens….

Equipment and wires on stageAnother annoying thing is when often well-meaning but untrained and clueless people tell us how to set or ‘fix’ our sound. The closest they have ever come to messing with sound re-production is when they programmed the ring tone into their phone. It’s a very technical world nowadays, and there are several sources and influences on any bands’ sound that folks who are not sound engineers have no concept about or awareness of. We likely have amps on stage for part of the sound that you hear, and the amps are likely to have cables going to monitors (on-stage speakers that only the band members are hearing) and cables going to the main speakers that the audience hears. Then there’s the mixing board and effects and frankly there might be a dozen different ways to affect the way one instrument sounds, so there is plenty of variation involved. I can’t tell you how many people will start telling us how to set the volume or the treble or whatever long before we have completed setting up and certainly without our soliciting their advice.

Wow—I am kind of enjoying getting this stuff off my chest, so I will continue with ‘what not to do’. If we have put up flyers or posters in an effort to let people know we are playing somewhere, don’t tear them down or cover them up with news of your garage sale. We have very few options when trying to advertise gigs down here and some people want to know when and where we are playing.

Just because you might want to hire a band to play at your pool party, don’t ask us what we are getting paid at our local bar gig. Or anywhere, actually. It’s none of your business, and I’m pretty sure most folks would resent being asked that question no matter what their occupation. Once we know what a gig entails—expenses, time, transportation, gear, advertising, etc., we will be glad to give you a quote for your party.

Use some common sense and don’t ask us to play songs or styles of music that we are clearly unsuited for. A bunch of guys playing heavy metal are not going to know or play the country song ‘Stand By Your Man’. That symphony cellist probably doesn’t know any Dixieland jazz. The girl wedding singer probably isn’t gonna belt out any AC/DC songs. I’m definitely not going to know any Kanye West. Of course there are times when our musical experience and knowledge crosses party lines, but you need to be realistic! Don’t come up and start talking to us while we are trying to entertain you. If you’ve got something to say to one of us, wait until our break. And you probably shouldn’t request “Free Bird” or “Orange Blossom Special”.

Even so-called professional musicians, let alone amateurs, have been guilty of going up on stage uninvited and singing along, or busting out their harmonica and whaling away while sitting in the audience. Try to avoid doing that kind of stuff. Ben Orton told me the other day about a guy who recently walked up to the band in the middle of a number and plugged his guitar into Ben’s amp—which caused a large drop in the volume for Ben’s instrument and totally threw off the band. Never never touch someone’s instrument or knobs and dials without being invited to. What kind of idiot thinks that is OK?

Person taking selfie with band playing in backgroundOne last thing and I promise to never write about this stuff again. We don’t mind you taking photos or videos of us, but there is something sad about people who are so attached to their phones or other devices that they never face us or put them away and listen to us.

They will have great pics of their vacation or their night out on the town—only their backs are to us in their selfies and they are busily texting away, not even remotely listening. They might as well just stay home. Maybe look up the word ‘rude’.

But PLEASE come out and listen to live music and have some fun with us, ‘cause we are having fun playing for you! Thanks for letting me rant about this topic and I hope I’ve made a couple of the more obtuse folks out there more aware of how things work. I apologize for getting preachy. Because of the recent rains, not as many venues are booking live music, but we are out there playing somewhere, so search for us! Check out the establishments in Dominical that sometimes host live music—The Rum Bar, Tortilla Flats, Fuego, Phat Noodle, and The Jolly Roger. In Quepos and MA there are quite a few clubs catering to folks looking for musical fun—Dos Locos, the new Marina, clubs that hire local Latino artists—there are a bunch of excellent and professional players around here. Thanks for your support of live music in our little part of the world!

The music ain’t worth nothing if you can’t lay it on the public. The main thing is to live for that audience, ‘cause what you’re there for is to please the people. Louis Armstrong

When an audience does not complain, it is a compliment, and when it does, it is a compliment, too, if unaccompanied by violence. Mark Twain

I don’t believe in elitism. I don’t think the audience is this dumb person lower than me. I am the audience. Quentin Tarantino

In a live performance it’s a collaboration with the audience; you ride the ebb and flow of the crowd’s energy. On television you don’t have that.
Jon Batiste


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