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Do people behave differently at free concerts?

Following the publication of my review of the Joan Jett & the Blackhearts show at Artpark last week, I received an abundance of feedback. Most of it was positive. Some of it was far less so.

The majority of the letters, comments and posts regarding my review were not particularly concerned with Jett & the Blackhearts. After all, the band delivered a strong, incredibly tight set at Artpark. Any fan of the band would most surely have found the gig to be a successful one on that front. It was my implication that the crowd was tame to the point of rudeness that seemed to hit a nerve with readers.

My suggestion that folks who are going to a show might want to do a little research into what they’re going to see raised the ire of some readers, who claimed that I’m acting as “the concert police.” (That would be a great band name, by the way. Just a thought.) This suggestion is a few miles wide of the mark, but let’s get to the subtext of my argument. I’ve been thinking about this for a few years, as we’ve seen the number of free and soft-ticketed shows in Western New York increasing toward the point of critical mass. This question has been bouncing around my brain-box whenever I attend one of these shows: Do people behave differently at concerts that they are either attending for free, or for a $5 to $15 admission fee, than they do at a show they paid a full ticket price for?

It seems to me that they do.

I’ll paraphrase the particularly nasty responses to the Jett review thus: Why should we pay attention to these old farts who are well past their prime? They aren’t worth our interest. And by the way, don’t tell us how to act at a concert, you punk!

OK, then. This begs the question: Why did you go?

Is it merely a social event at this point? Is the music simply to be treated as a jukebox, background music for conversation and drinking? Have we really sunk that low?

Jett & the Blackhearts are certainly past their commercial prime. The band hasn’t had a big hit in a few decades, despite the fact that Jett’s influence on younger bands who routinely fill stadiums is vast and obvious. Musically speaking, Jett still delivers the goods. If she was playing a club in the region, and the ticket price was, say, $25, her name would likely bring something in the range of 500 people to the show. These 500 people, though, would be there because they wanted to be there – not because it was outdoors, free or inexpensive, and the sun was shining. For Jett and her band, playing to a few hundred die-hard fans willing to take part in the concert experience would surely trump playing to several times that number in an atmosphere marked by a disheartening apathy.

“Most of the people around us were just talking amongst themselves and not even looking at the stage, which sucked for those of us excited to see Joan Jett and enjoy the show,” one reader from Rochester wrote in response to my review.

“Joan Jett delivered, and then some,” opined another reader. “Crowd was lame. Could not understand it. Fortunately, had moved myself and my daughters – 14 and 12 – down to the front standing area, to feel some energy, and there, it was a terrific time. When we moved back for the middle portion of the show, it was quiet as a church. Subsequently moved back down, for the final 6 songs, thankfully.”

“Sounds like a typical WNY middle-aged crowd at a show put on by a rock star of their past,” wrote an out-of-town reader. “They are there for the radio hits only, and have no interest at all in hearing anything new or unfamiliar. Too bad for them, as they are missing out. Have seen the same thing numerous times.”

Haven’t we all?

Some clarification is certainly in order here, in response to the whole “concert police” tag that disgruntled readers sought to hang on me after the Jett review ran. I am not interested in dictating some sort of code of behavior for free-thinking concert attendees. That goes against my own beliefs, and the core tenet of rock ’n’ roll, which is at heart a music that celebrates nonconformity and freedom.

However, I do have a beef with the concert attendee who comes to a show just because it’s free or cheap, and then proceeds to suck the life out of the room for the rest of us. Concert performances are about give-and-take between musician and listener. When the audience gives nothing back, the performance inevitably suffers. Add a purposeful disrespect into the equation – a sort of “Who cares? It’s free!” attitude, often signified by loud talking throughout the show or a complete lack of respect for the concertgoer who might actually be there to engage with the performance – and a negative vibe becomes noticeable.

If you have no respect for the performer, and are not interested in engaging with them – of if you are like some of the readers who reacted to my review, and are disgusted with the amount “classic rock” acts who frequent our region in the summertime – why not stay home? Make a “mix tape” of your favorite songs, invite a few friends over, and talk and drink beer in your backyard.

The situation at the Jett concert was certainly not unique to Artpark. In fact, the Lewiston venue addressed the issue – indirectly, perhaps – when it began to charge a small fee for the formerly free Tuesday in the Park shows last summer, and capped its attendance capacity at 12,000. The result has been a positive one in terms of traffic flow and the general comfort level of the concert experience.

I’d argue that a fair ticket price would alleviate some of these problems at free and soft-ticketed events in the summer. At present, it seems that we are either asked to pay way too much money for our tickets, or next to nothing (if not actually nothing). There is no middle ground. Market value does not seem to be something that we can discern any longer. It may well be a symptom of capitalism that consumers can’t see the value of something if they aren’t asked to pay for it. Which may be why we appear to be on a slippery slope toward a place where music ends up lacking value in our culture. We shouldn’t let this happen.