Wreath Lecture: Braying Crowds & The Accidental Death of Quiet Music

2013 was the year when crowds talking loudly at gigs became a universal aggravation, writes David Bennun. He asks why this is the case, and bids a fond farewell to quiet music in the live arena

On Eurythmics’ masterpiece Savage there’s an acoustic track, ‘I Need You’, which plays in and out over a hubbub of voices – a device the duo underlined with a video that depicts them onstage while chattering silhouettes pass across the foreground, oblivious. It’s an experience any performer will recognise: providing music that is, however reluctantly so, incidental. What is peculiar to our age is that it is now the lot not only of those who play at parties, in pubs or bars and so on, but of almost any artist at every level of performance, when they play anything too soft to blot out the human voice. The gig-talkers have won. It holds out in pockets here and there, but for the most part, quiet music, as a live affair, is done for.

It’s the culmination of a tendency that didn’t begin this year, or last, or even this century. I remember a sublime Red House Painters solo performance from the mid-90s, spoiled by one voice whose owner honked rapturously throughout at foghorn volume to a companion about how great it was. And it was. Or would have been, but for him. The voice was unmistakably American, which allowed one to put the incident down, in rather sneering fashion, as a one-off, an act of conforming to stereotype. Not so. The offender’s nationality was irrelevant. He was a nasally-inflected harbinger, a cloud of irritation no larger than a man’s hand. You can’t pin this one on North American Scum. We, the gig-going public of this purportedly but mythically reserved and polite nation, have fouled our own nest.

2013, though, has been the year in which – at least in my observation – gig-talking finally became the norm. I thought the jig was up a couple of years back when I went to see Paul Simon at the London Roundhouse and a large proportion of the crowd in the upstairs seats around me nattered loudly through, yep, ‘The Sound Of Silence’. As symbolic moments go, that was a doozy. But in that same year, it was still possible to go along to Josh T Pearson at the Brighton Pavilion, an old-fashioned, pack-’em-in do with a standing audience, and to hear him make his appeal to the crowd to "not be that guy" who yammers through his starkly beautiful songs (my assessment, not his), and to find it observed.

This year, outside of what I’d call exceptional venues – the Southbank Centre and suchlike, where respect for The Artist is part of the package – I have attended very few shows where the quiet bits haven’t been fatally marred by or vanished entirely beneath the all-encompassing clamour. I encountered Goldfrapp’s first airing of their atmospheric, low-key new songs through the incessant braying of a clutch of half-cut hoorays. ("Yah, Alison’s great!" How would you know? You’re not listening.) I tried and failed to thrill to the lambent delicacy of Laura Mvula while a woman with a voice like amplified catgut and gristle gave a friend (or perhaps a luckless chance acquaintance) a full minute-by-minute roundup of her life story up to that moment. Most recently, I saw Boy George acidly remark, after what would otherwise have been an exquisite reading of ‘Victims’, "I’m thinking of re-recording that with loads of mumbling on top."

The temptation is to dismiss this, grumpily, as a simple collapse in manners. Not to say that everybody has become ruder; just that the proportion of rude people at any given show has risen to the point where it blights everybody else’s night. I’ve succumbed to that temptation often enough. But when I consider it more carefully, I wonder if that’s too crude an explanation. Is it mere bad manners, or a change in the prevailing culture to which I need to adapt? Is it their problem, or is it mine?

By gig-talkers, I should be clear, I don’t mean anybody who talks at gigs. We all do that. I mean people who talk loudly, continually and without regard to either the pitch of the event, the sound coming from the stage, or the wishes of their fellow gig-goers. I’ve considered the possibility that, rather than the habit being much more prevalent, I have become more sensitive to it. I don’t think so, though. If anything, I’ve become more tolerant of others’ foibles over the years.

Gigs were never, as a rule, quiet or reverential affairs. You wouldn’t want them to be. But not so long ago, a gig – a good one, at any rate – wasn’t just something you went to see. It was something you went to be a part of. The best shows are those where act and crowd are bonded, not in communion, exactly – it’s not a religious ritual, although it may occasionally feel like it – but in common purpose. Which means the noise of the crowd, its direction, its collective intention and expression, is as much part of the show as anything happening on stage. The two things respond to one another, feed off one another, rise and fall in tandem. Such shows are now rare indeed, and probably most often encountered with acts tied closely to a particular sub-culture, where the cohesive sense of shared experience remains strong.

Elsewhere, Jarvis Cocker’s memorable observation that music is "not as central, it’s more like a scented candle" seems ever more pertinent. Gigs always were social affairs, but for many, the emphasis has changed. They don’t go to see the band with their friends. They go to see their friends, and the band is a thing that’s happening – no more than hired entertainment, a form of cabaret, and they are under no obligation to give it their attention. That being the case, why wouldn’t you talk through it? Especially through the quiet bits – that’s when you can actually hear. You’ve paid your money, you want your fun, and if that’s your idea of it, that’s what you’ll do.

One reason you wouldn’t, I suppose, is consideration of what others have come for. But this brings us to other, broader cultural issues: those of public space, and communality. The division between public and private space barely exists any more. I suggest – and it can only be a hypothesis, I know of no data to support it – that the mobile phone is chiefly responsible for this. When the internet was still a minority interest, the mobile was already prevalent. Unlike earlier devices such as the Walkman, which allowed one to seal oneself off into one’s own private world while physically within public space, the mobile permitted, all but demanded, that one bring into public space that private world, and expose it. It’s an effect that would later be replicated and expanded by social media. George Orwell’s vision in 1984, of transmitting-receiving machines which would negate our privacy by making audible and visible to others our every intimate action, was essentially correct; his error was in assuming such machines would need to be imposed upon us, rather than that we would eagerly adopt them.

Thus public space is now space wherein one feels free to behave as if in private. Which means feeling no concern for what others can see and hear. Visit your local library, if you still have one, and you’ll notice the same thing. Silence is as obsolete as the vanished signs demanding it.

Alongside, and related to, the breaking up of the distinction between public and private is the dissolution of communality. Here, the internet and other media seem the likeliest causes. That said, even before everything there is or ever has been could be seen or heard online, it was often remarked how the proliferation of television channels meant the end of regular shared national experience. The internet, with its promise of connecting us all and introducing us to endless novelty and invention, has instead permitted us to fragment into groups unhindered by geography, and close ourselves off from all that does not directly interest us. New things that might once have been brought to us by mass media need trouble us no longer. We encounter only what those we deem like us choose for us to encounter. Opinions and tastes which do not accord with our own exist only to be held up for ridicule or vilification, when we recognise they exist at all.

With social media comes the unwitting assumption that if we have a thought, any thought, it is essential to express it. With perpetual roaming connectivity comes the feeling that it is intolerable not to do so the instant we have it. It’s a recipe for solipsism: I must never be suffered to think anything I do not straight away say. In some cases, among those most suggestible or self-entitled, it’s liable to tip over into narcissism. Why not believe the world is arranged around you, when so far as you can tell, the world is doing its damnedest to make you believe exactly that? You are special. You must be indulged. What you want is what matters. What interests you is all that is of interest. Facebook’s own adverts promote the clever, hip young person’s furtive escape from the boring Olds at a social gathering via a phone held under the table. The rest of the world no longer matters. The world is what you gather about yourself.

We habitually distinguish between online and "real life", but this separation is chimaerical. A life is made up of what it is made up of. So it is not far-fetched to draw a link between such attitudes, and a default willingness to treat a concert as if both the band and the rest of the audience are merely the scenery and soundtrack for your own night out. They have no substantive existence of their own as artists you should give the courtesy of a hearing, or people whose own idea of enjoyment you should afford any concern.

(Anyone bristling at the use of the universal "we", above: I choose it deliberately. This isn’t one of those, "Why we’ve all fallen in/out of love with cupcakes" things. This is something I posit is occurring widely wherever there is broadband, and I do not exclude myself from it.)

What evidence do I have for this? Well, here, there is research to turn to, which suggests the internet is rewiring our brains, and that social media is in truth making us less social and more alienated. Neither of these backs up my specific hypothesis, which is deductive at best and speculative at worst. They do, however, offer a basis on which to say my hypothesis is plausible: the internet is demonstrably making us think differently, feel differently and behave differently, even when we’re not on it. Whether it is doing so in the ways I suggest, I haven’t the resources or qualifications to show. I have only anecdotal observation, based on an urge to take a flamethrower to anything between a seventh and a fifth of the audience at most of the gigs I attend. Which I grant is hardly a double-blind study.

Still, there it is. I know I’m far from alone in identifying and deploring the trend. All of us who do might just be old, cantankerous and averse to change. But my observation also suggests that this is not a generational phenomenon. Gig-talking appears to span age groups, races, classes and the sexes. It is a truly equal-opportunity aggravation.

I submit that quiet music has become a casualty of a change taking place somewhere else. Collateral damage. An innocent bystander. Which is more than can be said for those who talk through it. But it’s not going back to the way it was, so we might as well accept that Eurythmics video as a template for the moment in the show when the stage lights dim and the volume dips. From now on, that’ll be the moment when you learn all about what the man behind you thinks of the people at work, while he prevents the people at work in front of you from doing their job.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today