Coughing and Clapping: Investigating Audience Experience

Why do people seem to cough more
frequently at live music events, anyway? Why are the audience members there in
the first place—what motivates people to attend concerts in the YouTube era?
And, finally, how do these audiences remember the concerts they attend?

These are the main questions that the collection Coughing and Clapping:
Investigating Audience Experience
(Ashgate, 2014) tries to answer, though
some of the essays have more success than others. Edited by Karen Burland and
Stephanie Pitts, the book explores broader issues of audience experience and
memory while using specific statistics—for instance, one study shows that
people really do cough twice as frequently during live performances—and
specific artists and venues—ranging from the Australian Art Orchestra to Pink
Floyd to Woodstock—to illustrate these issues’ applications in reality.
Burland and Pitts acknowledge the relative futility of the endeavor (“…we
have been aware of the danger that these [technology-focused chapters] will
date quickly…”) in one of their “interludes”. The book is broken up
into two sections, one on “preparing and anticipating” and the other on
“listening and connecting”, with Burland and Pitts interjecting and
bookending each section with their own commentary and contextualization (e.g.
“…singing along is discouraged at the opera, but welcomed in a pop star’s
arena tour”). Despite the editors’ own reservations, the book comes across
as a worthy addition to the relatively sparse literature on audience
psychology. The fact that the book manages not to mention the death of
classical music until page 160 was really just the icing on the cake.

Of course, classical music isn’t the main focus of the book, which also
makes observations on jazz, pop, rock, festivals in general, and several
extra-musical areas such as marketing and and venues. These latter two concepts
are the focus of two chapters in the shorter, first half of the book, “Before
the Event: Preparing and Anticipating”. While the overviews of marketing live
music and of the history of acoustic construction are perfectly fine, if a bit
vague, it was Stephanie Pitts’s “Musical, Social and Moral Dilemmas:
Investigating Audience Motivations to Attend Concerts” that stands out. Pitts
poses clear questions about who attends concerts, offers empirical evidence in
response to these questions, and discusses the hazards involved on both sides
of the stage, stating that “being an audience member is an emotional risk, as
well as a financial one” while also acknowledging “the consequent
‘safety’ in programming that can result from this need to create a reliable
experience for occasional or unadventurous listeners”.

The second half of the book, “During the Event: Listening and
Connecting”, is about three times as long as the first. Here the issues of
real-time audience response and live experience are approached. Some of the
passages are nearly unreadable in their efforts to serve up as many statistics
and lists of numerals and in-paragraph citations as grammatically possible.
However, the four authors of “In the Heat of the Moment: Audience Real-time
Response to Music and Dance Performance” engage in a fruitful discussion of
both performer-audience interaction (“the conductor did informally
acknowledge the applause of some audience members who ‘incorrectly’
applauded between movements”) as well as the many divergences between live
music and recorded music experiences. Most convincing, however, is Lucy
Bennett’s “Texting and Tweeting at Live Music Concerts: Flow, Fandom and
Connecting with other Audiences through Mobile Phone Technology”. Bennett
uses Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of “flow” on the one hand, and on
the other, a group of Twitter-savvy Tori Amos fans, to delve into the issues of
participation, engagement, and distraction concerned in live music. Using
quotes from testimonials of a broad spectrum of Tori Amos fans, Bennett
illustrates the vast variations of different personalities interpreting the
same experience. While for some, tweeting during a concert connects them to
others and makes them feel as if they are “giving back” to a larger
community of online fans, others feel that “it is too distracting.[…] I
can’t remain present or in the moment.” Csikszentmihalyi describes
“flow” as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that
nothing else seems to matter”. Would he say the naysayers are not focused
enough, since a few blinking or buzzing phones shouldn’t disrupt this level
of involvement, or are the tweeters really just messing up everybody’s
“flow”? Bennett admits that further research needs to be done, especially
considering the rapid pace of technology, but at least takes a strong step
forward in answering these questions.

The final three essays explore the questions of memory and the concert
experience. Sara Cohen’s “‘The Gigs I’ve Gone To’: Mapping Memories
and Places of Live Music” uses images and anecdotes of concert-goers in an
attempt to unearth how individual personalities collect and connect memories of
concert experiences. Following in the same vein, Paul Long’s “Warts and
All: Recording Live Music Experience” delves into the process of
immortalizing a one-time audience experience, whether it is recorded in written
accounts, photographs, or CDs. Long spends a good deal of time exploring issues
of concert recordings themselves: “Such recordings stand as monuments to
moments in time that have served to fix an idea of the concert and in turn
become ‘ideal’.” He relates anecdotes of individuals who have
purposefully coughed or cheered at a certain point on a recording, thus
becoming immortalized along with their favorite artist. Other sections of the
book have pointed to the fact that most people find live music experiences more
engaging and/or emotional than recordings, but Long holds up the concert
recording as the paragon of musical experiences: “The desire for the live
recording, officially sanctioned or otherwise, testifies to […] yearning to
retrieve and explore this shared experience.” With the concert recording, one
can engage with the artists without actually having been present (like the Tori
Amos fans) but likewise without any of the distractions or risks of a live
concert (unlike the Tori Amos fans).

Pitts and Burland summarize their endeavor in their final postlude as
follows: “In a society where there is concern about dwindling audiences for
arts events and a climate of ever-decreasing funding for the arts, it is
important to research and understand the value of live music for individuals
and society.” Considering how many think pieces these days declare [x] music
“dying” or even “dead”, I would heartily agree with their statement.
The future of these events lies not in nitpicking past or even present figures
or statistics, but in cultivating an understanding for audience experience.

Rebecca S. Lentjes


image_description=Coughing and Clapping: Investigating Audience Experience (ISBN: 978-1-4094-6981-0)
product_title=Coughing and Clapping: Investigating Audience Experience
product_by=Edited by Karen Burland, University of Leeds, UK and Stephanie Pitts, University of Sheffield, UK
product_id=Ashgate, 2014. ISBN: 978-1-4094-6981-0