Usually they apologize.
Sometimes they yell "It's a concert!"
And I yell back, "I know. I bought tickets, too!"
To be fair, there are shades of gray: Unlike a movie theater and theater (or classical, orchestral performances, which generally demand attention), a concert venue is rarely thought of as a secular church. Shouting approval is encouraged, "Woo!"-ing unfortunately standard. Aside from recognizing the performers, there are few accepted rules of decorum. Daniel Post Senning, co-author of the 18th edition of "Emily Post's Etiquette" (and great-great grandson of Post herself), said: "People take it for granted that generally, out in the world, it's clear what's expected from you etiquette-wise. But at a concert? That's a social negotiation."
At the risk of encouraging the Chatty Cathys, they have defenders. Rob Mazurek, a well-regarded Chicago cornetist known for his experimental and conceptual jazz works (playing Tuesday at the Whistler with the Exploding Star Micro Orchestra, and this weekend at Constellation with his quartet), said when he performs "I am usually completely zoned into the sound, and because voices, breathing, coughing in the audience are part of that sound — the airplane flying overhead, the ambulance siren outside, the cocktail shaker making all kinds of interesting and non-interesting rhythms — I try to use this to my advantage." He added: It's not just the job of the listener but the performer, the bartender, ushers, etc., "to understand the importance or non-importance" of quiet. Which means, basically, that sometimes the music at a show is everything at a show.
Along the same lines, Troy Hansbrough, Old Town School of Folk Music's senior director of programming, said: "I don't know if I can relate. Seeing a band is a social experience and some people meet up with friends and maybe the act on stage is not their priority." That said, he added that he doesn't encourage talking at concerts and that Old Town doesn't have this problem at all, because an Old Town audience expects "a listening room."
A good point.
Vibe counts: The intimate, music-obsessive air of Old Town generally results in a polite, focused crowd, just as the pricier seats of the pavilion at Ravinia see a relatively more attentive audience than the expansive, less-costly lawn, where "policy is, audience sets decorum," Pullia said. Likewise, at weekend music festivals in large parks, floating from act to act is encouraged, and not everyone is there with a show in mind. Talking abounds. And yet the size of a room doesn't dictate focus: Tim Stephans of Lincoln Hall and Schubas Tavern asked around the management office of the two clubs, and consensus was that fans buy concert tickets but fans bring friends who talk, and "once there is some level of chatter, others follow."
But it's not inevitable.
Last week I went to see Jay Z and Justin Timberlake at Soldier Field, and while the cellphone mafia was out in force, incessant chatting was not. At least in my section, a sizable hike from the stage.
Which kind of dispelled what I heard at Pitchfork a couple of days earlier: I had walked up to random people who were talking and asked why they were talking and if they thought it was OK to talk when the people around them were trying to listen. I wasn't angry — more wary and resigned than anything. I explained I wasn't here for a public shaming: I sincerely wanted to know why they were talking and if they were aware of how loud they were.
And the people I spoke with were … nice, apologetic, thoughtful.
What I heard most often was: "I feel like we're far enough from the stage," which is what I heard from Maddy Boesche, 22, of Chicago, who was maybe two yards from the stage and talking so loudly she could be heard above Savages, a loud British guitar-based act with a Patti Smith-like singer. I told her she was loud.
She apologized and said that she knew. Her friend, Steven Wulff, 21, mentioned they were in the "talking section." Her friend, Amanda Stanhaus, 22, said, looking at the stage: "The band doesn't seem to mind."
Boesche said that the night before, during Bjork's set, she was focused, even reverential.
Savages are rowdy, Bjork ethereal.
On the other hand, there's a degree of self-interest that chatty audiences tend to overlook. Later in the day, soon after Savages, I found myself beside a circle of friends who were talking loudly through a set from the modest, minimalist Minnesota band Low. The moment Low was finished, the circle of friends rushed toward the stage, to get a good spot for the next act, electronic-music artist Andy Stott. I followed behind. I stopped Jonah Smith, 19, of Chicago, who told me: "We didn't really care for the other band because we're here for Andy Stott, and it's not like I didn't like the other band, it's just not a priority." But you guys were so loud, I said. And, like, 20 feet from the stage! He said he was sorry, because if anyone talked during Andy Stott he would be hugely annoyed. He also told me he goes to Columbia College and is studying music management.
I raised my eyebrows.
"Yeah," he said, "I know."