I was at a birthday barbecue when Pink Floyd returned, their aging British mugs broadcast from Wembley to the world. Maroon5 — in one of those self-righteous post-game interviews that are the staple of televised benefits everywhere — had mentioned that The Floyd would be on at 4:45 (E.S.T.) so — soon — we began gravitating from the lovely outside towards the air-conditioned living room. When they finally came on, the whole party (I think) craned their necks to catch a glimpse of Floyd (and their shadow band).
Clearly, not everyone in the room were Floyd fanatics. I certainly don’t qualify. And you can bet for sure that not everybody crammed (for free) into Wembley were Floyd freaks, either (though I’d like to imagine that, somewhere in the crowd, there were one or two hardcore blokes who’d followed The Floyd back in the Syd Barrett days…) I’m almost sad I didn’t try to go to Live8 in Philadelphia, if only for the sociological trip of it — though watching it, one layer removed, at a Fourth of July weekend barbecue was probably just as interesting, if only because it was a shared experience.
We made Spinal Tap jokes and pledged our money to The Floyd, should they ever tour again (but only if Syd was on board).
I saw Derek Trucks perform on a boat the other week. ‘It’s a weird crowd,’ my friend told me. ‘People have been calling up all day and saying ‘um, what’s my seat assignment? It doesn’t look like there’s one on the ticket.’ And I’ve had to tell them that the show is on a boat. There are no seats.’
At Yo La Tengo’s free Independence Day show in Manhattan’s Battery Park, people spread out blankets. Some napped through the show.
"Clearly all of you have seen us before, many times," guitarist Ira Kaplan joked at the Hoboken trio’s previous park show, when they played in front of 10,000 people at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in 2002.
This year, not far from where we’d made camp, an older Asian couple — tourists, I’m pretty sure — watched the show. What was that like for them? To wander into the city park closest to the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July and encounter American indie rock? Did they enjoy themselves more than the doe-eyed hipster couple swaying together and mouthing along to every word of "Autumn Sweater"?
As a gradually reforming super-nerd, I used to have an idea about what it meant to attend a performance, some set of rules that — when executed properly — would result in Proper Appreciation. Shutting up and listening was, of course, first on the list. (But, also, sometimes dancing and singing along.)
Lately, though, I’ve been having something of a moral crisis. I don’t always want to go see music to sit in the room and have a "pure" experience. I mean, occasionally I do, but — as with going to see Trucks, honestly — I’ve increasingly wanted to go just for the sake of hanging out.
How is one supposed to behave at a concert? When The Floyd plays Live8, or Yo La Tengo plays Battery Park, they surely understand that not everybody in the crowd is hanging on every note. Is there some kind of unspoken contract between band and audience as to how you are supposed to listen? Is there some kind of moral compass to follow for when it’s acceptable to be that asshole and spend the whole show talking to your friend or date?
There is no universal code. Some expect there to be seats (and to behave in accordance with the rules that seats suggest). Some expect to stand.
The spectrum of ways one experiences music has rainbowed in recent years. Though music has long been delivered through a variety of channels — jukeboxes, radios, CDs, buskers, concerts, discotheques, elevators — they seem to be multiplying of late. While the opposing poles remain "live" and "recorded," the twin transfers of pop music to the worlds of television and easily moveable data — ringtones, mp3s, video games — has completely skewed the curve of the graph, thus giving live performance a different weight.
"Today’s audience isn’t listening at all," cyberpunk genius William Gibson asserted in a recent Wired editorial. ‘It’s participating. Indeed, audience is as antique a term as record, the one archaically passive, the other archaically physical. The record, not the remix, is the anomaly today.’ So is (if Gibson isn’t blowing hot air), the live performance, for better or worse: a mode of communication whose core interaction is out of line with dominant social trends.
But live music — ‘Bob’ help me — just seems less exciting these days (though that could be the sluggish Brooklyn heat), the possibilities constrained and finite compared to the nearly magical reach of technology and imagination. What good does it do in a world that exists on the cyberline? In the TV? In shadowy back rooms?
But what does it mean for live audiences other than decreased attention spans for linear performance? Will that change at one end result in a heightened interaction elsewhere? Probably not. Perhaps live music will simply become a simple thrill, a connection to a lost world of direct cause and effect — at least until the Second Singles Age comes to an unceremonious end, following some unforeseen and glorious technological/organic sea change some decades hence.
Perhaps — as notions of celebrity and fame are beaten down — the world will revert to the age before stardom, where one goes to music simply to see music, and for no other reason. After all, music is its own best excuse.