Concerts? I'll Pass

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I love music. I hate concerts. Is that wrong?

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REUTERS/Lisi Niesner


Summer concert season is upon us, a time for most music lovers to leave their headphone jacks at home and mingle in the sticky air on picnic tables and open pavilions. But it's just another three months for those who love music and don't care for concerts. Like me.

This is not the case against concerts. It's wonderful for bands to share their music with an audience. In the age of file sharing, paid concerts are the only way bands make money anyway, besides sneaking your single into the closing seconds of a car commercial. But it occurred to me recently, after turning down a concert for a third time in three weeks, that as much I cherish my favorite music, I really do not cherish concerts.

A few weeks ago, this felt like a sad, lonely confession, like "I think the American flag is boring" or "I get the feeling puppies are depressed." But when I shared the thought with some of my closest friends, I realized that I wasn't alone. On the contrary, I think there is a silent caucus of music lovers who agree that concerts, besides being something of a pain, often clash with their reasons for listening to music.

  • "I don't like the pressure you feel to jump or dance just because the people around you are moving a certain way," one friend told me.

  • "I like moving around when I listen to music, and at concerts I feel stuck," another said.

  • "It's just such a messy hassle. For $30, I'd prefer good meal," another said.

I agree. I would rather walk, go running, or sit in the back seat of a car listening to my favorite bands--Phoenix, Passion Pit, Band of Horses--than see them in concert. But as I thought about why I don't like concerts, I realized it had everything to do with why I listen to music.

For me, music is a scrim lowered into the world. A scene moves around me, and a separate group of thoughts and senses develops behind the melody inside a sheen of privacy. Fader on you, solo track on me. I listen to music to be alone.

The relationship between headphones and mood is so strong in me that even the feel of plastic buds in the nook of my ears confers a special kind of focus. There is balance, calm and concentration there. A zone. Sometimes at work, I'll put in the buds and keep the sound off. Sitting dumbly on my head, they might as well be plastic jewelry, but they perform the role otherwise played by music. They mute people. They heighten something private.

This sacred sense of privacy is the first thing shattered in a concert hall. Squeezed into seats, or pressed against shoulders on an open floor, an audience shares the space and the music. They move together, feed off the others' energy. For some people, this sense of communion is the concert's thrill.

I'm no agoraphobe. I watch football at bars and baseball in stadiums, but sharing sports with 10,000 fans feels as natural to me as sharing music with a thousand strangers feels unnatural. Watching sports compels me to reach out, to high five, to shout and connect. Listening to music inspires all the opposite reactions: internalization, thoughtfulness, something private and quiet.

"It's about what you enjoy music for," one friend put it. Some people enjoy being present at the re-creation of their favorite songs. They like watching the guitarist's fingers make a hook fly out the speakers behind their heads. They like watching music as it's made. I think that's great. I like watching something else as it's played.

Anything else really. Give me a sidewalk stretch, a blur of trees on the highway, a mess of fields seen through a train window, the back of my eyelids on a 737 airliner six miles off the ground. Anything but a crowd of which I'm supposed to feel a part. I prefer apart. The concert between a melody line and the scenery is enough to me.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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