Live Music Exchange Blog

The Audience – Simon Frith


In the first blog post of the new academic year, Simon Frith considers the audience and its role in the live music event. In doing so, he considers the very notion of ‘the audience’ itself as a collective entity and questions its sociological role in concerts and the problems that attracting an audience poses for promoters, arts organisations and academics as they engage in audience building and audience research.

The Audience

In May 1972 I went to the Great Western Festival in Bardney, Lincolnshire.  It was raining when we arrived and went on raining.  By 10pm our tent was waterlogged and I had been introduced what was to become a familiar live music experience: the mudfest.  Later in the night Rory Gallagher came on stage and the clouds lifted, the rain stopped.  There followed one of the greatest rock performances I’ve ever seen but here I just want to say three things about it.  First, Gallagher’s music—its confidence and joy—worked so wondrously because of the dire conditions.  Second, I was not a Rory Gallagher fan (he was not the reason I was in Bardney).  Third, much of my pleasure that night came from the crowd around me.  It felt as if it was our collective determination to have fun that was urging Gallagher’s music up to the heavens.  (For other audience memories of this event see –

What interests me here, in short, are the questions this memory raises for current ways of thinking about the audience.

To begin at the beginning: the necessary conditions for a live music event are a place, musicians, an audience and the various people (promoters, agents, roadies, technicians etc) who are needed to get performers and audience in the same place, at the same time, with shared expectations of the musical event to happen.

Of these components the least understood is the audience.  Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about it – audiences are probably the most researched component of concert culture – but as a concept ‘the audience’ seems to me somewhat confused.   Take the most common policy ways of talking about audiences, in terms of audience building and audience research.

Discussions of audience building start from the assumption that state subsidised musical organisations (orchestras, venues, etc.) need to ‘grow’ their audiences both to increase box office income and to develop more social diversity in their customer base.  The argument is not that orchestras or venues should change the music on offer to the public but, rather, that some members of the public should be changed, enabled to like this music, whether through educational programmes, presentational devices or whatever else might make the music more ‘accessible’.  Audience building is policy for those kinds of music whose cultural value is precisely that it doesn’t appeal to a mass audience, music that is ‘serious’ and not just entertaining.

Some aspects of audience building policy seem to make sense, such as the emphasis on educational projects: young people need to get the classical concert going habit if they are going to replace older audience members as they die off.  Others are muddled.  Harriet Harman is just the most recent politician to argue that the audiences for subsidised music venues like the Royal Opera House are too socially uniform, that the issue is not just financial (ticket prices) but cultural: concert hall etiquette that is explicitly exclusive.

The problem, though, is that such exclusivity is a crucial part of the value of such events to their existing audiences. Can a venue or orchestra bring ‘outsiders’ (including young people) into an existing audience culture without changing it and thus alienating its most faithful members?

This is a problem that could be said to face Glastonbury well as Covent Garden.   Audience building is not a commonly used term in the commercial music world, but is a perfectly good description of the kind of promotional hustling pioneered in the nineteenth century by P.T. Barnum and the commercial pursuit of bigger audiences carries its own risks.   Both rock and dance fans, for example, are acutely aware of the exclusive value of their favoured acts and quick to spot ‘selling out’, to accuse artists and deejays of sacrificing their distinctive sounds to the tastes of a broader audience – just as they are quick to distinguish between an act’s real fans and the ‘outsiders’, who don’t understand concert hall or dance floor etiquette.  One of the most interesting findings from the case study of live music events at Edinburgh Queen’s Hall for the AHRC’s Cultural Value Project was that audiences for classical and commercial concerts, for ‘high’ and ‘low’ music, are really quite similar in seeing themselves as specially committed to their music, and are equally irritated by inappropriate (or ignorant) audience behaviour.

One problem with the audience building model, then, is that it has a simple minded notion of what an audience is, which brings me to the problem of audience research.

In the formative days of LMX we had a meeting with the great and the good of the UK music industry.  There was general suspicion there about the value of academic research and I remember in particular Harvey Goldsmith’s blunt comment: the only question academics could usefully address is what audiences want.  Promoters would then give it to them.   There’s no doubt that audience research has indeed been a central strand of academic music work, even for the LMX team and no doubt either that assertions about ‘what the audience wants’ shape commercial decisions.

The audience assumptions here are in some respects different from those of the audience builders.  Audience research assumes that the audience already exists.  The task is to find out as much as possible about its individual members. Hence the current excitement about (and market value) of data-mining.  See, for example, Horace Trubridge’s rather depressing suggestion that the data-mining company, Echonest, gives artists “ a clear indication of exactly which track to single release, and which songs to put in the live set”.  Such detailed data gathering about the online music behaviour of individual consumers will, Trubridge claims, “lead to a better music for artists and a better music experience for listeners”  (‘More than a Glimpse of the Future’, The Musician, Summer 2014, 10-11).

The problem here is twofold.  First, this sort of audience research is not really audience research.  It is research into individuals who make up audiences.  Second, such research assumes that what people will like in the future will be based on what they liked in the past.  In practice, though, significant commercial success is just as likely to come from projects that make no sense at all according to measures of ‘what audiences want’.  The music industry is certainly as formulaic in its production practices as any other creative industry but there is, nevertheless, a well developed audience suspicion of projects that are too obviously designed to replicate existing success.

There’s a good example of how wrongheaded such projects can be in Prince Rupert Lowenstein’s startling account of his life as the Rolling Stone’s finance manager:

“I asked Tim Rice to have a rummage through the Stones’ back catalogue to see whether there might be an opportunity to create a stage musical out of Mick and Keith’s string of hits as Queen had done working with Ben Elton to create We Will Rock You.”  Rice got quite a long way into developing Sympathy for the Devil, a musical about Machiavelli, before Mick “objected to the whole enterprise” (A Prince Among Stones, London: Bloomsbury 2013, 204).

The points I’m making here are not new. It’s long been obvious that the audience has to be understood as a collectivity and that one of the key values of the live music experience is its potential for the unexpected. No one in their right mind would plan a festival highlight around the miseries of torrential rain!  But there are research questions that follow from this that could be further developed.

Some concern the relationship of audiences and performers.  Audience research tends to assume a clear separation between the two but a successful performance depends on a particularly close kind of performer/listener engagement.   How performers think about their audiences is therefore just as important a question as how audiences think about performers.  There was an interesting conversation about this between my brother, Fred Frith, Adrian Uttley and Martin Green at the Sonic Thinking Seminar during the Lau-Land weekend at the Sage at the end of May.  Fred said that he never thought about the audience when he was creating music but that it was always a relevant part of the sound context when he was performing.  This was a somewhat confusing contrast, given that he was talking about free improvisation in which creating and performing are the same thing, but one that the other musicians present understood: pleasing the audience is not part of the motivation of their music, but audience response is a necessary part of the music they make.

From a different musical perspective, the classical pianist Susan Tomes wrote an instructive blog in April on the BBC’s Young Musician competition.  Her concern was judges’ tendency to reward the performers who look as if they’re enjoying the music, as if “the more enjoyment you can show the ‘better’ you are”.  A good performance thus becomes a matter of smiley smiley presentation that may actually have little to with musicians’ or audiences’ musical pleasures or with how classical musical communication works.

The final complicating factor here is that in many music worlds (including classical) there are significant overlaps between the people on the stage and the people in seats.  Audience members play music; performers go to concerts. In some scenes indeed (free improvisation, the more esoteric dance clubs, traditional jazz and folk) the performer/audience distinction is entirely artificial, and the history of live music in Britain is full of examples in which the creation of venues/performers/audiences is a single process.  (An interesting recent example is the Pink Lane Jazz Coop in Newcastle).

Which leads me to my second set of questions.  Where do audiences come from?  Could it be that performers (and promoters) don’t produce audiences, but that audiences produce performers–this is certainly one way of understanding the effect of youth culture on Britain’s postwar music history. Chris Atton gave an interesting paper at the conference in my honour in Edinburgh in April on the audience for unpopular or difficult music.  Where does it come from?   Who were those people who went to see Magma whenever the group toured Britain in the 70s and 80s?  Not who you might expect, that’s for sure:

“In the late Eighties, I thought it would be nice if they came over to London to do a gig, so I set up Interesting Promotions to promote it. Well, I paid the bill is what I really mean. I never realised that there were 14 of them in the band, which raised the overheads slightly. They did three nights at the Bloomsbury theatre; the last night was a sell-out.”  (Snooker player Steve Davis talking about ‘my obsession’ to the Guardian in 2004).

The sociological question here, though, is not who in particular makes up such audiences, but what are the social and cultural conditions which produce good or interesting or disordered musician/audiences (which, in turn, are the necessary conditions for the making of good or interesting or disordered music).  One approach to this would be historical, to look at those moments when a new kind of music performer/audience made possible new kinds of music in new kinds of venue, such as the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the 1960s, the Manchester Musicians Collective in the late 1970s; or New York’s Knitting Factory in the late 1980s.  Though perhaps the most unexpected account of the way social conditions may produce a particularly exciting engagement of musicians, promoters and audiences is Terri Hooley’s account of his musical life in Belfast throughout the troubles (see Terri Hooley and Richard Sullivan: Hooleygan, Belfast: Blackstaff 2010).

I haven’t got very far with these thoughts yet but will end with two suggestions.  First the problem of present conceptions of the audience is that they assume its essential passivity—the audience is there is be built, researched, and, in general, have things done to it.  This is the paradox of a market ideology in which the celebration of individual choice driving the market conceals the reality of the market making only certain sorts of choice possible.  To understand the audience for live music we actually need to understand collective choice as something different from a collection of individual choices. Second, the best answer to the standard audience research question, ‘why are you at this gig?’ might well be ‘I have no idea!’

Simon Frith





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One thought on “The Audience – Simon Frith

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  1. This is very interesting, it answers some questions in my mind but also poses more. I feel this is the surface of what could be a very interesting study and has helped me come to terms with my own research which is very similar to this field. I never considered the performers view on the audience before, but yes they have the direct effect on an audiences experience and enjoyment.
    I enjoyed reading this so i wanted to show my appreciation.

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