Richmond Proper: On Rock Show Etiquette

“Only a great fool or a great genius is likely to flout all social grace with impunity, and neither one, doing so, makes the most comfortable companion.” — Amy Vanderbilt

“Only a great fool or a great genius is likely to flout all social grace with impunity, and neither one, doing so, makes the most comfortable companion.” — Amy Vanderbilt

The Sex Pistols were known for the mantra “DESTROY,” and there is a lot to be said for the catharsis and the social statement that they made by purposefully disregarding the welfare of venues, other people, and various hotel rooms. Indeed, many a rocker has used the excuse of “being ‘punk'” to sanction whatever important commentary, garbage-throwing, or flat-out abusive behavior he or she was engaged in. But the truth is that most of us who attend shows have to see these people and this venue again, because we’ve chosen to live in this civilization. So we don’t have much of an excuse for DESTROYing anything, or anyone, and we’ll have to settle for enjoying peaceably instead.

Recently I was at a house show where the performer stopped between each song and in the middle of several songs to shush people who were talking quietly in the back of the room. “You paid for this,” she hissed between hastily-constructed insults. One would like to believe that small-time, intimate house shows attempt to bring people together to enjoy music they like in a comfortable place, but in this case only hatefulness was mongered and a wedge driven between strangers. What demands to be examined, then, is what, exactly, the audience paid for. The experience of going to a show is different for different people, and some people may want to enjoy the music up front with an undivided attention, while others may just as heartily enjoy it as background accompaniment to a wonderful conversation or an adventure in people-watching. If you are a band that’s being paid to play music, you have been hired to entertain those in attendance. You are not holding court and allowing lucky admirers to kiss your bejeweled fingers out of the kindness of your heart.

With etiquette blunders big enough to make a show’s trash-talking suddenly more memorable than its music occurring in our fair city, it seems that the basics of providing and receiving entertainment could stand to be reiterated with a few guidelines.

For bands

Set up and tear down your equipment quickly.

Of course it takes a little time to get things placed and working properly. But shows should be something fun to do on a Friday night instead of a seven-hour-long ordeal to which one must bring camping gear and a large supply of granola bars. Getting onto and off of the stage as quickly as possible shows respect to the other bands and to your audience.

Don’t tell the audience what to do.

They are adults and can probably figure out where to stand and what to do on their own, as it suits them. Begging attendees to move closer to the stage, plugging your merch 14 times, or shushing people who are talking only calls attention to the fact that you don’t have the whole room under your spell. If you don’t say anything, those who are currently enraptured will remain so and you won’t break the spell for them. There is scarcely an occasion better for socializing and meeting new people than a show. If it was truly only about the music, many people would stay home rather than travel to a place where they are likely to be around other human beings.

Skip the lengthy speeches about things like politics or faith preferences

That is, unless you’re playing at a political or religious venue and presume that the folks there invited you partly to hear your message. This goes back to the simple fact that you are there to entertain. If you sing about the things that are important to you, folks who are moved by your music and buy your record might be gracefully pulled into your way of thinking. But being pushed into your way of thinking is much less likely and less attractive.

Don’t campaign for petition signatures at a show where admission has been charged.

Otherwise, attendees will have paid good money to get what boils down to a sales pitch rather than a musical diversion. If you meet and discover people who have common interests, by all means share your causes with them. You may even want to arrange some literature tastefully on your merch table. But the plight of the undernourished Guatemalan puppy-dogs or what-have-you shouldn’t be the first thing you mention in a conversation (see 9.1.09 column, On Making Conversation)

For attendees

All the rules for being a good guest still apply

(See 8.18.09 column, On Being a Good Guest). Just because you are at a musical event does not mean that considerable hospitality hasn’t been extended to you. Treat the space as a precious gift that someone undoubtedly works hard to maintain, not as something you are entitled to destroy.

Let others enjoy the show.

If you are talking, make sure that others can still hear the music perfectly clearly. If you are dancing, don’t flail your limbs in such a way that causes others to have to dodge to protect their skulls. If you are drinking, don’t slosh your beverage on your neighbors.

Take cues from the type of venue and the behavior of others.

If no one else is dancing on the tables at a singer-songwriter acoustic set, you are likely to embarrass yourself and distract from what other attendees came to see. But if everyone is dancing on the tables at a bar where the tables have seemingly been constructed for this very purpose, this could be the perfect place to try your luck.

Keep the heckling to a minimum.

Okay, it’s fun to indulge in a little good-natured heckling when your friends’ bands are onstage. But booing every song and yelling out “YOU SUCK” (so original!) just makes you look ridiculous for remaining at a show that you claim not to be enjoying. Nobody’s twisting your arm to stick around; if your patience has really reached its end just get up and quietly leave.

Tall people, let short people get in front of you.

This doesn’t mean that tall people need to stand in the back; that wouldn’t seem very fair. But if the venue is crowded and you find yourself in front of someone much shorter than you, you can offer to let them switch places with you. This way your view stays the same since you can see well over the short person’s head, but the short person’s view has greatly improved because of your politeness.

Don’t complain about the admission price or try to bargain your way in for less.

Certainly the admission to some shows has grown to be obscene, but if you want to see a certain show you will have to pay what the club owners have decided you will pay. Vote with your dollars and do not attend events that you believe are too expensive, but the venue’s door is not the place to have a debate on this topic.

No pushing and shoving.

Venues get congested sometimes, and moving about gets difficult. But it really doesn’t take much extra time to weave your way unobtrusively through the crowd, saying “excuse me” and waiting for people to scoot to the side when appropriate.

Don’t be that guy.

Don’t wear a band t-shirt to that particular band’s show. What are you trying to say? “No no guys, I’m really into this band. Like really into them.” This makes you come off as a bit too much of an eager beaver (and perhaps a first-time show attendee), rather than a discerning connoisseur of this band’s music. It’s more of a compliment to the band if you show up, are enthusiastic, and buy a t-shirt to wear later. Of course it doesn’t hurt anyone else if you do decide to “be that guy,” so this is more of a tip intended to help you out rather instead of a rule.

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Tess Shebaylo

Tess Shebaylo is a freelance writer, crafter, history geek, and compulsive organizer. She works at Tumblr and lives in Church Hill with her daughter, Morella.

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