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.