Your Guide to Live Music Etiquette, Because We Can All Do Better

Recent events captured on social media show that many of us could use a reminder.

Photo by Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet for Thrillist
Photo by Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet for Thrillist

After the years of uncertainty brought on by the COVID pandemic, the return of live events ushered in a sigh of relief—finally, people could live again! But the jubilant return of concerts and festivals was accompanied by an aggressive bedfellow: projectile objects. In recent videos shared on social media, there's a disturbing trend of shoes and other solid items being chucked at performers' heads. Last week, singer-songwriter Bebe Rexha was given a black eye by a thrown phone, and this week, country star Kelsea Ballerini was hit in the face by a tossed object.

This sort of behavior is obviously annoying at any concert, but in larger venues there's enough going on it might be less jarring. At smaller and more intimate venues, every single thing is more pronounced when there are fewer people. Loud talking becomes ultra disruptive, holding up your phone takes nearly everyone out of the moment, and disrespectful behavior harshes the vibe of everyone in the room.

If you haven't been to a concert in a while, it might feel like all types of shows have become a no-man's land filled with aggressive fans out for blood, based on these kinds of videos. The long break from live music prompted by the pandemic is a big reason why, Dr. Ketan Parmar, a mental health expert and psychologist, told Thrillist.

"Many of us have gone a year or more without experiencing live music in the way we used to," Parmar said. "With this pent-up energy combined with the anxiety and stress caused by the pandemic, people may feel especially free and unrestrained when at concerts. … This pent-up energy can often manifest itself in inappropriate behaviors leading to a heightened sense of aggression and hostility."

So it's not totally out there to get the impression that anarchy has taken over—lawlessness, violence, and mayhem ruling over crowds of shoe and bottle throwers. But, like everything else, social media tends to distort everything into extremes; it's not that the behavior isn't happening—it is just overrepresented. Most smaller shows are actually quite nice.

Tyler Hale is the head of booking at Gold-Diggers, a smaller venue in East Hollywood that hosts both DJ sets and live music. Hale said his venue’s audience tends to be a "very respectful" one that "appreciates a bit of challenge and left-of-center twist."

"I haven't seen anything egregious, as these folks want to be there," Hale said. "There's the occasional 'had too much to drink' attendee, as well as the all-common loud talker. On the opposite side of the coin—every now and again, we get the entitled-artist type with holier-than-thou behavior. It's a two-way street."

Of course, videos don't go viral when a concert features a perfectly normal crowd having a perfectly normal time enjoying a normally lovely show. It's the concertgoer climbing on stage to slap a performer, the screaming and yelling over the sound of the music, the pushing and shoving that gets attention. According to a recent poll that conducted, 84% of respondents say that concert behavior is a problem.

"Social media platforms have become an easy outlet for people to document any kind of behavior they witness at concerts, from acceptable to unacceptable," Parmar explained. "These videos and photos are then shared with millions of viewers who may never have experienced the situation firsthand. This can lead to a skewed perception about concert behavior, even though the majority of it is usually acceptable."

Even with the chaos representing the minority of concert scenarios, there's still room for improvement—59% of respondents to the poll said that they feel like behavior has gotten worse since the last pandemic. On TikTok, some observers have referred to the phenomenon as the "boomer-ification" of younger generations of concert audiences.

Charles Iverson, a member of the Chicago-based band Iverson, said live music has "always created this bubble of anything goes."

"Through the '60s and '70s, that was a good thing because it was manifesting in positive ways. Now we're seeing that manifest in negative ways because those positive ways aren't really feeling good to anybody anymore," Iverson said. "I think collectively as a large group, there's more frustration than there is a desire to connect."

Concertgoers seeking connection who are accustomed to attending mostly larger arena or stadium shows of the likes of Taylor Swift and Lizzo might be especially unsure how to behave when attending shows at smaller venues like a theater or a club, as well.

So what are the rules of attending a concert at a smaller venue in 2023? Most of them aren't too new, though recent events certainly make a case for all of us needing a reminder. Here's what to know from industry experts.

Spend your money

"The live music industry is a difficult business to be in if you're an independently-owned venue like Gold-Diggers," Hale said. "If you appreciate the programming and what we (or our other friend venues in LA and beyond) do, buy tickets, buy drinks, buy artist merch, and tip the bartenders. It's a general courtesy to put a little money out there in appreciation of art and those that host it."

If you are buying drinks specifically, make sure to tip. If you're seeing shows at a smaller venue, find out if there are ways to support the space and the artist beyond your ticketed entry.

Keep phone usage to a minimum

"I'm not an elitist as far as being ultimately perfectly present at every moment of your life," Iverson says. "I mean, there's so many other distractions that it's hard to argue that phones are the number one problem there. But I do have the sense of romanticization of the past, like the pre-smartphone era of being at a show. It's like nobody was recording it with anything unless you brought a camcorder with you. And even then, a lot of times they wouldn't allow that into a venue anyway."

"That idea of, 'Well, I can take this moment and I can infinitely view this very tangible evidence of its existence an infinite amount of times.' I think that cheapens the experience because when you experience something and don't record it in that way, the rose tinted lenses of memory, I think it enhances that experience," Iverson continued.

There's a line between capturing a moment and attending a show as a sentient tripod. Try to find that balance.

Don't be disrespectful

What's an absolute no-no at any venue, large or small? "Any kind of disrespect to the artist, staff or other concertgoers is absolutely unacceptable," Jake Garcia, co-owner of The 13th Floor venue in Austin, told Thrillist. This is not only the way to behave because it is the right thing to do, but because it will improve the quality of your own experience.

"A kind and happy crowd equals an inspired and excited artist performance," Hale said.

Be aware of your own volume

Perhaps the biggest thing to be mindful of in showing your respect to the artists and your fellow concertgoers in a live music setting is your volume.

"I've been to intimate shows where people were talking louder than the band and that's a bummer," Garcia said. Iverson echoed this concern and said it is one of the biggest downers at a small event.

"If you're at a spot to hang out with friends and you actively want to participate in conversation with those friends, I feel like the vast majority of smaller venues and clubs have bars that are either far away from the stage or in a separate room entirely," Iverson said. "That's a perfectly good place to have a conversation. If you actively want to do that rather than watch the show, then go do it somewhere where the show is not happening because, again, the talking takes everyone else out of that moment."

At larger concerts, this might not seem to be such a big concern. A venue seating 30,000 people might not be as affected by a conversation between you and your friend, but rowdy yelling and goofing around can interrupt the experience for the people around you. Again, it is about finding that balance between enthusiasm and intruding on everyone else's experience.

Jodi RR Smith, an etiquette expert, added that "singing or screaming while others are not, standing or dancing while the majority of others are sitting, and spilling anything on others" counts as rude behavior no matter where you are.

Above all else, it's important to be mindful that what makes live music special is the experience of sharing it with others. As cool as a performance from your favorite artist just for you would be, it would also probably get pretty weird after the first song is over. Essentially, everyone in the room—artist and fans alike—is responsible for maintaining the vibe.

"It is up to the public to understand that this is an activity that 'we the people' collectively have the power to ensure remains largely safe," said Meredith Corning, who has 20 years of experience in event management. "Not only do concertgoers need to be patient with their environment, but also the artists performing."

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Opheli Garcia Lawler is a Staff Writer on the News team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @opheligarcia and Instagram @opheligarcia.