The music industry, and with that, the touring industry, is largely a business transaction – an unspoken agreement that your money, in turn, will entitle you to an evening of artistic immersion.
If this concept seems foreign, take a step back and analyze how you became just another face in the crowd. You paid the $45 for admission. You bought the t-shirt, the poster and a few pins. Essentially, you did your part.
And what did you ask for in return? To be satisfied. To be engaged. To become a meaningless blob in a canvas of blank faces.
There’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t matter if you’re the overzealous fan who is constantly two inches away from being kicked out, or the laid-back type who’s all about the music. Most of us fall somewhere in between, seeking a compromise between enthusiasm and music quality.
Regardless of your attitude, you invariably will be influenced by the artist on stage. The eager fan loses his spirit after being bored by an uncharismatic performance. The musically-inspired attendee fails to feel the vibes.
That is where many bands fail horribly, or succeed with flying colors. The artist has to make a conscious effort to engage the audience in the music, whether through actual interaction or periodic bantering. Even an outstanding set list can do the job.
I’ve witnessed both – artists who care and artists who simply aren’t concerned about their audience. Through these experiences I’ve learned that no musicians are to be excluded from this.
Take The Decemberists for example. These Oregonians have created a unique hybrid of indie rock, pop and folk since their 2001 release, “5 Songs.” They were signed to the independent label Kill Rock Stars for four years until Capitol Records signed them in 2005 and released their major label debut, 2006’s “The Crane Wife.”
In short, The Decemberists weren’t really mainstream until recent months.
As a result of this, you might expect lead singer Colin Meloy to exude a humble air, a desperate attempt to satisfy, while on stage. This is not the case. During the band’s recent performance at the Orpheum in Boston, Meloy captured their sold-out crowd with his powerful stage presence. His voice rang clear, and the previously seated audience took to their feet to rejoice in the moment.
Later in the show, Meloy narrated a reenactment of the Boston Massacre. Random members of the audience were selected to portray colonial Americans, British redcoats and innocent farm animals. It was hysterical, to say the least. The Americans and farm animals were senselessly slaughtered. The British conquered. The audience went wild.
The concert was nearly my favorite musical experience ever. It just seemed so unusual for a band to be authentically concerned about the audience’s pleasure. But this presented the question: Why is it so unusual for artists, who receive an exorbitant chunk of my money, to care about doing their job right?
Let’s compare my previously described experience with one that took place in June. It was a beautiful summer day in Boston – clear skies, light breeze, gentle sunshine – and I was going to see my all-time favorite band, Radiohead.
The opener, Willy Mason, was dismal. While the disappointing opener could be forgiven, it was the world-renowned British quintet that really let me down.
Lead singer Thom Yorke led bandmates Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway through an extraordinary set, touching upon hits from each post-Pablo Honey album. They even played my personal favorite, “Fake Plastic Trees.”
But I just wasn’t into it.
For whatever reason, it felt like there was a barrier between the band and the relatively small audience. No intimacy was established over the 22-song set. The members almost seemed to be performing for themselves. Yorke wasn’t concerned about conversation, only gifting the audience with an occasional, “This is a new song, a new song, a new song.” The other members maintained a professional disconnect.
Maybe the alienation was a form of rock-star etiquette: as musicians become a bigger deal, they feel the need to present a distancing form of sophistication.
Perhaps Damon Albarn of Blur was accurate when he said, “You’re creating these massive impersonal events where you’re set up as the subject of thousands of people’s adoration. Where is the humanity in that? That’s just idolatry.”
Even my personal adoration of Radiohead didn’t allow me to ignore such treatment. I couldn’t figure out why the band distanced itself from the fans. Were they trying to prove something to themselves? Is the ability to separate yourself from your audience, the ones who are shelling out the big bucks to support your art, a sign of success?
Personally, I would like to see more reenactments of historical events and less self-indulgent artistic arrogance.