It was also in the 1960s that artists like Bob Dylan emerged, making music that was both presented and perceived as an art form. The songs didn’t conform to the formulas of hit songs. They were longer. They contained more musical virtuosity. And they demanded their listener’s full attention. Venues and promoters began requesting that audiences keep quiet at their shows. At San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, rock concert promoter Bill Graham even began encouraging concertgoers to sit down, according to Steve Waksman, a professor and music historian at Smith College—which wasn’t easy at a venue that regularly hosted the Doors, the Grateful Dead, and the Hendrix Experience.
When disco and punk exploded in the '70s and '80s, the dynamic shifted again. Disco told audiences to dance, while punk told them to be anything but passive. The artists didn’t mind; in fact they encouraged it. But with the emergence of indie rock over the past few decades, they've started caring again, which Waksman attributes to the dueling legacies that the form has inherited.
“Indie has that ethos from the 1960s that the musician is a serious artist who needs to be listened to,” Waksman says. “But it also inherited from punk music the idea that the fan should be part of the show. Those are difficult to reconcile.”
Complicating matters further is the advent of social media, which encourages fans to share their experiences at shows while chipping away at the divide between musicians and audiences. Artists know they need to have digital presences to build and bolster their fan base, and fans have exploited that fact. A 2013 study conducted by MTV found that fans expected musicians to be “constantly accessible” online and to interact directly with the people who buy their music. (This is wildly different from the pre-digital era of fan clubs, when music enthusiasts would pay dues just to know what their favorite pop stars were up to.) Taylor Swift, whose rollout of her most recent album, 1989, is a lesson in pitch-perfect self-promotion, is the most obvious example of how musicians can sell more records by making their fans feel like they're part of their lives.
The digitization of music and free distribution of content has also changed the dynamic, in that artists now request more from their fans than they ever have before. It's not just about asking people to buy their music and tickets to their shows. Musicians now need fans to watch their YouTube videos, pre-order their singles, and talk about their music online. But that chatter can also have negative ramifications for artists, who’ve found they can no longer come on late, play drunk, play sloppy, play too long, or play too short without seeing consequences.
Instead, the fans are the ones calling the shots, as artists increasingly play to disengaged, talking, texting, photo-snapping audiences. But recently, musicians have started to ask—both politely and less so—for more attention and respect. When Neil Young caught two women incessantly texting at a concert in 2012, he began mock typing on an invisible phone on stage until the women noticed and apparently left the show. When Iron Maiden saw a guy in the audience doing the same thing, they called him out publicly for being “a wanker.” In July, Ray LaMontagne swore and stormed offstage after fans started talking in the front row of a sold out show. “Why don’t you go the fuck home and talk?” he asked.