July 10, 2011

Guest blogger: Lily Ahrens on how new venues reach new audiences, at a cost

I was delighted a few days ago when someone who’s been freelancing in our office, Lily Ahrens, emailed me to volunteer a guest blog post. Of course I agreed, and not just because the question she wanted to raise is near to my own heart. Lily is a multi-talented young violinist and fiddler with a master’s degree in urban geography (she wrote her thesis on how performance spaces influenced the arts scene in Asheville, NC). Her background in both classical and folk music gives her the perfect perch for these observations:

I recently attended performances by rockabilly group Southern Culture on the Skids at the Old Town School of Folk Music here in Chicago, and Rebirth Brass Band at Symphony Center, home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. These venues are drastically different from both bands’ typical spots, which allowed me to observe the influence of venue on performance. The new venue may have exposed these bands to a new audience, but they also created significantly different performance experiences.

The first time I heard them, Southern Culture was at an outdoor street festival. The crowd, mostly in their thirties, was rowdy: dancing, laughing, singing, and yelling back and forth with the band. Dancing was also a key feature at the Rebirth show I saw at the Howlin’ Wolf in New Orleans. The Howlin’ Wolf is a large music club with a big bar and open space to congregate in front of the stage. The type of music Rebirth plays is infectious. I can't imagine listening to it without dancing. At least I couldn’t, until I went to their Symphony Center performance.

Rebirth Brass Band plays the Howlin' Wolf in New Orleans

Symphony Center attracts a much older audience than the Howlin’ Wolf. The ornately-decorated, formal space dictates a more proper decorum. The audience stayed seated for much of the performance, even while the musicians danced and motioned for us to follow suit. For a couple of exuberant songs we did stand, as an entire audience. But as the song ended we dutifully took our seats. At one point, a small group of ardent supports danced near the stage while the rest of the audience sat. This lasted only until an older gentleman, whose view was slightly blocked, asked them to sit down. He was visibly annoyed that the dancers were interfering with his experience.

That’s the difference right there. At the Howlin’ Wolf, dancing is an intrinsic part of the experience, which is defined broadly to include the audience, ambiance, activities like drinking and talking — the whole thing. Whereas at Symphony Center, the experience is defined more narrowly as the music itself, so anything in addition to the music is viewed as extraneous or a distraction. ...

The Old Town School of Folk Music, where I saw Southern Culture, is one of my favorite venues for bluegrass, old time, or folk music. It's a casual, intimate hall with rows of seats behind tables near the stage. Not much room for dancing, though, which was a shame in this case. The musicians kept encouraging people to get up and move. They even called out individuals in the front row to dance, to no avail. Eventually they enticed several to come on stage and dance with them. But due to the limited space and the way the hall was designed (for sitting, not milling around or dancing), most of us just enjoyed the music from our seats. It was the same situation as at Symphony Center: while the musicians were literally begging people to stand up and dance, the venue was implicitly telling us to stay seated.

As a fiddler, I know the feeling of people dancing to music you are creating. I imagine Southern Culture and Rebirth would prefer if their entire audience danced throughout their performances. They wouldn’t feel, as classical musicians might, that dancing meant people weren’t listening, or that it made the music secondary. Symphony Center and the Old Town School, while wonderful in their own ways, changed the nature of these bands’ performances — created a different experience. It went from laughing and dancing with friends while having a beer to respectful, motionless intake of music. Did the bands feel frustrated and view these nights as unsuccessful? I’ll bet they did.

Of course, presenting a classical string quartet at a busy bar would bring about similar changes in the musical experience. Would the quartet feel insulted when audience members at a bar, following the social rules of that venue, continued to talk, order drinks, and move about during their performance? Perhaps. However, some classical musicians have enjoyed taking their music to alternative spaces, where they can connect with their audience in new ways even if there are some distractions (see photo).

Turning the tables: A Classical Revolution gig at a cafe in Detroit (photo

The fact that these bands were in new venues meant they could reach new audiences. The gentleman irritated with the eight or nine dancers at Symphony Center would never attend a venue like the Howlin' Wolf. He would be uncomfortable, as would many older patrons, with the noise level, lack of seating, and generally raucous atmosphere. Other audiences are equally uneasy in such settings. For instance, women may not feel comfortable by themselves for safety reasons, and age requirements may ban youngsters from such venues. Venues like Symphony Center and the Old Town School would be more familiar and appealing to these patrons. So presenting Rebirth and Southern Culture in more formal venues allowed a new set of people to hear their music. Were these concerts authentic to the bands’ sense of how their music is supposed to feel? Probably not. Is it worth the cost? Is it worth having your musical vision changed on occasion in order to reach new audiences? That’s the question, and I’m not sure where I stand.

chloe patton — July 19, 2011

Good questions, Lily. I'm not sure where I stand either -- though I think I tend to lean towards the idea that allowing as many new audiences to engage with your art form is a pretty good goal to have, as long as the artists themselves don't feel compromised in truly negative, uncomfortable ways. Having different relationships with different types of audiences isn't inherently a bad thing. Granted, I'm no artist myself, so I can't personally empathize with having to adapt my artistic intentions or to feel that my creative product is being changed in ways I would rather not. Hence, my ambivalence.

On a semi-related tangent, I recently went to the Green Mill again, and had forgotten how strictly the bartenders and staff there enforce the "LISTEN to the music" code. For those unfamiliar, the Green Mill is one of Chicago's most famous prohibition-era jazz clubs. On its face it's a casual bar with a small seating area up front by the stage... but in practice it's as rule-bound and rigid in its propriety as Symphony Center (at least as SC is perceived to be). It was great music and I was enjoying just sitting back, listening to the music uninterrupted.... But still, constantly hearing patrons being reprimanded for having a good time as they chat with each other -- including about the music they're listening to -- just sucked some of the joy out of it. (Not to mention, the reprimands were louder than the actual quiet chatter!) While I'm sure the musicians appreciated the respect they were being shown, I'd hope that even they would see something wrong with the audience having such a regimented listening experience. Maybe not though...

steliana — March 25, 2014

I think there is something out there for very audience. You don't have to change your vision....unless you want more fans, no matter what to cost. But then aren't you compromising your integrity?

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.