Art has the remarkable quality of being able to affect us in different ways, at different levels. When you see a masterpiece of art in a museum, it’s the main thing you’re looking at and thinking about for a while. You’re soaking it in, and savoring how it makes you feel. The same would apply to a book you’re currently reading, or certainly, a musical performance you’re listening to at a given time. In these experiences, enjoying the art is pretty much what’s occupying your time – you’re in the moment with that art. It’s a foreground experience.
However, much (if not most) of the time, art appreciation is relegated to a back burner in our consciousness. We’re aware of it, but it’s not what we’re doing. It still affects us – make no mistake. Having music playing while you’re working is wonderful. The notion that background music has an effect on us is the reason there’s a whole background art and music industry. Muzak, to soothe our savage inner beasts while we shop, elevator music to help you avoid speaking to strangers and art displays in public places. You’re not required, or even expected to pay much attention to it (although you can) – it’s designed to help set a mood – a positive one.
Working musicians should be well aware of this dichotomy between foreground and background music. When booking a gig, you seek to know the nature of the performance. Are the patrons coming to just see you play – will you be foreground music – the whole reason they’re there? Is your job to be entertaining enough for the highly interested patrons while not negatively affecting the others in the room to socialize? Most saloons and bars want entertainment like this. The band should be pleasant to behold if you’re paying attention, but not distracting if they’re not.
Wedding gigs often spell this out in stark terms. Play “background” stuff for an hour as the guests arrive, then provide the necessary music for the proceedings, then help them dance their dinners off before going home with happy memories of the special day.
The artists, of course, would prefer their art to NEVER be in the background. No one paints a picture hoping someone will glance at it occasionally. Musicians would prefer their performances to be riveting – anyone daring to speak should be shushed immediately by audience members who want to soak up every nuance.
Occasionally, at a gig where you’re supposed to mostly background (a/k/a “sonic wallpaper”), the people listening are moved by the performance, and you end up enchanting the whole room – it’s every band’s dream. With any luck, there’s a Big Time Record Executive in the room who anoints your band as The Next Big Thing, and your background days are over!
But that’s not something you can bank on.
Other times, you’re so background, people aren’t even aware there’s a live band at the pub/bar/saloon. That’s bad – you want to be at least a little remarkable. Honestly though, the painter doesn’t paint, the writer doesn’t write and the musician doesn’t play simply to be noticed. It’s what we do. Recognition is nice, and it can help pay for the instruments, the printer ink and paint brushes, but we were going to do all this stuff anyway – background, foreground, or somewhere in between….