Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Audience Participation in Music

Because I believe the distinction between artists and fans is dissolving, I've been covering the topic quite a bit -- in blog-sized bits.

I thought that today I would write about audience participation, which is one manifestation of this phenomenon. If you read no further, at least check out the Bobby McFerrin video at the bottom of the page. It has been making the rounds, so perhaps you have already seen it. But if not, it's worth a look.

Audience participation is certainly not a new concept, but it's useful to look at how it has evolved with technology. In his essay, Tom Ewing discusses popular British music in the late 1880s.
... pre-amplification: singers lacked the basic advantage of volume we audiences habitually cede to them now. So their music had to be a participatory one. You fought for and held the attention of a crowd on your verses, and the reward for their relative silence was to sing along on the chorus. And if you weren't up to snuff your verses would drown in a sump of backchat, shouting, fights and shrieks and rival tunes. Sing-alongs and audience participation were the heart of music hall ...

What happened to that energy? Music hall began its slow decline in the 1920s, battered by cinema and radio, shoring up flagging audiences with stripper acts that unraveled the threadbare respectability promoters had cultivated. Mass singing survived on football terraces and in pubs, though, and there was still enough pull in the idea of giving a crowd voice for the biggest band in the world to worry at it continually in the mid-60s. ... "Poptimist #1," Pitchfork, 2/20/07.
He goes on to say that the Beatles were influenced by that tradition.
"Yellow Submarine" isn't a music hall song, but it revives the hall ideal of audience participation. The Beatles' vision of the singalong was a communal release of positive, inclusive bonhomie; an extension and gentling of music hall's rowdy vigour. They kept coming back to the idea of involving and encouraging the audience. "The singer's gonna sing a song, and he wants you all to sing along"; "All Together Now"; and at last the most explicit (and weakest) attempt of all-- "All You Need Is Love".

... It goes back to that long-ago contract between performer and audience: the sense that a singer is there at a crowd's indulgence, and that his listeners have their own, highly vocal, role to play. Participatory populism, if you like, but with a sense of risk. There was always the real possibility that the singer would be sidelined by the audience noise, turned into an irrelevance-- or in the "War Song"'s case, would become the focal point for demotic currents they might not safely ride.
Around the time of the Beatles, music innovator John Cage wanted to change the rigid performer/audience relationship that had become the norm, especially in classical music.
One of the first artists to articulate a radically new aesthetic was John Cage. In his seminal early books, Silence (1961) and A Year for Monday (1968), Cage wrote eloquently (if at times obliquely) about a larger shift in the relationship between performer and listener. Music, he argued, could no longer be seen as something separate and detached from its listeners and from its context. Rather, creating music was a process that was initiated by the composer or performer, but completed by the audience. The listeners' experience of the work was essential to the music itself. "A Composer's Century," Andante, July 2002.
More recently, we have newer forms of music which incorporate audience participation.
I care about jazz way more than I care about European classical, and I lately care more about hip-hop than jazz. For me, it’s a simple matter of audience participation. In classical music, the audience doesn’t even get to applaud at the end of a movement. In jazz, there’s more interaction, but the audience is still mostly a passive recipient of information from the band. Hip-hop is all about group participation. I’m not talking about big stadium shows or TV here; I mean hip-hop as practiced on streetcorners and in clubs, where the mic gets passed around the circle and anyone who has the nerve takes a turn rhyming. I think the hip-hop cypher is as close as Americans get to the group improvisation of the stone age campfire. "Twitter, jazz and moving music forward into the stone age," Ethan Hein's Blog, 2/13/09.
I've just quoted three thoughtful essays on the state of music over the past 150 years. But what's intriguing to me are the number of articles that give tips to working musicians and DJs on how to get their audiences involved. Rather than essays, these sites offer practical advice. This is the part of the music business that most music futurists don't pay much attention to, but it's what a musical experience is all about for many people. The average person with a couple of kids probably isn't going to many (if any) rock clubs or big arena shows, but maybe he/she is catching a DJ at a wedding or hearing a local band at a free outdoor community concert. It's real life music.

Here are a few websites that I found:
  • Bill T's Top 20 Group Participation Songs
  • "Best Audience Participation Songs," JamsBio Magazine, 6/16/08.
  • "Audience Participation: Songs that make you wanna DANCE," illini_girl’s adventures, 6/27/08.
  • "Interactive Approaches for Karaoke," DJ University, 4/8/08.
  • Audience Participation Secrets

  • If you click on those lists, you'll see a number of songs that most of us know. That's one advantage of having mass media. People grow up hearing the same songs.

    However that could change as music audiences split off into smaller niches. If we run out of universally-known songs, then artists/bands will have to depend on having a core group of fans who know the songs. Or who can learn new material on the spot. Some audience participation could evolve beyond playing popular cover songs.

    To give you some idea of where band-led audience participation is headed, here's a VERY LONG AND IMPRESSIVE LIST of concerts where audience participation has been used. The list has been compiled on TV Tropes, a wiki where people contribute tips/ideas for a variety of creative media.

    There are also other kinds of musical audience participation events. Two that involve movie theater audiences are the Rocky Horror Picture Show and the Sound of Music sing-a-long.
    "Sing-A-Long Sound of Music" first emerged at the 1988 London Gay and Lesbian Film festival after an event organizer heard that staff at a retirement home in the Scottish town of Inverness had distributed song sheets during a video showing of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers". The film festival's screening of "Sound of Music" and the sing-along proved to be unexpectedly successful, and it attracted the attention of theater producer David Johnson, who later joined forces with Ben Freedman of the Prince Charles Cinema to promote the project.

    Later it developed into the "Sing-A-Long Sound of Music", the audience-participation phenomenon. Fans belt out "Do-Re-Mi" while dressed as Julie Andrews, or role play as a few of their favorite things.
    Another form of musical audience participation involves having the audience create the music, which is more engaging than just singing along. This is being done most often with experimental music and with interactive computer-based music. (I will be mentioning some examples in my next blog post.) But there are also concerts based on very traditional music, often using drums or other forms of percussion. Here are two examples:
  • Manuel, the founder and director of Sewa Beats, a company based in the Vaud town of Morges, is organizing a concert at the Batiment des Forces Motrices to feature drummers from West Africa, 15 musicians from the Orchestre Symphonique Lyonnais and a unique form of audience participation.

    “What makes the concert completely unique is that we are going to give everyone in the audience drums,” he told Swisster in a telephone interview from London.

    People attending the November 6 event will be invited to beat out rhythms, under Manuel’s direction, to accompany the professional musicians in what he told Swisster is a “completely unique” programme. "Audience participation drums to a different beat," Swisster, 10/21/09.
  • The symphony consists of 19 separate musical lines requiring repeated drumming rhythms of 12 beats, augmented by occasional sung chants. With hundreds of invited drummers pounding away, you'd think El-Dabh would be worried about keeping things together. He's not.

    "I just need the total sound. In Cleveland, I got that vibration whether they were on the beat together or not. Besides, there's a section where the chaos is intentional." "1,000 drums, one transcendent vibe," The Rocky Mountain News, 8/21/08.
  • There are also a number of theater productions that involve audiences to one degree or another. Some of the productions are very avant-garde or experimental, and others play to popular culture. Here's one overview.
    "Popularity of Interactive Theater Is Changing the Face of Off Broadway," The New York Times, 4/22/97.
    I have three reasons for wanting to explore fan involvement in depth:

    1. As new technology allows them to do more media creation themselves, and as they come to expect more interactivity, fans are becoming more than just passive music consumers.

    2. A lot of the new music business models are still based on the idea that music creators will sell to, and be supported by, fans rather than the idea that everyone may become a music creator/producer/promoter at some level.

    3. Many musicians continue to assume that if they are good, their fans will sit and listen. These musicians are not preparing for a more interactive relationship.

    Here's one musician's experience adjusting to this new dynamic, in this case having people in the audience tweeting while the band was playing.
    When I saw the first negative comment I had the obvious sinking emotional reaction. This was a pretty basic comment that was really the first piece of harsh criticism we had received – and in writing – and in front of an audience of the three hundred people – and in front of all the tens of thousands of people watching on line. Oh yeah, receiving written criticism about your performance while in the middle of that very same performance is a first and weird too. So, when I saw the line “This band Sux!” it kind of took the wind out of my sails a bit.

    About thirty seconds later though I was excited and amused when I had a flash of insight. We had suddenly been thrust to the level where people with no personal connection to us were moved to appreciate, judge, talk about, defend, protect, haze, fall in love with, and diss . . . It felt suddenly like an enormous step in the right direction. I started to beam. And people were rallying to say great things about us too. No matter what it just started to make me happy. "MC Hammer and Shorty Awards," tinpanbluesband.com, 2/12/09.
    I'll wrap up this blog entry with two videos.

    The flash mob has become one manifestation of audience participation. Not only does it involve a group of people performing at the event, if a tape of the event ends up on YouTube, then potentially millions of people become involved by forwarding the link to people they know.

    For the beginning of Oprah's 24th season, her producers created an event that was the biggest single-city flash mob in history. On Facebook and Twitter they solicited Oprah fans who loved to dance. Eight hundred fans in Chicago volunteered. The day before the show, twenty professional dancers taught them the routine. And then the day of the show, those 800 taught 20,000 other people who showed up. In this clip, you can view not only the dance, but also some of that background preparation.

    Finally, watch this Bobby McFerrin video. The point he is making isn't about audience participation per se, but it's a wonderful example of how effectively you can get people to join in.

    Suzanne Lainson
    @slainson on Twitter

    UPDATE, 1/9/10
    Top 100 Piano Bar Songs


    1. There is only one performance I could think of after reading this.

      Otis Redding sang with Booker T. & The M,G's on a Stax tour. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. The crowd was in no way invoked to involve in the performance but the intense energy of the music swept over them and they couldn't resist. Seemed to scare the crap out of the horn players who had no idea what to make of it! As the song built up the crowds crept closer and closer. God it was beautiful.

      This just doesn't really happen anymore. It seems European audiences are SO into any artist that takes the stage. For some reason I see these performances from Glastonbury festivals and dream of being there based off of the audience interaction. Not so much in the states.

      I saw a Fleet Foxes show in a movie theatre in Boston and literally the crowd had to ask if they wanted us all to stand up!

      Loving the posts.
      (Go ahead and youtube - Otis Redding Try a little tenderness to see what I referenced earlier on)

    2. Hey, thanks for the quote and link. This is all thought-provoking, and I agree with you that audience participation is going to be the name of the game for music going forward.

    3. Intriguing post Suzanne, and very much appreciate the history lesson! I've been wondering about audience participation beyond the hall. Giving one's audience a creative role seems a great way to blur the line even further...

    4. Great post. I'm a performing solo singer-songwriter and I have a couple of songs I have written that I invite audiences to join in on... on one of the songs the chorus is mostly one word..."Shine" but they have to say it as if it has nine syllables... Shi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-ine..." And it seems like it should be difficult but people find they can easily do it... and it really breaks any barriers or stiffness that might have been there prior. Sometimes I'll pass out a couple of shakers and tambourine too and the vibe becomes really communal, you know. On another one of my songs I sometimes split the audience down the middle and one half sings one part, and the other half sings another part, at the same time!! It's totally wild and works out fantastic. Cheers, Paul Fogarty


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