At my first gig back after 18 months of lockdowns, I greeted old irritations like a lost lover returning from sea. Ahh, £ 6 for pint of lager that will haunt my guts tomorrow. How I missed you, being crammed in butt to butt with strangers. Is there any sound sweeter than a pair of mates chatting through every song? No, there is not!
Moreover, I’ve been to shows where the communal sense of awe at live music seems stronger than ever: Alabaster DePlume at Le Guess Who? festival in November, closing the day at 7pm after the Dutch government brought in a surprise Covid curfew and holding the room in the palm of his hand; Self Esteem at Kentish Town Forum in March, nourishing a palpably deep hunger in her faithful; Sparks taking a hilarious and profound victory lap at the Roundhouse last weekend. (Theater critics have reported a similarly heightened sense of intensity.) In time, though, I’ve also turned up late, talked and texted throughout other post-pandemic gigs. While the novelty of seeing shows again may quickly wear off, some musicians are looking at the return of live music as an opportunity to ask fans to reconsider the gig-going experience and make it anew.
The pandemic was a terrifying time for artists outside pop’s top tiers. With tours canceled, they were severed from their most reliable source of income and unable to work – and, as freelancers, often left to fall through the cracks in government support. Nevertheless, many have also said they were able to find value in the forced pause, which restored them to a slow, grounded pace of life and wellbeing that is incompatible with life on the road. As they return to touring, they are – like many workers who have the privilege of at least some agency in their jobs – understandably trying to make that experience feel a little bit more humane.
Alt-pop songwriter Mitski recently asked fans to stop filming whole shows on their phones because it made her feel “as though those of us on stage are being taken from and consumed as content, instead of getting to share a moment with you”. (Photos were fine, she clarified.) You only have to look at the many videos and TikToks of her current tour, which show hundreds of other people making their version of the same video, to see how that worked out for her. And there was an ugly social media backlash, with some fans claiming that mental health disorders increased their reliance on capturing such footage to help them remember the concert later.
Many artists have asked fans to wear masks to their concerts to protect each other – as well as their own livelihoods. “We only have one shot at touring this year,” tweeted 4AD songwriter Helado Negro in one of many such requests. “If we get Covid on the road the tour is wrecked and so is being able to pay bills and the energy to rally and try again.” Several artists interviewed for a Pitchfork feature on the matter also recognized that they had the potential to become super-spreaders, carrying the virus from city to city. Yet many fans responded to these pleas with indignation, interpreting them as mandates that impinged on their freedom to do as they please at gigs. (This may well be more of an issue in the US than it is the UK, though mask-wearers have been in the minority at every gig I’ve attended.)
Just this week, Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker asked fans not to talk through support acts. “There is a real magic that happens when there is a floor of actual silence when somebody is playing and performing… people are missing so much because every time there’s meant to be a silence, there’s all this white noise, chatter,” she said in. an Instagram video. While there’s been no visible backlash yet – Big Thief fans perhaps being naturally inclined to reverence – you only have to circle back to Mitski to witness the most extreme kind of galling disinterest Lenker is talking about: at one recent gig, her fans reportedly sat on the floor looking at their phones during the opening act, waiting for the headline act to start.
Any attempt to change or impose rules on the culture of gig-going generally meets with resistance: counterarguments that these are places for free expression, unlike the enforced decorum of the theater or the physically passive cinema-going experience; that paying the price of entry means the ticket holder can do whatever they want (a pretty entitled argument that wouldn’t work with much other paid-in entertainment). But gigs have changed hugely in the past decade, often thanks to artists and venues taking steps to protect the audience. Sexual harassment and groping is still prevalent, but most venues and festivals have dedicated staff and zero-tolerance policies; There are multiple safe-space campaigns, and it’s not uncommon to hear musicians speak out on the issue. After the Astroworld disaster, in which 10 people died in a fatal crowd crush, fan safety has also been paramount, with artists such as Billie Eilish and John Mayer stopping their (massive) shows to check that people are OK and to ask fans to look out for one another.
It’s time for us to repay the favor. This misalignment of expectations between musicians and fans doesn’t seem as extreme as that recently reported in comedy and theater – gigs are generally loud enough to make it hard for any individual bell-end to make themselves heard. But touring life, even at its cushiest, is somewhat dehumanising: musicians getting the respect of being heard and having their work fully appreciated might go some way towards offsetting the grind of suitcase living and the lonely, adrenaline-spiking peaks and troughs of performance – not to mention the shaky revenues. And “being heard” needn’t mean fans standing in deferential silence, a level of passivity you can’t imagine appealing to many performers. What a fully embodied live experience looks like for Mitski is completely different from what it would be for, say, Stormzy or Foo Fighters.
Unlike theaters and cinemas, where the room sets the rules, the beauty of gigs is that the performer establishes the mood, ideally in a kind of tacit agreement with the audience. They trust us to be part of their work – and the best type of crowd, one that’s completely all in, can be as memorable as the show. While my joy at standard-issue crowd delinquency quickly faded, just in the last six months, I have joyful memories of Caroline Polachek obsessives caterwauling to her pristine operatic vocal runs with brilliant, hilarious dedication; teenagers emerging from a Wolf Alice moshpit looking wild-eyed and damp; Arooj Aftab laughing at how solemn we all were. A gig is an invitation to join together in creating a big reciprocal feeling: a rare thrill that never gets old. Let’s keep accepting it, on the artists’ terms.