Coffee House Chatter

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Every performer who’s ever worked a coffee house atmosphere has probably had the same complaint.

And that is the incessant chatter from the audience who think a conversation while the band is playing is something that every other single person there actually came to hear.

When each person there has the same mentality, the competition to be heard increases and the volume of each individual conversation goes up in proportion thereby creating a Catch-22 scenario.

It’s no wonder that Rock-oriented music is amplified. It’s a shear survival battle tactic the bands must employ in order to be heard above the crowd.

So what do we do when the music is acoustic? How does the band get heard above the din of the crowd and the mechanized noise produced by coffee house equipment like espresso machines?

One performer I spoke with recently said that he usually played softer songs and even toned them down so that the crowd would get quiet while straining to hear… And I suppose many performers have learned a trick or two that sometimes works for them. But is that the answer?

Is it alright for us as a society of music lovers to go for entertainment and then not let the performers entertain us? Is this acceptable behavior? I’ve even witnessed other musicians guilty of distracting conversation while an artist is trying to perform.

I’ve been in some establishments where the proprietors even insist that a plethora of television monitors be running the entire time the band is playing. I suppose that could be acceptable if the monitors were showing scenes from the stage but they are not. Instead they show broadcast or cable programming aimed at satisfying some who may not have wanted to stay home for the game.

Is it that important for any establishment to want to be all things to all people that they will spend good money to hire a band but then make them compete with sports games on the screen for the audience’s attention.

Even at outdoor festivals where the crowds are usually much larger, it seems that every Emcee must remind the audience on more than one occasion to keep their conversations out of the listening area.

Whether at an indoor establishment or an outdoor festival, regardless of the size of the crowd, coffee house chatter is rude behavior. Not only does it disturb those around us, it is extremely discourteous to the band.

Since I first published this piece on our Prescription Bluegrass E-Blast Newsletter earlier this week, I’ve heard from both a Coffee House owner and a few seasoned performers. Interestingly the proprietor of the Coffee House was fully supportive of the attitude of this writing, while the performers were mixed.

Bob Stane, owner of the Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena. CA indicated that the venue owner should control the noise. “…as in NONE,” he said. “Protect the act,” was another comment from Bob and he suggested that I use the Coffee Gallery Backstage as an example of how the atmosphere should be. I’m happy to do that and I’m sure that anyone who’s ever played on Bob’s stage would agree that his house offers the musicians a fighting chance.

One of the musicians who sent in some comments said that acoustic musicians should avoid venues where loud noises are not controlled but that it really is up to the musicians to capture the audience’s attention and hold it with their talent and personality. I can’t argue with that but they also shouldn’t have to compete for the audience’s attention.

I wonder what would happen if the band on stage just mouthed the words and the audience had to read subtitles projected onto monitors for the lyrics.

Have A Great Bluegrass Day

Brian McNeal
Prescription Bluegrass Radio Host and Blog Editor

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