I couldn't do this kind of gig, confessed Sweet Jane, a musician who had come to hear us play.
I wasn't sure what she meant. We were about halfway through a Cottage Bakery performance, taking a break, and as far as I could tell everything was going swimmingly.
She couldn't play in a coffeehouse or a bar, she explained. Anyplace where all the people were talking to each other instead of listening to the music. It felt so disrespectful.
Ah. Yes. I sympathize with that point of view. Personally, I try to keep the socializing to a minimum when I see other musicians. I know how disheartening it can be when we pour our hearts and souls into the music, and our audience barely notices we're there.
But I don't agree with the "disrespectful" part.
Context is everything. If all the chairs are pointed toward the band, no one is serving drinks or snacks, and the people around you are focusing intently on the music, then you're expected to uphold certain standards of behavior.
Clapping to the beat or singing along is fine. A spontaneous and heartfelt "WOO!" after a particularly good solo will contribute to the overall energy and make the band happy. But you shouldn't engage in extended conversation with the friend sitting next to you, and you need to make damn sure your cell phone is turned off.
An atmosphere gig is another animal.
People in coffeehouses or bars aren't there for the music. They go to have a coffee or beer while hanging out with buddies, doing homework, reading a book, whatever. They might not even have known there would be music until someone started playing. The live band is there to enhance the experience. That's all.
There are gradations of atmosphere-ness, of course. Sometimes people do go to these places to see the band. But not to the exclusion of everything else. Many of them want to spend time with their friends, maybe see if they can meet any attractive men/women, and they want to do that where the good music is.
If you're a musician and you don't want to work under those conditions, that's a perfectly reasonable choice. But if you're in, you're in. You understand that your job is to be part of the atmosphere, period. If any of the patrons or passersby listen or groove along—as they did at last night's Cottage Bakery gig—that's great. That's frosting.
But they're allowed to ignore you. They're allowed to do whatever they came to do. As long as they're not heckling you or throwing things in your direction, they're not being disrespectful.
Because they aren't there for you. You're there for them.