05 Jun 2015

Coughing and Clapping: Investigating Audience Experience

Is it okay to tweet during a concert, if it allows those who couldn’t attend to engage with the performance and the music? Or is it really just distracting, on top of all the coughing?

Why do people seem to cough more frequently at live music events, anyway? Why are the audience members there in the first place—what motivates people to attend concerts in the YouTube era? And, finally, how do these audiences remember the concerts they attend?

These are the main questions that the collection Coughing and Clapping: Investigating Audience Experience (Ashgate, 2014) tries to answer, though some of the essays have more success than others. Edited by Karen Burland and Stephanie Pitts, the book explores broader issues of audience experience and memory while using specific statistics—for instance, one study shows that people really do cough twice as frequently during live performances—and specific artists and venues—ranging from the Australian Art Orchestra to Pink Floyd to Woodstock—to illustrate these issues’ applications in reality. Burland and Pitts acknowledge the relative futility of the endeavor (“...we have been aware of the danger that these [technology-focused chapters] will date quickly…”) in one of their “interludes”. The book is broken up into two sections, one on “preparing and anticipating” and the other on “listening and connecting”, with Burland and Pitts interjecting and bookending each section with their own commentary and contextualization (e.g. “...singing along is discouraged at the opera, but welcomed in a pop star’s arena tour”). Despite the editors’ own reservations, the book comes across as a worthy addition to the relatively sparse literature on audience psychology. The fact that the book manages not to mention the death of classical music until page 160 was really just the icing on the cake.

Of course, classical music isn’t the main focus of the book, which also makes observations on jazz, pop, rock, festivals in general, and several extra-musical areas such as marketing and and venues. These latter two concepts are the focus of two chapters in the shorter, first half of the book, “Before the Event: Preparing and Anticipating”. While the overviews of marketing live music and of the history of acoustic construction are perfectly fine, if a bit vague, it was Stephanie Pitts’s “Musical, Social and Moral Dilemmas: Investigating Audience Motivations to Attend Concerts” that stands out. Pitts poses clear questions about who attends concerts, offers empirical evidence in response to these questions, and discusses the hazards involved on both sides of the stage, stating that “being an audience member is an emotional risk, as well as a financial one” while also acknowledging “the consequent ‘safety’ in programming that can result from this need to create a reliable experience for occasional or unadventurous listeners”.

The second half of the book, “During the Event: Listening and Connecting”, is about three times as long as the first. Here the issues of real-time audience response and live experience are approached. Some of the passages are nearly unreadable in their efforts to serve up as many statistics and lists of numerals and in-paragraph citations as grammatically possible. However, the four authors of “In the Heat of the Moment: Audience Real-time Response to Music and Dance Performance” engage in a fruitful discussion of both performer-audience interaction (“the conductor did informally acknowledge the applause of some audience members who ‘incorrectly’ applauded between movements”) as well as the many divergences between live music and recorded music experiences. Most convincing, however, is Lucy Bennett’s “Texting and Tweeting at Live Music Concerts: Flow, Fandom and Connecting with other Audiences through Mobile Phone Technology”. Bennett uses Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of “flow” on the one hand, and on the other, a group of Twitter-savvy Tori Amos fans, to delve into the issues of participation, engagement, and distraction concerned in live music. Using quotes from testimonials of a broad spectrum of Tori Amos fans, Bennett illustrates the vast variations of different personalities interpreting the same experience. While for some, tweeting during a concert connects them to others and makes them feel as if they are “giving back” to a larger community of online fans, others feel that “it is too distracting.[...] I can’t remain present or in the moment.” Csikszentmihalyi describes “flow” as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter”. Would he say the naysayers are not focused enough, since a few blinking or buzzing phones shouldn’t disrupt this level of involvement, or are the tweeters really just messing up everybody’s “flow”? Bennett admits that further research needs to be done, especially considering the rapid pace of technology, but at least takes a strong step forward in answering these questions.

The final three essays explore the questions of memory and the concert experience. Sara Cohen’s “‘The Gigs I’ve Gone To’: Mapping Memories and Places of Live Music” uses images and anecdotes of concert-goers in an attempt to unearth how individual personalities collect and connect memories of concert experiences. Following in the same vein, Paul Long’s “Warts and All: Recording Live Music Experience” delves into the process of immortalizing a one-time audience experience, whether it is recorded in written accounts, photographs, or CDs. Long spends a good deal of time exploring issues of concert recordings themselves: “Such recordings stand as monuments to moments in time that have served to fix an idea of the concert and in turn become ‘ideal’.” He relates anecdotes of individuals who have purposefully coughed or cheered at a certain point on a recording, thus becoming immortalized along with their favorite artist. Other sections of the book have pointed to the fact that most people find live music experiences more engaging and/or emotional than recordings, but Long holds up the concert recording as the paragon of musical experiences: “The desire for the live recording, officially sanctioned or otherwise, testifies to [...] yearning to retrieve and explore this shared experience.” With the concert recording, one can engage with the artists without actually having been present (like the Tori Amos fans) but likewise without any of the distractions or risks of a live concert (unlike the Tori Amos fans).

Pitts and Burland summarize their endeavor in their final postlude as follows: “In a society where there is concern about dwindling audiences for arts events and a climate of ever-decreasing funding for the arts, it is important to research and understand the value of live music for individuals and society.” Considering how many think pieces these days declare [x] music “dying” or even “dead”, I would heartily agree with their statement. The future of these events lies not in nitpicking past or even present figures or statistics, but in cultivating an understanding for audience experience.

Rebecca S. Lentjes