It’s a familiar scene: your favourite artist is in town, and you’ve got your ticket for the big gig. You’ve even got one of those fancy new plastic $20 bills to treat yourself to some gig-drinks. You get to the venue and exchange pleasantries with the person at the door, and you’re wondering which song your fave is going to open with when the violent realization hits you that you’re packed into a room with hundreds other human beings. This isn’t like listening to tunes through your headphones at the office; you’re now involved in a dynamic, unpredictable social space, where, you hope, everyone has signed the same unspoken social contract to respect one another, and behave like a normal, decent person.
Unfortunately, a lot of folks will have missed that memo. In the breakneck flow of information that surrounds you, you might have missed it, too. Regardless, we’ll get you caught up. Besides, it’s about time we all had a little refresher on how to handle ourselves in the crowd at a concert.
This might seem banal, or even self-explanatory, but it’s worth noting a pattern of erratic and dangerous behaviour that fandom at shows can induce. From Denmark to Indonesia to the United States, modern history of live music is pockmarked with tragic instances of frenzied behaviour by fans resulting in deaths. These are, of course, extreme cases, but they reveal the unfortunate reality that people are capable of being so focused on an artist that they can treat others inhumanely. While most gigs won’t result in death, a similar errant aggression can be observed at almost any packed show; be it elbowing, a pushy crowd-navigator or an over-enthusiastic mosh-pitter who accidentally catches a bystander with a fist, the same thread of blind indulgence in the music with little regard for others runs through them.
Perhaps the most important thing to bear in mind, and the number one transgression: when moving through the crowd, really try not to touch people.
To properly conduct ourselves in the space of live music, we have to think about the power structures at play. There are a few basics you’ll want to adhere to at a concert. First and foremost: if you get to the gig late, don’t elbow your way to the front. It’s your own fault you got there late; deal with the so-so sightlines, and don’t inconvenience everyone around you just so you can get a glimpse up the nostrils of your favourite singer. People arrive early for that distinct experience. Respect their dedication.
The majority of your interactions at a concert will stem from your movement around others as you try to navigate the crowd, and it’s important to know how not to do that. Perhaps the most important thing to bear in mind, and the number one transgression: when moving through the crowd, really try not to touch people. It seems second-nature to tap someone on the back or shoulder when trying to get around them, but there’s an implicit power exchange when you put your hands someone else’s body, be it a hand on their arm, a touch on their back, or anything else. Yes, there are instances where you may have to lightly tap someone’s shoulder to get their attention, but a good practice to exercise is not deferring immediately to that tap.
The whole ‘laying your hands on a stranger’ thing is inexcusable to begin with, but its severity in this context is compounded by the fact that it’s done with a lack of direct communication. When people shove by you at a concert, they rarely interact with who they’re pushing; they just slip by. Physically imposing on someone else is never okay, but doing so without context exaggerates the discomfort that uninvited touching elicits. A quick ‘I’m sorry, I just have to squeeze by you!’ doesn’t excuse it, but at least the individual will know you don’t mean them (further) discomfort.
Communication is key to operating appropriately at concerts. Use your voice to communicate your objective to others: ‘Hey, sorry, can I get by you?’ ‘Sorry, just need to sneak past here.’ ‘Excuse me, juuuust gotta jump over there, yep, sorry.’ Any number of goofy, Ned Flanders-ass remarks can get you from A to B politely, without intimidating anyone or encroaching upon another’s comfort. The same rules apply here as they do outside: if you put your hand on someone, expect to have your hand slapped away.
Simple, right? That’s just half the battle, though. There are certain subcategories of humans that, for some reason, will refuse to indulge your requests to squeeze by them (although we should note that this is acceptable in some cases; if you’re a tall bro trying to worm your way to the front, shorter concert-goers are well within their moral rights to say, “Nah”). For instance, the past three shows I’ve attended, each time I’ve tried to slip by a middle-aged white guy, he’s looked at me as if I’d just spat on his parents’ graves. It seems like these dinks are so incredulously (and unsurprisingly) infatuated with the idea of their absolute supremacy in that space that, one might guess, they see conceding even one foot of space as unforgivably beta behaviour. These guys suck, across the board. Avoid them, or laugh at them. Or both. Balance is healthy.
Live music has the potential to be a singularly euphoric experience, irreplicable and crystalline. But it also has the potential to be yet another space where perverse power structures are reified, another space where people are oppressed and silenced.
Conversely, if someone is trying to get past you, ask yourself why you’d have a problem letting them by. Or, flip it the other way: do you really want to be the crabby jerk who grunts, ‘No, this is my spot’ while staring daggers? General admission entitles you to a spot in the room, not a specific spot.
There are, of course, exceptions to these rules. Just like a streetcar or grocery store, concerts are a fluid social space, and perhaps the most crucial point of all is to be aware of the place you occupy, explicitly and implicitly, in those spaces. This goes a bit deeper than acknowledging that you’re 6’4” and shouldn’t stand at the front. If you’re a white man, you need to understand that the venue, like every other public space, privileges you above others. That’s why artists like Lido Pimienta are working to restructure live music spaces to privilege people that are systematically oppressed everywhere else. Listen to and respect these wishes, and do what you can to rebalance those scales at the gig. Think about how you can make space for people who don’t have access to the same institutional privileges you do.
Live music has the potential to be a singularly euphoric experience, irreplicable and crystalline. But it also has the potential to be yet another space where perverse power structures are reified, another space where people are oppressed and silenced. If you’re heading to a gig, it’s not just about you and the artist you’re going to see; it’s a community event, a conversation with hundreds of other human beings in the same room. Being aware of this, and acknowledging and respecting everyone’s personhood, is more important than the music.