Opinion: Shut Up & Play The Hits—The Price Of Admission & The Price Of Entitlement

By Erik Masson

When you buy a ticket to see a concert, what exactly are you getting for your money? The obvious answer is that you are buying the right to see the show, but it seems that some audience members seem to have the idea that their ticket also gives them the right to demand certain things from an artist. When he strode onstage for the encore of his Danforth Music Hall show in August, Josh Tillman (AKA Father John Misty, psychedelic folk extraordinaire and former percussionist of the Fleet Foxes) sought to give the audience something more than the excellent performance he had just completed — he tried to give the audience a momentary glimpse behind the curtain of professionalism by explaining some of his feelings and actions. The crowd seemed to think that because they had given him their hard-earned money, they could yell at him to try to get him to shut up and play a song. So he obligingly yelled back and threw his guitar on the ground before walking off of the stage.

Upon hearing this story, some snort derisively before engaging in a lofty diatribe on the nature of professionalism and Tillman’s clearly offensive lack thereof. Others, however, think that his reaction was appropriate, and that it was the audience who erred. “I think that if you’ve paid to see a movie and you just didn’t like it, you wouldn’t go to the box office and try to get your money back,” said Mark Ferrari, singer/guitarist of Toronto band The Folk. “You’d just say, ‘aw, that was a crappy movie.’ If you’ve paid a band, I see it as you giving yourself over to the show and you have to deal with whatever the hell is gonna happen onstage … If you don’t go into a show with somewhat of an open mind, you’re sort of missing the point. ”

Yet the incident at Tillman’s Toronto show asserts that many music fans have motivations other than keeping an open mind; they are seeking entertainment value above all else. “I feel that for more popular bands, the hits are what people identify with the most,” said Adam Bradley, concert programmer for Wavelength Music Arts Projects. “If they can sing along, dance along, or have pleasant memories triggered by hearing familiar music, of course most would seek that directly … That’s why I imagine many audiences at more popular concerts can get so violently offended by new material or extended banter. It’s because they feel that they’re being robbed of something. It’s right there in the title of LCD Soundsystem’s documentary Shut Up And Play The Hits.”

But if audiences are missing the point by focusing on hearing the hits, what is it that they are missing out on? “I’m far more interested in the idea of music being something that should hit you square,” Bradley said. “Sublime, ineffable. And if you’re just impatiently waiting to hear the song that reminds you of summer 2010, you’re possibly missing a rare chance to be swept into something personal, beautiful, fragile and, god-forbid, original.”

The heart of the problem may be that musicians and audiences often disagree on what the musician is there to do. “The job of the artist is to connect people to the other perspectives out there,” said actor and filmmaker Nate Shepherd. “I think the job of an entertainer is to please people, and that’s for the audience. The artist is sharing their perspective with the audience, so it’s about the artist’s perspective, not the audience’s.”

The question is: why do audiences disagree? It seems that the answer lies in the fact that many art forms, particularly music and film, have become very heavily tied to entertainment, and in many ways the two functions have melded. More importantly, a significant portion of the artistic community learned very early on that pleasing an audience with an already-approved formula leads to financial success. “Andy Koffman called it ‘canned humour’,” explains Shepherd. “[The joke] is there, I just need to put it in a film and it’s guaranteed to make people laugh.” The same principle of continuously trying to please a crowd carries over to the art of music.

But not all artists have adopted this approach. “If you’re calling yourself an artist, I don’t think you should feel obligated to necessarily charm a crowd by any means,” said Ferrari. “I think that challenging a crowd is just as artistically viable, as long as at the end of it you’ve at least elicited a response … if you’re going to consider yourself a musician and an artist then you should play the way you feel like you should play and not concern yourself necessarily with how an audience member will react.”

No one wants to be the beret-clad elitist telling people how to enjoy their art; or a cranial Simon Cowell, running around telling people what is music and what is not, what is good and what is bad. But perhaps more audiences would enjoy their concerts if they rid themselves of whatever expectations and demands they may have and simply approached the artist to see what they have to show.

“There has to be a sense of openness,” said Shepherd. “If I go to a new art gallery and I don’t get it, I may immediately think that I’ve wasted my time and money, but maybe I’ll sit there and think about it and realize what’s going on.”

Just remember: the letters musicians have chosen to represent the career with which they define themselves spell artist, not entertainer.

This article appeared in Demo‘s January 2014 print issue.

Erik Masson is a history student whose year designation is ambiguous. He hails from a few different places but was born somewhere in New Brunswick. When not tending the gardens of his fellow citizens or barrelling his way through tedious essays about people who all died a very long time ago, he likes to listen to music, preferably in some basement with a really loud band playing directly in front of him. It doesn’t particularly mater what they’re playing as long as he can dance to it. His only goal in life is to have four walls and adobe slabs for his girls.

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