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'I paid to see this show, too!' or why people are rude at concerts

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com

We've all been there. Whether we go out twice a week, or once a year, we've all experienced it: We have been at concerts where someone is being incredibly rude.

Actually, scratch that for a moment.

We have been at concerts where someone is behaving completely contrary to what we consider appropriate behavior for that particular performance.

Of course, people are going to behave differently at Stubb's than at the Cactus Cafe, at the Continental Club than at the Elephant Room, at a house show than at a music festival.

But when does you having fun become the worst show ever for the person next to you?

There's a terrific book published last year called "The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing, and Bench-Clearing Brawls" by Michael Duca and Jason Turbow. It explores the unwritten rules of baseball, the game's invisible frame of cheating and consequences, of frontier justice on the diamond.

Concerts also have their invisible rules and mores, but they vary from show to show. Heck, they can vary from moment to moment.

We talked to artists and Austinites and fans from across the country about what drives them crazy at shows and here is what we learned: Everyone knows there are unwritten rules at concerts, nobody can quite agree on what they are and everybody loves to complain about people breaking them.

People in Austin claim to love live music, but lots of them sure don't act like it.

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When we asked folks on Twitter what drove them crazy at concerts, most of the complaints revolved around a lack of civility to your fellow concert attendees.

Ches Actkinson dislikes it when "the kids who think it is their God-given right to be at the front of the crowd, when I have been waiting for an hour," near the stage. Zachary Rose, an Austin music supervisor can't stand it when "everyone just wants to record it (the show) on their phones/cams. It's absurd."

This was a common complaint: "Smartphones, not the occasional picture but people filming entire songs (or more)."

"Phones up in the air all over the place."

And so on.

Some artists forbid this practice and it says so on the venue door. But many acts choose to ignore it. It might simply be a case of technology being far ahead of how to use it. It used to be that people filming shows, professional or amateur, were confined to a certain area with their cumbersome equipment. Then cameras showed up on phones and all bets were off. It might be hard to regulate, especially when the upcoming generations have been weaned on camera phones and YouTube. If you can't upload a clip to the Internet, did the experience really happen?

A local percussionist named Ernest Luna went in hard, over several 140-character volleys, on tall people at shows. "Firstly, tall folks should not be allowed in the first half of a general admission crowd. Secondly, tall folks, why do y'all always stand in front of a short person like they're not even there?? I've seen areas of your fellow trees where you will comfortable but no, you decide to stand right in front all the short peeps! Don't be mad when someone shorter than you is trying to squeeze by to get a better view."

Carlos Navlag, who tweets under the name "Rushhead2112," noted his disdain for the "lazy sit-down person that gets mad if you're having a good time."

In contrast, Richardson resident Madelyn Arellano gets hacked off "when people dance around and accidentally bump you over and over ..."

When I was in the mezzanine at Janet Jackson's April 3 show at ACL Live, behind me was a seated couple who looked to be in their late 40s or early 50s. In front of them were two younger men, in the front row of the mezzanine.

One of the men stood up and began to dance, which was not too surprising at a Janet Jackson show. It didn't seem to be a problem for the couple behind them, until it suddenly was. Words were exchanged, heated words. Suddenly, the older man grabbed the younger man from behind and began punching him repeatedly in the head. The two were separated within moments, the older man and his companion, who looked mortified, were hustled out of the venue by security. No police report was filed.

Tannifer Ayers, an EMT with the South West Emergency Action Team (S.W.E.A.T.), was on the scene. "People that are not frequent drinkers will go to a concert and consume large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time, not realizing that their tolerance might not be what it used to be," Ayers said. And tempers flare. Yes, some people do not like being danced in front of, even at a dance-pop show. But there is an element of entitlement at work here, too. Tickets to Janet cost between $79.50 and $159.50. The higher the ticket price, the less likely it is that someone will want to put up with someone else messing with their concert experience.

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But what people complain about more than anything else is talking.

And if there is one thing I have learned about going to shows in Austin for the past decade, it is that audiences love to talk during the performances. I mean, during all of it. And not in a whisper. Just stand in the back half of Stubb's sometime. Any time, really. It's like Curra's on a Friday night back there.

"I don't understand, people talking during bands, I really don't," said Austin singer-songwriter Bob Schneider, who has played everything from intimate, acoustic venues to the Austin City Limits Music Festival. "You go to a movie and nobody talks. If somebody does, (the audience) will get irate. And you can talk all you want and it's not going to change the movie!

"When somebody's playing and you're talking, you're (expletive) it up for the people around you and the people performing," he added.

Some of it might simply be how Austin regards live music. One colleague, an Austin native who has been going to see bands for almost 30 years (who is not named Michael Corcoran, lest he get angry letters) put it best: "Austinites treat bands like jukeboxes. Always have, always will."

My colleague didn't mean Austinites demand that bands play covers. She meant that bands are sound-tracking drinking more than anything else.

This is a notion with which I am inclined to agree, sadly. Here is why: Most indoor shows in Austin take place at bars. There is a vested interest in having the music going until 2 a.m., until last call, to keep people drinking.

There are, of course, exceptions. One of the reasons people were so concerned about the possible loss of the Cactus Cafe last year is the idea that Austin would be losing a true "listening room," a place where paying attention to the music comes before anything else.

But too many Austinites act like this isn't the "live music capital," but the "drinking beer while a band plays capital."

An interesting thing happened last month at the Mohawk during the John Vanderslice show. Vanderslice, a singer-songwriter with a cult following, was playing a delicate set to a packed room.

"These guys happen to be walking by the Mohawk," Mohawk co-owner James Moody said. "Probably out-of-towners who wanted quote unquote 'to see some live music' pay the cover and walk into the room."

One of the musicians was playing an instrument that sounded like a dolphin, Moody doesn't remember what it was.

"These guys in baseball caps started heckling, yelling, 'You're so indie rock!,' stuff like that," Moody said. The offending parties were back out on Red River Street within minutes.

"If you're in a room with 250 people and someone is being disrespectful, that's a problem," Moody said. "And our bouncers know what they are seeing; they listen to this music. They know the difference between a punk rock show and people going off without being dangerous and people who are intensely involved in what is going on onstage and act accordingly."

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Perhaps it comes down to, to paraphrase a tender moment in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the one.

Maria Tessa Sciarrino has promoted concerts, been a freelance photojournalist, wannabe musician and concertgoer for more than 15 years in New Jersey and Philadelphia. She's been to South by Southwest several times, as well as shows up and down the East Coast.

"I can deal with the tall people, loud talkers, the drunks, the photographers who keep shooting after three songs, the texting addicts at the front of the stage," Sciarrino said. But what she cannot stand is when she objects to something and the other person says, "I PAID FOR THIS CONCERT, TOO!"

It drives Sciarrino crazy when this argument is used to justify bad behavior. "I've seen it used by people to push their way to the front of the stage (or bar others from moving around in the crowd), act like a drunken fool, and exhibit abusive behavior towards the artist(s), other concertgoers, or the venue staff," she said.

"A concert is a shared group experience, not an individual one," Sicarrino said. "Paying the ticket price enables many people to share and participate in the experience. If people can't accept that, maybe they shouldn't have paid for the ticket.

"It's not elitist to ask for everyone to have the same opportunity to enjoy the show."

jgross@statesman.com