Me Against the Music: How Should Fans Behave in the Digital Age?

Rock has always resisted telling audiences how to behave, but smartphone-wielding concertgoers are infuriating artists.


Earlier this year, the fans at Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina started getting drunk and chatty—as fans at music festivals tend to do. Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozelek didn't take it lightly. Instead, the indie-folk act frontman refused to play and scolded the crowd.

“Everybody, all you fucking hillbillies,” he said. “Shut the fuck up.”

It was a rant that was rebuffed by even his die-hard fans, one of whom compared being a Kozelek fan to being in an “abusive relationship,” and accused the performer of bullying the crowds at his shows. The incident sparked debates about whether Kozelek was or wasn’t a jerk. But it was also an indication of how the dynamic has changed between musicians and fans in recent years. Rock music has always embraced—and even represented—rebellion, rowdiness, and a robust disdain for social decorum. But along with more classical art forms like theater, opera, and the symphony, it’s suffering from the distracted, smartphone-carrying audiences of the digital age.

Exactly how audiences are supposed to behave at live shows has been up for debate since the emergence of the genre. There aren’t hard and fast rules like there are in other performative fields, and behavior that would get spectators thrown out of La Scala or Lincoln Center (moshing, crowd surfing, heavy intoxication) is an integral part of the live experience. But there are expectations. They date back to the 1950s, when the emergence of Elvis Presley first triggered hordes of screaming fans in concert halls. Although the singer adored them, the Beatles famously stopped touring because the hysterical teenage girls were so disruptive to their music.

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.

Artists have also responded by instating camera bans, with requests whose language ranges from polite (Kate Bush: “I very much want to have contact with you as an audience, not with iPhones, iPads or cameras”) to philosophical (The Savages: “We believe that the use of phones to film and take pictures during a gig prevents all of us from totally immersing ourselves”) to blunt (The Yeah Yeah Yeahs: “Put that shit away as a courtesy to the person behind you and to Nick, Karen, and Brian”).

The shift in the artist-audience relationship is being felt by both well-established musicians and relative newcomers, although emerging artists don't have the same degree of freedom when it comes to calling their fans out. After the Kozelek incident, Tom Krell of R&B electronic act How to Dress Well (which began releasing music in 2010 and also played at Hopscotch) said in an interview that the only reason he also didn’t call out his disengaged audience was because “I’m just not established enough to do it.” But Krell also said he'd resolved to get less angry at his audience less often, even when fans bring a bad vibe to the show. “I don’t know if it’s because people are self-conscious or if it’s because they don’t have respect for what creative people are trying to do. Sometimes crowds just don’t care,” he said. “[But] I made a resolution … to try to be more open and sweet on stage.”

Krell isn't an anomaly: Even if expectations are violated, musicians typically only want better relationships with their fans. Psychedelic rock band Paperhaus, which organizes intimate DIY shows in Washington D.C., says it works to create an environment where the show is about the music, not the event, because that’s how fans and artists connect.

Punk music, which has always been about the energy, perhaps knows that best. Ian MacKaye, the singer-songwriter and producer behind punk bands Fugazi and Minor Threat, says a small percentage of people do make trouble at shows but not when both the musician and fans do their part. “Ultimately, I think that bands and audiences make shows together, each bringing their necessary energies,” says MacKaye. “I've seen plenty of shows in which the bands were not particularly talented and audiences were not particularly respectful, but still the experience felt transcendent.”

However fraught things might be between needy musicians and disrespectful fans, both are an integral part of the energy and emotional experience of live shows. “The reality is, a live music show is a reciprocal relationship,” says Alex Tebeleff of Paperhaus. "Both the band and the audience have to bring energy and civility for it to be a healthy environment."