Making Sense of Concerts

It is late on a Friday night in a darkened room in the back of a bar where people stand packed together as the sounds of guitars, bass, and drum kits radiate through the room. The third band – the headliner tonight visiting their home town to close off another round of touring – holds the stage singing about emotional turmoil, interpersonal struggles, and, according to NPR though not according to the singer-songwriter herself, about romantic breakups. The lead singer holds her bass to the sky, and screams into the night as people cheer periodically and a couple of them dance just a little bit. The crowd appears to be mostly white people between the ages of 20 and 40 dressed casually. There is, however, a small contingent of African-American and Hispanic people in the audience as well. Most people seem to be either alone or with friends in groups, but a few appear to be with romantic partners of different and same sexes. The instrumentals are intricate, but the power of the singer’s voice overshadows everything else in this space – she manages to somehow invoke a feeling of Royal Thunder in her delivery.

It is in the middle of a Saturday afternoon just outside a store called Criminal Records, which is packed with shoppers in search of their favored sounds and souvenirs, when an impromptu performance begins on the sidewalk. A young man with a guitar that has seen better days begins to play at little louder than necessary while kind of singing but kind of yelling some lyrics from what appear to be randomly selected James Taylor songs. We walk past this spectacle on the way around the corner, but when we return it has transformed into a collective – the young man has been joined by two young women playing bongos, another young man playing a saxophone, and a young woman roaming the sidewalk showing off one then two guitars to passersby like ourselves. The crowd as well as the passersby defy racial categorization in a general sense – I count what appear to be at least twelve different potential ethnicities on the sidewalk based on visual cues. Ages, gender presentations, and other cultural cues are equally varied, but most people stop – if for a second or for longer – to witness the spectacle.

It is early on a Saturday evening, and the sun has not quite departed the sky for the night as we stroll through a working class neighborhood. As we walk by booths selling assorted foods, jewelry, clothing, and music, a band plays jazz fusion soul music in the park nearby and an older African American gentleman hosts a bit of a dance party at his booth accompanied by classic soul compact discs playing on a tiny stereo. The jazz fusion band starts a rendition of James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please” as we leave the street and begin to roam through the carnival at the edge of the park where children enjoy rides and families share meals. The crowd appears to be mostly African-American people, but varies in age from toddlers to seniors. There is, however, a small contingent of white, Hispanic, and Middle-Eastern people roaming around the carnival as well. Most people seem to be in groups or families, but there are some singles and pairs roaming around. The music is beautiful and fits the jovial mood of the carnival while seeming to capture the anticipation of all the people gathered around waiting for the darkening sky to be reignited by fireworks that will ultimately begin earlier than expected.

In all three of the aforementioned examples, I found myself surrounded by music this past weekend in Atlanta, Georgia. As I thought about these experiences upon arriving home a few days later, I began to wonder about the social construction and interpretation of concerts. While the first example was an official concert – we bought tickets and everything, we even got a poster from the show for the price of a cigarette – the other two events were no less public music performances, but were not explicitly advertised as or limited to concert events. In fact, I’m guessing that in much the same way I could make the argument that all three events were concerts someone else could easily argue that they were three separate types of events. As a result, I began to wonder what social characteristics define a concert?

If, for example, we define a concert as a public musical performance one purchases a ticket to see, then the first one is the only concert. If, however, we define a concert as any public music performance for an audience, then all three become concerts. Then again, if we define a concert as a public musical performance wherein people dance, then the second and third examples would be more concert like than the first, but if we define a concert as a public musical performance by a known or named musical act, then again only the first one would count – though I would actually like to know the name (if they have one) of the fusion band because they were incredible. As other interactionists have asked, I wonder how do people define concerts? What public or private musical performances count and which ones do not count? What might it say about people’s musical tastes, interpersonal interpretations, or understandings of music scenes if we began to examine these questions systematically?

I can’t say that I have answers to the above questions in a general sense (though I would recommend the linked studies since each one suggests some possible answers to build upon), but personally I think I generally consider any public musical performance a type of concert. Some are impromptu, but others are planned. Some are free, but others cost money. Some have multiple acts, but others are simple one act. Some sell merchandise, but others do not. Some have rather diverse crowds, but others do not. Some are advertised, but others are not. For me, the key characteristic of a concert is simply that I may witness the performance whether or not I know the performers personally.

Not surprisingly, this line of thought next led me to think about how people define “good” concert experiences. What makes a concert good or bad? What elements of the musical performance, structure of the setting, content of the performance, or other effects lead one to feel that a concert was a “positive experience”? Does it have to do with prior knowledge of the act, type of music, previous exposure to the sounds, or something else that hasn’t yet crossed my mind – what makes a good concert?

Once again, I can’t pretend to possess any generalizable answers to these questions, but I do realize there are things about concerts that make them better or worse for me. First and foremost, the sound is the most important thing to me – do I enjoy what I hear, if so, that is a good concert. Second, maybe because I listen to so much music on my own, I want to be entertained and thus I’m more likely to enjoy Alice Cooper (all the props and costumes add to the songs), the Counting Crows (the way they change the lyrics to their songs while on stage), Neko Case (the way she reinvents instrumentals and vocal ranges on the spot), or other performers who do not simply sing the songs I could listen to on the radio or some record. Third, though others might not think of this aspect, I find that whether or not a venue has seats plays a large role in my level of enjoyment of a show. I have a chronic leg condition so standing for long periods of time is not very easy on my best days, and thus concerts where I can sit down – even if only for a few minutes here and there – are ultimately better shows in my opinion. Finally, I’ve realized over time that who – if anyone – I attend a concert with will influence my impression of the experience in dramatic ways (even my favorite artists, for example, have appeared to offer better concerts when my life partner has accompanied me).

All the aforementioned questions lead me to wonder what a symbolic interactionist approach to concerts might involve or look like or reveal about society. While I’ve linked a few studies above (and there are more available) that begin developing such an approach, I wonder what further inquiry building on these studies and observations of varied types of musical performances might tell us.  What counts as a concert to people from varied backgrounds and experiences? What defines a good versus a bad concert experience? What could the concert preferences, interpretations, and behaviors of people tell us about their interpretations and interactions with music, with social settings, or with society as a whole.

J. Sumerau

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The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) is an international professional organization of scholars interested in the study of a wide range of social issues with an emphasis on identity, everyday practice, and language.
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12 Responses to Making Sense of Concerts

  1. Something the Brown solo had, which is quite common in lot of public performances, is three or four “dancers” in the background. I’ve always found this irritating. In the Brown performance it is the same but with a miming performance where Brown appears to fall down exhausted early in the act. Another man comes on with a gown to put over the shoulders of Brown, one that looks like it is the sort of gown boxers wear after the match.

    It is clearly meant to suggest that Brown became exhausted: he wan’t, of course, and shrugging his gown off, continued his performance moments later.

    Perhaps this is more common in some genres than others?

    • Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

      I actually wonder what the origin of the practice is myself. From what I’ve seen, its most common in rock, soul, and R&B performances from the 1950’s – 1980’s, but you still see it from time to time. Its an interesting question as to what it means to both performers and audiences, but I have no answer myself.

  2. Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

    Here is another important aspect of public musical performance (in this case musical festivals) and the need for making public spaces (musical or otherwise) inclusive to all types of bodies and needs:


  3. jk542013 says:

    I think the concept of the scene can help develop an interactionist understanding of music concerts. See John Irwin, Andy Bennett/Richard Peterson, my work, etc. The concept of the scene provides a multi-dimensional format for taking all or at least most of the important components of public music into analytical consideration. A concert thus can be seen as a temporary music scene that, while in operation and while experienced by all participants, serves as a social place and space. When middle-school girls/friends at a Katy Perry or One Dimension concert communicate constantly by cell phone across the stadium or auditorium, or with friends back in the neighborhood, the social dynamic is much more than simply performer-audience. The trend towards increasingly fluid and permeable locations/scenes/spaces for concerts was very recently exemplified by the three Grateful Dead concerts in Chicago. Research question: Is the Deadhead in the parking lot at Soldiers’ Field in the concert because his partner who scored a ticket is “broadcasting” the concert to him via cell phone? Dudes, we are way past James Brown and Alice Cooper.

    Joe Kotarba

    • Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

      I love this comment Joe because I’ve had similar thoughts related to technology. For example, in relation to the Dead shows, I can purchase authorized recordings of the shows (like I can with many other artists – via the live downloads program) or I can get audience bootlegs through sites like I remember wondering if that would mean that as I walk down a beach listening to a concert that happened weeks ago (or with streaming technology advances maybe a show in real time at some point) on my phone, would that beach (for me) basically become a concert? I have no clue, but I think the idea is fascinating and I like the idea of the scenes (especially as outlined in your SI piece on Latin Music scenes) in this regard too because would the example I offer above be like an individualized and / or transitional scene or would it be something else entirely? I don’t know, but I do wonder…


  4. Jerry Krase says:

    a colleague is doing work on 4th spaces and i’d like to put you in contact.

    • Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

      If you’re referring to me, feel free to put us in contact Jerry.


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