Tired of the racket

Russell Wangersky
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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.

Late start

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.

Uncaring audience

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 rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Geographic location: George Street

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Recent comments

  • Glenn Simmons
    November 22, 2010 - 13:24

    Myself and Ian Perry played with Ron Hynes at The Carlton in Halifax last week for Ron's new record release. The Carlton is a bar, but it has a theatre type atmosphere for people who want to listen. Patrons like that talking and general barroom shenanigans are not tolerated. They like it because they like music. They have a natural respect for the art and the artist and they come to hear the music not the noise of the crowd .... As a musician I haven't spent much time on George Street myself. I personally can't take the abuse. Call it a weakness... Newfoundlanders so often talk about how much great talent we have. Maybe that's the problem. It's like the rocks and cliffs. We take them for granted too... Years ago when the bar hours changed it was my contention that people would not spend any more money because in all my years playing the bars, I noticed that people come out for three, maybe four hours tops, and that by moving the bar hours ahead you're only changing the actual time of day when people show up and leave. The seven-night stands that used to exist are gone because what working person can leave home at 11 p.m. to hear a bit of music and have a drink and then get up at 7 a.m. in the morning to go to work. It's ludicrous. It cuts the bar business down to a weekends-only business and by the time people finally do get to the bar at 11 or 12 on a weekend night, they've already consumed enough alcohol to be three-quarters smashed so bars aren't making the kind of money off liquor sales that they used to with the earlier hours. Yes, I made $300 on some weekends in 1974 and that's what George Street offers me in 2010.... It's real good to hear people speaking out about this. We do have a great province with great culture and people, but things do fall into a pit sometimes. I believe if we're gonna benefit from our music as a province we have to pay some heed not to throw it to the lowest common denominator... Glenn Simmons

  • Jordan Young
    November 17, 2010 - 00:15

    One thing I will say is to not be too quick to attack bar managers. Yes, gone are the days of guarantees and 6 night standing engagements, and those venues that do still hire at a set wage do not pay a good wage. However, I for one am much happier to act as the producer / promoter of my own concerts and pay myself instead of being the employee of a bar. I much prefer to have more control, book a room on my terms, and earn my share of ticket sales / cover money by marketing an excellent product. Most bar managers would be happy to open the room and sell drinks at 8pm if the show producer can put a crowd in there early. Sadly, very few bands or promoters even bother trying to put off shows at a reasonable hour. Artists have the power to run the show. And if they're an act worth watching, they will draw a crowd at 8pm or 1am, all it takes is some self-empowerment and marketing savvy.

  • anon
    November 16, 2010 - 17:37

    As a musician and a bar-goer. I think this is the worst idea every for so many reasons. First: the work don't stop til the gear is packed and that usually means the drums. even if you finished playing an hour early you get home at 4 30 instead of 5 30. It doesn't even make a difference by that point. Second: The last thing I want to worry about when I'm lugging my gear out of the place is whether it's going to be stolen by one of the thousands of violent drunks that are all released at THE SAME TIME into society. No thank you. Third: Making the bars close an hour early don't mean the band starts an hour early. The crowd comes when it wants to and it leaves when it has too. Less work is less profitable and a lot less fun. Fourth: There seems to be an assumption that amateur and professional musicians are in it for the money. This couldn't be further from the excuse. You don't need music to make money and you don't need money to make music. The guys that play all hours for little to nothing do it because they love doing it. The money is gravy. The difference between a professional musician and an Amateur musician is that one of them can afford to do it for a living and the other one can't. Sure it hurts to see the crowd not care but if the crowd don't care about your music your either playing the wrong songs or preaching to the wrong choir. If you can rap a line that would make Kerry King turn his head or shred a blues lick that would make Justin Bieber wet his pants, you;re doing a good job. Otherwise, you're just playing music and noise at the same time.

  • Dan Rubin
    November 16, 2010 - 16:41

    Mr. Wangersky: You are so right. Everyone likes to run on about the amazing variety and creativity of our province's musical artists, but actual working conditions and rates of pay are dismal, and deliver little actual respect or financial support. Our association (the Newfoundland and Labrador Musicians' Association) along with MusicNL has been trying to address working conditions in local venues for several years. We invited club owners and operators to a meeting four years ago; just one showed up. More recently we have been contacted by the George Street Association, and we have asked for an informal meeting with them to explore common concerns, but so far no response to that request. We see a general lack of respect and support for working musicians taking exactly the forms you have described: late hours for the music to start, which discourages those who really want to listen to the music(as opposed to get drunk and get laid), lat e closing making for pretty draining working conditions, musicians being paid less in real dollars now than they received thirty years ago, or else being asked to play for the door and find someone to sit there to collect their own wages. And then, as you described, there are the patrons. Considering the hours, days and years we put into our music - practicing, writing, recording and performing - we really deserve better. I would invite anyone interested in these issues to attend an open meeting at the Gower Street United Church Hall on Sunday, November 29th from 3-5 PM where we will be discussing minimum honoraria for benefits, broadcast rights and other common concerns. Please attend, if you can.

  • Doug Scott
    November 16, 2010 - 13:08

    This is so true. But one must accept that if you're going downtown to a bar to hear live music you should also expect to hear the noise of the bar as well. It sounds to me from reading this column that Russell must have had a bad personal experience where there were people at a venue that were impolite to a performer or a band that he wanted to listen to. A similar thing happened to me. I love live music and have a real appreciation for the dedication that musicians give to their music. So you can imagine my shock at going to a concert - not a bar - expecting to hear the musician, only to be harassed by a bunch of loud drunks. This didn't happen here, but in the United States. I travelled all the way to San Diego, California, to hear Lucinda Willaims live in concert. I absolutely love her music and made a promise to myself that when the time was right I would go see her perform live. That time came this past September when she was on a short tour of some fairly small (1,400 and fewer seat) venues throughout southern California. I decided on the San Diego venue because it was at a resort, and I could stay in the hotel there without having to go to an outside venue. The warm up act was Chrissy Hynde, who I also have had a great deal of respect for over the years. When I got to the venue, I was a little put off by the fact that they were serving alcohol, even though I could see it was a mixed audience - although we were mostly boomers, some people had their teenaged children with them. I became extremely ticked off when a group of about six people who were seated in the same area I was started yelling and swearing - they were all very drunk. They refused to sit down and didn't seem to mind getting in front of people and stepping on people as they went back and forth to the bar and to stand and yell. I complained to the security, but I was told I would have to make a complaint if they were to evict them. I told the head of security that I didn't want to do that because I was just visiting from Canada. Fortunately, the venue wasn't completely sold out and he was sympathetic when I told him my story so he escorted me to a seat closer to the front of the stage in row six (I was only 36 rows back, so I felt I had a good seat to begin with.) So maybe the experience worked in my favour, however it still left me with a bad impression. The concert, meantime, was magnificent - I was hoping it would have been something I would cherish all my life, but that memory has been shattered by the actions of a few jerks. So, the next time you're at a venue where there is live music, show some appreciation. There are others there who want to hear the music and enjoy the moment. If you don't like the music or you just want to whoop it up, try going somewhere else.

  • Rozalind MacPhail
    November 16, 2010 - 12:27

    FANTASTIC! Got a good chuckle from reading it too! Thank you for speaking up about issues that are important to us musicians.

  • Laura
    November 16, 2010 - 12:24

    Ha. If you've ever seen Ron Hynes perform at the rose, he blatantly tells people to shut up, that they paid cover to listen to him, and he won't play another note until everyone is quiet

  • Lena
    November 16, 2010 - 12:16

    Amen. What's worse, the club owners are getting away with highway robbery. The going rate per person for the entertainers on George Street today is only marginally more than what it was 35 -- yes, 35 -- years ago. The difference is that now, instead of being hired for six nights a week the performers are hired for one or two. Cover charge and drink prices certainly haven't remained at 1975 levels. How is it that performers' pay has stayed so ridiculously low? $125 a night for six nights was good money in 1975, but in 2010 $125 a night for two nights is poverty wages plain and simple. These are talented and dedicated individuals; it's time club owners and audiences treated them with some respect..

  • Dave
    November 16, 2010 - 11:51

    It has gotten so bad that you would swear that some of the rudeness (excessive loud chatter) is sponsored for some performers or, for someone in the audience. It almost seems like communication for the Romper Room jet set. Loud and crude judgements about someone all via directed conversations between people rather than, directly to the subject the conversation is about. Sometimes I wish the self-anoited elitists would keep their pearls of wisdom away from the arts and work on developing a backbone (otherwise known as real character) to speak directly to the individual they are discoursing about rather than, letting us know by speaking above the music as if they are somehow using it as a mask to hide their very insecure self's.

  • YHZ Girl
    November 16, 2010 - 09:29

    OMG, this is so true...I actually think that you read my ex-husband's mind......he is a musician and I have heard the above comments for YEARS (especially the clapping part~ haha!). Instead of people enjoying the talent before them, they treat the band like noise and not performers. Love this article.