Is Rudeness a Necessary Evil?

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(Wow, I just finished writing and unsurprisingly, I created a monster. If you can’t make it through the entire post, I forgive you, but you might want to peek at the last few paragraphs for one proposed solution to the problem…)

There is a recurring theme in too many of my posts, rude audience members. At times, I want to edit those comments out, but then I remind myself that I want to remember what each experience was like. Unfortunately, more often than I care to recall, it’s a part of the evening that sticks with you.

The first time I ever mentioned it, I probably had a fantasy that all the rude people in the world would read that post, have an Ah Ha! moment, and enjoy the actual performances from that point on (allowing the rest of us to take our enjoyment up a notch as well). Guess what, it didn’t happen.

Then I rationalized: well, those people don’t read anyway, and if they did, would never associate my comments with their behavior.

Because I am hyper-sensitive to it, and because I write about it often enough, I have been trying to understand it better. I have no illusion that the problem can be solved (certainly not by me), but I am wondering whether it can be avoided in a specific, micro way, perhaps by creating a club where people like me can get the listening experience they desire.

Let’s survey a few forms of the problem (by no means exhaustive):

  1. Many different people in different parts of the venue talking loudly non-stop
  2. A single cluster of two of more people talking loudly
  3. Wait/Bar staff taking drink/food orders, occasionally creating noticeable disturbances during a song
  4. A single person, purposely creating a distraction

Some of the problems above are caused by, or exacerbated by particular venues. Sometimes it’s the style of the artist. Sometimes it’s the artist themselves (meaning, they are an opener that some portion of the audience simply doesn’t care to discover).

Fine, it’s a fact of life. But, is it understandable/explainable? Is it consistently the same roots underlying the various forms of rudeness? I think the answers are Yes and No, respectively.

Let’s take the venue out of the equation for a minute (we’ll analyze their role right after). Broadly speaking, there appear to be four categories of rude audience members:

  1. People who aren’t there for the music to begin with (or at best, are treating it like a background jukebox)
  2. People who are there for a different artist on the same night (before, and they’re hanging around to socialize, or after, and they’re killing time waiting for their act)
  3. People who are there for this artist, but only to support them, not listen to the music (a paid show that they know the artist badly wants/needs to fill up, etc.)
  4. People who are friends with the artist and want to be part of the scene, but don’t really care to hear the music

#1 is often a venue problem (not always), so I’ll deal with it later.

#2 is one of the toughest things. You can be a real fan of a particular artist and not care about music in general (or other artists’ fans!).

#3 makes you a good person on some level, your friend or an artist you like really needed your support and you bothered to show up, but somewhere, there’s a resentment. You want to ensure that you have a good time, rather than complete your original good deed the way it should be.

#4 this is one of the worst, but more often than I care to admit, it’s other artists (who certainly don’t want it to happen to them!). In their heads, I’ll bet they’re thinking “Well, I’ve heard so-and-so sing that song 2,798 times, and they completely understand why I’m not paying attention…” OK, let’s be honest, they’re really not thinking about their actions at all, I was just trying to be nice.

Continuing with #4, I believe that often these people show up because they know that the rest of their circle of friends (largely other artists) will be there (which is why I said “to be part of the scene”). The problem is that their friends, who might otherwise be quiet, rarely tell them to be quiet. They easily get pulled into the conversation, even if they feely badly about it. After all, being rude to someone who is on stage and busy feels more anonymous than telling a friend to be quiet, or step outside to talk.

The following will likely strike you as completely obvious. On some level, it always was to me as well, but recently it has struck me much more clearly. The thing that unites all of the above, explaining the majority of the individual rude behavior, is a Look at Me attitude. The disruptor wants (perhaps even needs) to make themselves the focus, the center of attention.

Some of you might think that’s ridiculous. If so, try to explain the following behavior to me. We’ll assume that a rude person is completely oblivious to the fact that they can be heard, or that anyone cares, because they think no one else is bothering to listen to the music either. Then that person get shushed by 80% of the people in the crowd, successfully (for the sake of argument, since it’s often not successful). 95% of the time, less than one verse later (often less than three words later), that person is talking loudly again.

They no longer have the illusion (or excuse) that no one noticed or cared about their disruption. It’s they (them?) that could care less about their behavior or its affect on others (especially the musicians on stage). Feel free to leave a comment correcting my conclusion.

See the bottom of this long post for a (somewhat sarcastic) proposal to stop this behavior! Smile

On to the venues.

Have you ever attended a Broadway show and heard people have loud conversations in the audience during the show? Surely there are some awful shows/performances that can’t hold some people’s interest. Surely there are some people attending in a group that haven’t seen each other in a while and have much to catch up on and little time to do it. Surely, some of the same people that never stop talking at a music venue attend such shows without opening their mouth on Broadway.

Why? Because it wouldn’t be tolerated. Ushers would warn you (probably only once) and then escort you out. The people around you wouldn’t hesitate to let you know it either, not in a quiet, anonymous shush that might occur at a music venue, but in a let’s meet in the alley way, indicative of the value they place on quiet in this setting.

You might think it’s a factor of the ticket price. I don’t think so. Students often get in cheaply on Broadway (and they are just the type of young people who chatter non-stop in the bar settings with live music). More importantly, many musical events that are paid shows, including some higher-priced tickets, include a full helping of chatter. The difference is that the venue tolerates it (as do the majority of the annoyed patrons).

I believe there are a few factors, but the first is the biggest issue, by far:

  1. Venues make the vast majority of their money on the drinks. The more people drink, the less inhibited they are, the louder they get. Since the venue makes more money as people continue ordering drinks, it’s not in their best interest to stop the behavior of the biggest drinkers. This will happen whether the show is ticketed or not.
  2. In a bar atmosphere, other audience members are less likely to forcefully try to get someone to quiet down. That’s probably smart, as there are significant safety issues with confronting loud drunks in these types of situations/places. While there is a bar at a Broadway theater, it serves before the show and at intermission. The dark separated seating changes the nature of the atmosphere. People don’t assume that a first fight will break out there.
  3. We all do so many things with music serving purely as a pleasant background. There are many venues where even live music serves this purpose, so some people may be desensitized or really unaware that it’s contextual. Still, for a ticketed show, it continues to boggle my mind that people can’t see the difference (think: symphony at Lincoln Center).
  4. Different venues have different structural problems (not just physical layouts, but rather whether they have back-to-back sets of unrelated artists, one show per night, multiple ticketed shows per night, etc.). Analyzing the pros and cons of each might yield some clue as to whether an ideal listening room could be created and be economically viable.
  5. NYC is unique in its density of venues and 7-day-a-week unlimited choice of musical events to attend (obvious exceptions: Austin, LA, Chicago and a few others). That creates different problems and potential solutions as well.

#1 isn’t an easily surmountable problem. People will buy drinks (often because they have to, with drink minimums per set, etc.) and there’s a ton of profit in each drink (necessarily so, to pay the rent, staff, taxes, and leave something left for the owner to eat as well). Once people drink, in an unstructured setting, thing become unpredictable, fast (or in the case of this topic, all too predictable).

It’s hard to blame a venue for not asking people to be quiet, then tossing them if they are repeat offenders. I have way less sympathy for a venue when a show is ticketed. They owe a duty to the other paying customers, to deliver an atmosphere conducive to actually enjoying something you’ve paid for. I get that it will still likely cut into their profits (short-term for sure, possibly long term), but I still think it’s incumbent on them to do it.

#2. I urge you to not be forceful with anyone you don’t know well. The possible results of a physical confrontation aren’t worth the potential enjoyment of the music. That’s why you won’t see me getting in anyone’s face in these situations. It’s not worth it, don’t do it!

If a shush won’t get the job done, and the venue won’t do it, let it go (or just write an encyclopedia-sized blog post about it, like I do). Winking smile

#3 feels like it could be solved by educating the talkers, but let’s be realistic, it just isn’t going to happen. The same person who wouldn’t talk in Lincoln Center for a string quartet (no words to miss), will happily talk loudly when a single folk singer is quietly strumming a guitar and singing the deepest lyrics you’ve ever heard. Hey, there are still a few of us left that care deeply about lyrics. We may be a dying breed, but we’re proud and we’re loud (no, wait, I guess we’re not really loud).

I’ll use #4 to talk about some of our favorite venues, even though many problems exist there as well. I can’t do justice to this topic in this post, as it would be double the already long one this has become. Perhaps some other time, especially if people let me know they have an interest in a “venues only” post.

Venues have both a physical structure (is there a bar in the listening room, is there a separate room for people to talk in, do they serve food in the listening room, is the room oddly shaped or does it have good and bad viewing spots) and a logical, business model structure (paid or free shows, single or multiple shows, related or random sets).

Rockwood Music Hall is one of our favorite places to hang out for a few reasons: many of the people we love play there often; for the most part the small (original) room is relatively quiet, or can be made so through peer pressure; they have a separate room behind the bar so talkers have a place to go if they want and still easily hear the music and return to see it when their chatting is done. Occasionally the talking gets out of hand and can’t be controlled, but the balance is still heavily weighted toward people who want to hear good music.

The biggest problem causing the talking in Rockwood 1 is that shows are always free (or close enough to always). There is a one drink minimum per night, not per set, so it can be a very cheap night out to enjoy (and discover) amazing music. 6pm until at least midnight on weekdays, with weekends starting at 3pm! A tip jar is passed around during each set. You don’t have to put anything in and the suggested donation is $5 per person (per audience member, not person on stage!) per set.

If you stay for multiple sets (as we often do) and are generous in your tipping (as we often are and I only say that to encourage anyone who can afford it to do so as well!), it can become an expensive night, pretty quickly. Meaning, free isn’t even close to being free, if you value music and want to see it continue to be created (and that’s just fine with me!). But, if you can’t afford it (and heaven knows many can’t!), you can sit there and sip one $3 drink all night, letting the tip jar pass you by (there’s something beautiful about that as well).

The fact that there can be a hard rock band on at 7pm, followed by a solo folk singer at 8pm, followed by a 6-piece bluegrass band, etc., makes it difficult for some people to stay quiet, if they don’t like as many genres as we do. This is made worse if they like the bands at 7 and 9, and have nowhere else to go at 8pm. Just hang around and ruin the 8pm band’s fans experience, why not?

So, the amazing people behind Rockwood Music Hall decided that they can do even better. Since the small room is often crowded, and the better known musicians need a bigger room to play, when the place next door became available, they purchased it (or leased it, I have no idea). They built a room that is twice as large, has a cool balcony, a better green room, more bathrooms, great sound system.

They did a magnificent job in getting everything they wanted right (and maximized every inch of space in the process). Unfortunately, ask nearly any musician who plays there regularly and they will tell you that it’s one of the rudest rooms you can play (all too often). Part of it is structural. As opposed to the smaller room, Stage 2 (as it’s called) has no separate room to chat in. You could walk 30 feet to the back room at Stage 1, but that feels like going to an entirely different venue, and of course, you can no longer hear the music you ostensibly came to hear.

But, because it’s a larger room, there’s also a strange sense of anonymity and distance from the musician. I bet that people just assume they can’t be heard. Even I want to exchange thoughts with someone every once in a while during a show. I whisper in their ear, not yell louder because the music just got a bit louder.

Bottom line, I think the single biggest problem at Stage 2 is that people often stay for more than one set, even though they are probably only interested in a specific set (before or after the one they end up non-stop talking through).

Joe’s Pub used to be our favorite club in NYC. Technically, it still is, though we haven’t been there since March 2nd, 2010, to see Ian Axel perform (so it’s hard to defend that as our favorite place). The main reason we don’t go there as often as we used to is that Joe’s has a different structural problem.

Every show at Joe’s is a paid show. I like that part a lot. Talkers are rarer there, but it does happen, and when it does, it’s 10x more annoying, because it’s actually unexpected. The problem is that Joe’s books a minimum of two shows a night (often three). They have to clear the audience out after each show, since the next one has separate tickets. That rushes each performer off the stage, even when the audience is totally mesmerized. It feels a bit like a conveyor belt in a factory (keep it moving buddy!). Sets tend to be short  (for a paid show, not in comparison to the expected short sets at Rockwood).

It’s hard for fans to connect with the artists after the show (if you like that sort of thing), because you’re clearly annoying the staff that needs to turn around the room for the next act. If you’re waiting outside for the next act, no matter how well you know the drill, it’s maddening that the doors open 10-15 minutes late, often just minutes before the show is scheduled to start. Let’s not forget it’s going to be a short show anyway, so every second counts. Also, Joe’s has great food, which you are now guaranteed to have to eat while the performance is taking place.

Does anyone get this right? BB King in Times Square gets close. They typically book a single show per night. It’s always paid. The doors open two hours before the show to accommodate a dinner crowd which can be finished and bussed before the performer hits the stage. By coming for dinner you are rewarded with better seats, as it’s first-come first-seated. Rarely is there talking during the show (except when rowdy fans scream to the performers on stage). The only downside (only in comparison with places like Rockwood) is that tickets are generally expensive, and the indie artists we love won’t get invited there (and might not be able to fill the very large room if they were).

Highline Ballroom is owned by the same people who own BB King (they also own the Blue Note). It can be great too (like BB King) but it’s not as consistent. Some shows are seated (and offer a similar experience to BB King), but many shows are standing only (which aren’t our favorite, though we’ve reluctantly attended more than our fair share recently because we won’t miss certain artists if we can help it). The biggest difference is that often people at Highline do talk during shows, seated ones as well. That just doesn’t happen at BB King.

What makes the difference between BB King and Highline, which are otherwise reasonably similar? First, they do sometimes book different types of acts. Specifically, Highline will book many of the NYC-based indie artists if they feel they are breaking out enough to get a good crowd (they often do!). Ironically, those shows end up attracting the talkers because it’s more about participating in the scene than listening to the person you’ve seen 100 times, or are best friends with…

The other difference rolls me into point #5 above. A large part of BB King’s audience is made up of tourists. Times Square is popular, many of the acts they book are well known, it’s a natural spot for a tourist to take in live music in NYC. If a tourist wanted to go chat in a bar, they wouldn’t go to BB King.

#5 is broader than that. In NYC, you can throw a pebble (please don’t) and hit a dozen bars or clubs nearly anywhere you stand. Why wander in to a live music event to have your drinks and conversation, when you can go into a pub? Well, live music is more fun, for sure, and you can tell people you saw so-and-so, even though all you did was see them, since you weren’t listening. But people often pay for tickets, so they didn’t just wander in.

So, I think the density and frequency of shows in NYC desensitizes people to the listening experience (at least some). Go to a city outside of NY (with some noted exceptions) and the experience is radically different. I’ll use one city as an example (since we’ve attended a number of shows there, but it’s by no means unique!).

We’ve seen a number of shows in Birmingham, AL. I think all of them were at Workplay. We like the club a lot! While you can see live music every night in Birmingham (or so I believe), there aren’t a lot of choices, and many nights it will be a hyper local band in a completely bar-scene atmosphere. Specifically, Workplay does not have a show every night. If you want to see original music played by proven bands, you’ll have to plan, you can’t just wander out on a given night and expect to have choices (you might not even have a single choice).

Therefore, it’s not necessarily the case that people who go to Workplay happen to be nicer than people who go to Rockwood. It’s just that nearly everyone there has not only made a choice to be there that night, they’ve planned for it and likely have looked forward to this night for weeks. They are likely to do their best to actually experience the show, rather than chat with their friends.

That makes these types of shows a special evening out, not just a hang-out that happens to have good music in the background.

OK, this is crazy long already, so I’ll wrap it up.

If money were no object (and never in my experience has that been the case, unfortunately), here’s what I would do:

Build a club with two levels (the upper one set back from the first floor). The first floor would be a real listening room (the bar area would be in a separate room, and wait staff would serve the listeners, as quietly as possible). Rather than tables (which waste space, even though they are ultra-convenient), I would either have chairs, or chairs with flip tops to set your drink on (like when you were a kid in school, thanks to my lovely wife for that creative suggestion!).

Shows would be clearly marked as listening events. The FAQ on the site would state that consistent talkers will be warned, then removed. That will be prominently listed before people enter the main room. If tickets are sold, it would be stated obviously during the purchase process.

The second room, offset perhaps 1/2 way back and up a level would be sound-proof. It would have a full glass wall facing the stage. It would have large screen TV’s showing what’s on stage for those not near the glass, or not facing it. There would be a high-quality sound system in that room so that people could hear the music live, but also scream at each over it, because that’s so much fun!

It’s true that we would probably not book bands whose fans need to dance during their shows. So be it. I would also never book a band again if it turned out that in general, their fans were unruly (as opposed to particular individuals).

In my fantasy world, the best artists (local and otherwise) would kill to play on that stage. Fans that otherwise don’t attend many shows would kill to come see this great music. Somehow, we’d find a way to pay the musicians (even if they were happy to play for free) and make enough money to keep the club going forever (no, wait, money wasn’t an object, so we’re not concerned with that aspect).

Since none of that is going to happen, here’s my alternate solution, which struck me during a show last week (and I mentioned it to one of the artists when the show was over):

Let’s all take a high quality camera with a super-bright flash with us to all shows. When someone talks out loud and refuses to stop after being shushed, we’ll take a photo of them (perhaps a dozen). If they complain, we’ll say: “Sorry, it seemed like you were dying to call attention to yourself and I was doing my best to accommodate you!”.

In either case, we’ll post that photo on a Wall of Shame! (both on the web and in the club.) The unnamed artist added a nice twist: “We’ll scan their photos and use a facial recognition program to stop them from entering the club in the future!”. Brilliant!