We treat our performers badly. No, worse than that: we treat them with a disdain bordering on the insolent, and we expect them to keep on performing despite our contempt and downright in-your-face rudeness.
Back when the province was toying with changing the rules for bar closings in the province (well, primarily for George Street, if the truth be known), there was a small muttering heard from musicians about how a change to the closing hours would be good for them.
With a 3 a.m. close, bands are expected to perform right up to last call, and one obvious offshoot is that they start much later, with sets beginning as late as midnight. The problem for performers is that music doesn’t often pay enough to be their sole career, and it’s hard to lever yourself out of bed for your day job when you’re breaking down your gear as the summer dawn breaks across the city.
Earlier closing times — say, at 2 a.m. — would mean an hour’s more sleep for people who work what can only be describe as a tortuous grind.
Their quiet plea was lost in the other din: closing-time laws turned into a fight between those who live near the bar strip, and those who want the party-hearty — complete with vomiting, violence and legions of the staggering-drunk undead — to continue.
But the closing-time debate is far from being the only place where musicians are being ignored.
The fact is that, if you go to see live music in downtown St. John’s, you’re going to see talented, practiced, skilled musicians get treated like serfs.
Performers who come to town often comment on the large number of places for performers in a city the size of St. John’s. Live music is alive and well in scores of clubs.
But while the music might be alive and well, more and more, the patrons are dead from the shoulders up.
Well, maybe not dead. But certainly stunned.
Why? Because, if you go to a live performance downtown, you’re likely to learn more about the behaviour — or the love lives — of the people standing closest to you, than you are about the skill of the musicians you’re listening to.
It can be so frustrating for people who actually want to hear the music that they end up leaving, frustrated by people in the crowd who seem to need live music to be the backdrop for their own small performances.
For musicians, it must be more than frustrating. As a culture, we’ve become so self-involved that, some nights when the music stops, audiences don’t even bother to applaud anymore. You can’t even tell if they’re listening for all the chattering.
The blue glow of cellphones lights much of the room, as people shout into them: “Do you know where I am? Do you know where I am?”
When did being seen somewhere become more important than actually being there?
And why do we get to decide that someone’s hard work need only be the ragged soundtrack to our far-more-important over-loud discussions about the little part of the world we inhabit.
Sure, you paid the cover, and sure, you are the customer — you get to listen or not.
But it’s not a free pass to shout endlessly about how drunk you were two nights ago, or how rude your roommate was, or how you just can’t believe some latest turn of events.
I’m surprised the bands don’t go ballistic. It’s already hard, thankless work — these are professionals, and we’re blessed with far more of them than many cities our size. You wonder how long they’ll agree to be treated as musical wallpaper, rather than people with clear skills and a dedication to their craft.
Do everyone a favour. If you want to hear music, pay the cover. If you really only want to hear the sound of your own voice, stay outside until the band takes a break.
Or go somewhere else.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.