Tag: audience

Art vs. Entertainment part 2

That’s me, over on the right, with the snazzy wristband.

Last week I offered a question regarding art and entertainment:  what is the difference, to you? How would you define them? Is there a grey area where the two are intertwined?

Now, let me ask you a more specific question: what is the difference between a cover band (performs songs they did not author) and an original band (performs songs they did author)?

If you follow this blog, you may know that I’m a musician. You may have even listened to some of my work. Much of it is free and linked to here. I create original music, and it is art. At least to me. And I do it for me:  I would still be writing songs if I were hopelessly stranded alone on a desert island, but that doesn’t mean I’d like it that way. I love sharing the work. The times that I have witnessed others being moved by it are very memorable. Milestones of achievement. I think of myself as an artist, but I am certainly to some degree also an entertainer, simply by virtue of making art in the first place.

Around the end of my college days in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in perhaps ’02 or ’03, I played in a hard rock/metal outfit called Hypertension. We were a three piece that wrote all our own material and played gigs as often as we could. I played guitar and sang, and Dennis and Mike (yep, two Mikes in the band) covered bass and drums, respectively. The songs we wrote were a collaborative effort between us, though for the most part each of us composed for our own instruments. We had some great times, and a strong camaraderie.

I recall one night we played at a venue creatively named The Club. Like the setup at Bob’s bar in Rome, NY that I described last week, there was little to distinguish stage from listening area. I stood in front of a packed bar and played songs that we had composed, and lyrics that I had written in the private crucible of meaningful, introspective catharsis. I belted out the words to expectant faces only a couple feet away from mine, and they were watching, paying attention. Some of them knew the songs, and sang them right back at me. They knew the words. They’d taken these songs home and listened to them, connected to them, and come back to see the songs performed again. This was one of the best moments I’ve had on stage. The way my message was not just heard but felt. I was received.

But some gigs were not so wonderful.  Another night, we found ourselves in a playoff for a battle of the bands. The venue was huge and far too well lit, and there were tables and seats arranged in a huge square around the dance floor that the stage looked out over. The audience sat in place in the square and stared, like judges at a panel. Mildly sipping their cheap drinks. They did not applaud our songs. They cared nothing for our work. Deathly silence and vacuous stares from distant onlookers is, to most, worse than boos. Add to that an incompetent soundman who hated us for not doing his job for him, and members of another band who attended only to stand just off to the side of the stage and heckle us, and the evening was shaping up pretty awfully.

Another metal band called Ferrum played after us that night. A real class act, these guys were. But again, they played original music and the audience was having none of it.

The final performance went to a group whose name I cannot remember, of kids with brand new equipment clearly bought for them by their parents. They were a few boys and one or two girls, all high school most likely, all excessively thin and dressed in the latest fashion. They got up on stage and played covers. Skynyrd. Seger. Petty. And they played them badly. Horrible timing, poor tuning, not remotely tight.  It seemed that they’d never used microphones before.  But the audience roared to life. They approached the stage. They hollered, they danced. They had a great time.

I don’t blame the band for being a bunch of kids playing covers. That’s fine. And honestly you can’t blame people for wanting to hear the same old songs they’ve heard a hundred times, performed poorly by shallow children. It’s shitty, and any real fan of music would at least vaguely appreciate those who try to create it from scratch and do it with some skill, even if the song doesn’t immediately inspire them. But ultimately I don’t think the audience ignored Hypertension and Ferrum out of malice. I think they were just bored. Unmoved.

But there is a fundamental difference between what we did and what the cover band did, and it’s the same difference between every cover band and original band. One is an entertainer, and one is an artist. One is focused on performing for a response, and does not dive deep, does not speak from introspection, does not create art. The other does these things and allows the performance to be a secondary goal.

At the end of the night, the soundman decided a winner by standing in the middle of the room with a decibel meter and prompting the audience to cheer for the band they liked best. Ferrum and our group knew we were going to lose to the infantile hacks that came after. So, when it was time for the applause to be gauged, we walked out on the stage together, stood in a line, crossed our arms, and turned our backs on the audience. Little more than half a dozen men, defying a room full of musically shallow dolts. They booed us hard. The boos might even have been louder than the cheers when the soundman called the final band’s name. To this day I have not been booed on stage other than this one occurrence. It is a unique experience.

After this, because we were dudes in bands, much drinking followed between Ferrum and Hypertension. And friendships. And promises of working together on future shows. The members of the cover band were not allowed to drink, since the bar would not serve minors (and did not serve Hi-C or Kool Aid anyway). They left after receiving a personal congratulations from everyone in the establishment save the half a dozen long haired men in black sitting at the bar.

Conflation of cover bands and original bands still irks me and I get drawn into arguments over it from time to time. Yes, they both play you music while you slurp your drink at the bar. But no, they are not the same. One is bringing you their own art. An expression of the deepest, best within themselves. The other is trying to bring you a facsimile of someone else’s tired old art so that you will clap and they will get paid. For me, this is the difference between art and entertainment. This.

What do you think?

Art vs. Entertainment

A band I cannot recall the name of playing at Pollywogg Holler in Belmont, NY, 2016.  They had to hike their gear through the woods to play to a handful of folks that day.

Last week I talked about the aim of performing music, and today I’d like to shift to a related subject that often comes up in conversation when live music is discussed: the difference between art and entertainment.

At its core, art is the doing and the product of human creative skill, that results in something that is pleasing to behold for its beauty or emotional power. Entertainment is the creation and presentation of something that provides amusement or enjoyment.  When one creates art, they have simultaneously created entertainment. When one entertains, they draw upon art to craft the presentation. These definitions overlap, but where does the overlap end?

Take for instance a television show wholly meant to entertain, like Family Guy, Modern Family, or The Big Bang Theory. These are money-making vehicles that survive based on their popularity. They are created to please people who are not looking for emotional power or inspiration, but rather something that amuses them, maybe gives them a giggle here and there.

But is there not art in these entertainment endeavors? Of course there is. The writing, the lighting, the set design, the acting methods, the makeup, the sound design, the comic delivery… and the list goes on. These are the products of art, works of creative skill that birthed something inspiring to behold. You may not perceive or connect with the use of subtle choreography by a director to achieve the maximum comic effect, or the vocal inflections utilized by a professional actor to do the same, but these techniques are art. It could even be argued that the cheap gag they are used to create is art, in the way its writer created it. So why then does cheesy TV seem so very not artistic?

Or, take for instance Bach’s Ninth Symphony. This is near universally regarded as a work of art. Listening to it evokes the feelings that art is meant to tug upon. And there is no doubt that great creative skill went into its creation. Owing not only to the skill level but also to the uniqueness of each of us, literally no one else in any time in history could have made that particular piece of music, except Bach, right when he did.

But is there not entertainment in this art? Of course there is. Bach himself would cite practical reasons for composing it, having to do with money, station in life and in society, and the pressure of expectation of his peers. We see these as coals that fuel the furnace in which his creative work was forged, but they are wrapped up in his work nonetheless, just as what The Wall represented to Roger Waters is caught up in the music and art that spun from it, and just as performance and financial needs drive a band to tour, or drive a painter to set up showings.

There is a perceived dichotomy between art and entertainment that arises at least in part as a contrarian response to the understood significance of each thing. One is deeply personal, profound, and represents the best in us. The other is pandering for attention or gain. Artists reel at the suggestion that their work is entertainment. But, as it happens, not at the suggestion that their work is entertaining.

Because all artists create things that bear the ability to move others. It’s part of the work. An artist creates for themselves, because they must. And they make work that moves them; this is how they know it will move others. From the start, the desire to make something that people will enjoy is a part of the process. And that is entertainment whether they would claim it or not.

So where do we draw the line? Perhaps the more pertinent question is, do we draw one at all?

The Aim of Performing Music

Outnumber the Living


Friday, my metal band Outnumber the Living played a show at Trick Shot Billiards in Clifton Park, New York. The show went well. Everyone had a good time, and the response was above average. The band had been looking forward to the show for a few months, and carefully prepared the set of five songs we’d perform, roughly half an hour of music, going over them as a group in our rehearsal space until we not only performed the songs well individually but also achieved that sought-after character of polished musical ensembles: tightness.

The turnout at this show was good.  The promoter managed to cover the headliner’s guarantee, all his own costs, and give the bands a small amount as well. The gathering area at Trick Shot feels open, and the comfortable places to drink and talk are tucked away from the stage. Patrons that show up tend to hang back where the sitting tables, bar, and pool tables are. Even those watching the performers tend not to crowd the stage unless the place is full. But even with a respectable number of customers, Trick Shot feels sparse.

As a performer, this is less fun. Folks who don’t perform don’t realize the way that the stage and its lighting obscures the audience from you and makes them feel far away.  Typical stage lighting doesn’t just illuminate the performer so you can better observe them as they show you what they’ve worked on, it also separates them from you in a meaningful way, much as the stage does. There is an artificial barrier between the audience and the stage, that both sides willingly observe.

But this is not a bad thing.  The barrier is created and observed by bands and listeners alike willingly, because there is a reward in this behavior: breaches of the barrier bring enjoyment. The performers bring the audience something meant to evoke, and the audience gives back in the form of visible and audible enjoyment of that effect.  This bridging over the artificial gap in the room is the act of deriving a connection to each other.

Applause is the most common form of this, but at small, standing-room shows like those that a band like mine would play, more is appropriate:  the audience is given an inferred and at times verbal invitation to approach the stage. Pressing that boundary between the display and the onlooker creates excitement. Closing the gap between the messenger and the receiver. Exhibiting, face to face, the effect that the message has had. There is a deeply gratifying emotional communion possible in the performance of music and the audience is responsible for creating it, not the performer. The act will proceed as rehearsed, and the actors will display what they mean to, for you. But it is up to you to give it back. To embrace the feeling and to show the performer that they are being heard, in the most profound way.

The boundary between these two parts of a show is drawn by the stage, which is often short, and sometimes even physically indistinguishable from the rest of the room. And it is also drawn by the lights. The way they paint colors and thereby provoke feelings about the performer’s presence and the material being displayed. The importance of a light show is often underestimated; it makes up a good deal of what you take from a show. It, and the lack of lights in the listening area, set a mood and delineate the zones where the emotional roles of the messenger and receiver are apt to form.

Perhaps unfortunately, being on stage and having those lights aimed at you makes you less able to see the audience. In some cases it is entirely blinding. The performer can feel alone up there. And a lukewarm response can feel more chilly than it is.

There was a show I played years ago with a couple of the same fellows that are in Outnumber the Living now, in a small town in upstate New York called Rome. In Rome there used to be a dive bar run by a man named Bob. Bob was a nice fellow, and he ran sound for the bands he invited to perform in his tiny bar. We played there twice as Son of Mourning before the bar was shut down by health and safety officials.

When we first arrived, we were surprised at how small the stage was. It and the standing room where the show would be watched was around the size of a living room in an average home. The floor was a uniform checkered tile, and there was no separation between the performance area and the rest of the room. We were told to set up on the far end. “Over there,” Bob said.

We played later in the night, and the only people in the bar were Bob and members and friends of another band. In the performance room there were half a dozen, or maybe ten people aside from myself and my band’s membership. The lights went out and we played, like we always did, but there was no boundary between the stage and the audience. We stood looking each other in the face, in the same darkness, at the same height. Nothing, not even monitor speakers, created a gap.

And it was one of the best shows I’ve ever played.

The audience and the band mixed. They stood among us. Between us. Our vocalist leaped into their midst, even rode their shoulders. I stomped the ground with particularly important downbeats, and the old wood floor thrummed under everyone in the room. They screamed back, both the lyrics they picked up from the songs and also just screams, the guttural feelings made vocal. They stomped back. In the dark and tumult, the expressions on our faces were hard to make out, and there were none that would not be forgiven. The messenger and receiver blended so thoroughly, that the message and the response obliterated the space between.

That is the aim of a performer. To foster an emotional communion. To say, “See this thing and feel it,” with the express aim of being told, “I see it and feel it.” This goal can be detracted from by a prideful, posturing performer or a reluctant audience. But it remains the hope, the dream resting in the heart of anyone ascending the steps and assuming the mantle of the attention of a room full of expectant faces.  And for those of us who have received this message before, it is the hope we carry with us as audience members as well.

Have you deeply enjoyed a concert before? What made it so important to you?