Image: Chris Bethell
After two years of postponed gigs, cancelled festivals and “Zoom performances”, live music is finally back in our lives. Glastonbury actually happened. Phoebe Bridgers did a whole tour! Paramore have been playing “Misery Business” once again.
But has live music really returned to pre-pandemic levels? Because, by the looks of things online, gig-going has become kind of… chaotic recently. Audience members heckling artists with crude comments, people playing games on their phones mid-performance for TikTok clout, fans bombarding artists with objects (yes, literal objects) – unhinged behaviour at live shows seems to have become commonplace. Expected, even. So what gives? It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reason why respectfully enjoying a performance has been replaced with shouting phrases like “hit the slay button!” or “spit in my mouth!” during an intimate acoustic set, but internet culture might be a good place to start. Social media has created a space for artists to directly connect with their fans, but it can also enable – and foster – the growth of one-sided, parasocial relationships appearing in the form of calling Mitski “Mommy!” as she sings about heartbreak and emotional pain.
Once this behaviour is recorded and posted online, it gains life of its own as an internet trend and snowballs from there. “One thing that I've noticed at concerts a lot is people playing games in the middle of the show, and lifting it up for everyone to see,” says Michala Zappitelli, who works in Artist Relations and Fan Engagement at the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. “And then it's on TikTok the next day. And then, of course, it goes viral. So everyone else thinks it's funny and wants to do it, too. Five years ago, no one would have done this at a concert.” Zappitelli’s observation is indicative of a culture obsessed with captured content and curated experiences. In September, a fan's phone was handed to Harry Styles mid-show so that he could take a BeReal. While one lucky BeReal-er is sitting in the internet hall of fame, this expectation puts artists in a tricky position, whereby the focus isn't on the show itself.“I have a lot of artist friends who have talked about the difficulties of performing more recently with fans insisting on them taking their BeReal photo or taking a selfie with the crowd on the fan’s camera,” says 22-year-old indie artist j solomon. “I do often think about how I would respond to a phone or camera getting thrown onstage.”
j solomon's worries aren't unfounded. Phones and filming at shows have become a contentious issue as of late. In a now-deleted statement posted on Twitter, Mitski kindly encouraged her fans to put their phones away during her concerts and stay present in the moment. And we’ve all seen how Steve Lacy responded when a camera got thrown at him: by pausing his performance to forcibly smash it before walking off. Perhaps Lacy’s camera smashing is symbolic of a much larger issue: a frustration with a generation whose hive mind mentality is fuelled by a “main character” mindset, and the artists who are tiring of it. Equally, while viral songs like Doja Cat’s “Say So” or K CAMP’s “Renegade” might get people revved up online, it's worth investigating how they're received IRL. Over the summer months, it was reported that audience members at Beach House gigs kept leaving after hearing viral TikTok smash “Space Song”. Another clip on TikTok shows a recent Omar Apollo gig, where crowd members remained seated until he played “Evergreen”. Another clip shows Steve Lacy clapping back at his crowd for only knowing the words to the chorus of “Bad Habit” (sidebar: At this point I am convinced that Lacy is being held against his will to complete his tour).
For a lot of current and younger concertgoers, of course, this might be the first time they're attending a live show. A 2021 Billboard Analysis found that the post-lockdown concert comeback was heavily driven by Gen Z consumers either purchasing a gig ticket for the first time or generally eager to participate in public events. With that in mind, we're seeing hordes of teenagers at shows who spent their formative years locked inside and chronically online, with no opportunity to get to grips with gig etiquette. Without sounding too “old man yells at cloud”, this could be part of the problem.“There’s a sort of nuanced etiquette to concerts that is unspoken and implicitly learned,” says j solomon. “So you can’t really blame someone for not knowing how to act now that they can finally go see their favourite artists live in concert.” Indeed, some might say that artists aren't allowed be annoyed at the same fans who are supporting (and funding) their entire career. But by the same logic, fans might also be entering a venue with a set of expectations – or perhaps entitlement – that the artist will deliver an experience that is simply too overwhelming or draining for the person on stage. It's worth pointing out that consumers aren't treated particularly well, either. With companies like Ticketmaster and Live Nation hiking up ticket prices to unaffordable levels, it's no wonder audience members feel extra excited or entitled to the show of their lives.
“People come to music for a great, safe night out,” says Jon Collins, Chief Executive of LIVE, a UK federation of 14 live music industry associations. “At the same time, customers are clearly under varying degrees of financial pressure. Research undertaken for LIVE this month by Opinium highlighted that 22 percent of people have less disposable income right now. With one in seven 18-24 year olds citing cost of the night out as a reason for non-attendance at gigs.” Regardless of who – or what – might be at fault, it feels as if live music is having a weird and uncomfortable moment right now. One of the best parts about going to a gig is the community aspect: being in a packed-out room of people with shared enthusiasm, collectively dancing the night away, exiting the venue with ringing ears and the post-concert rush of euphoria. All we can do is learn to be a little bit more respectful of one another, as well as artists. I promise, the performance will be just as memorable – if not more – without asking Mitski to spit in your mouth.@Tumtweets / @Christopherbethell